If you could remember only one lesson from Rod West – it would perhaps center on his powerful admonition of continual learning as a requirement for remaining relevant in the workforce. He delivers the message with blunt realism.
“The moment you stop learning, I respectfully submit that your value is in a downward spiral,” says West, group president for utility operations for New Orleans-based Entergy Corp.
The seasoned and multi-credentialed Fortune 500 executive provided the keynote address during last week’s Empower Resource Group’s inaugural meeting.
West has walked the talk.
“I was 34-years-old when I realized the most powerful thing you bring to a new role is the ability to learn and relearn how to create value,” he explains. “I never got caught up in titles – I learned to focus on creating value from the space I was in.”
West has had ample opportunity to practice that all-important learning circuit since his days playing for the legendary Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. He helped the Fighting Irish capture the national championship in 1988. In the two decades since, he earned law and MBA degrees and rose through the ranks in both the legal and energy fields.
“My perspective has always been through the lens of whatever I happened to be doing at the time,” West says. “As I have grown in responsibility, I have grown in perspective.”
Nothing could have prepared him for the destruction of one of the worst storms in modern U.S. history.
West had just finished his MBA at Tulane University on Aug. 13, 2005. “On Aug. 30 I woke up to find that 100 percent of the grid was destroyed,” he recounts. “My team and I had the operational and financial responsibility to rebuild the grid and the social responsibility to understand without the grid there would be no city. There is no academic training, no playbook for that.”
“I saw the best and worst of humanity in that time – and the best in humanity inspired me through literal darkness.”
West recalled the heart-wrenching duty of informing employees staged for hurricane relief that their own homes had been destroyed. “They were expecting to be gone two days, and we had to inform them they were homeless with everything gone, under water, washed away and blown away by wind.”
The lessons – and learning opportunities – kept coming for West as he took the helm of Entergy New Orleans in 2007. He’s credited with guiding the company through the aftermath of Katrina out of bankruptcy and back to profitability.
Whether dealing with a career-changing crises or everyday work, West says it is important to understand how your company adds value – and where you plug in.
“Find out how your firm creates value – and how your role fits in,” he advises. “If you know how to do something – the what – you’ll have a job. When you begin to see and understand the “why” behind that work – you’ll begin to grow in responsibility.”
A big part of the “why” for West and Entergy is about delivering affordable energy to some of the most economically challenged consumers in the United States.
On the top floor of Entergy’s New Orleans headquarters, in the C-suite, the company displays portraits not only of current or former leaders – but of residents across the company’s service territory.
“Those pictures constantly remind of us who we serve,” West declares.
Understanding those perspectives is one reason why West is passionate about inclusiveness.
“Our goal has to be an inclusive environment,” he emphasizes. “There is no chance of being diverse if you are not hell-bent deliberate about creating an inclusive environment. It’s a conversation that must start at the top. Our business objective has to be the removal of any and all barriers preventing the best and brightest from contributing to our success.”
West credits employee resource groups with helping identify ways to improve the environment and providing a lens into differing perspectives.
“Being inclusive means looking through the lens of the potential and current employee experience– not solely the corporation,” West explains.
“We all have personal biases viewed through the lens of our own experience,” he says. “We must be intellectually honest about our own biases. If we acknowledge those, we have a better chance for an honest conversation.”