GMP president speaks on innovation

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BENNINGTON — Good ideas are a dime a dozen.

It's the execution of an idea — bringing something to fruition, bringing a product or solution to market — that's rare.

"Innovation can be scary," said Mary Powell, CEO and president for Green Mountain Power, addressing a crowd at the Bennington Museum on Thursday evening. "We over process it. We over staff it. We build it big...." It's necessary to "move something to market fast. Don't be afraid to learn from it. Don't be afraid to say, 'oh, that's not working.' Love your customer and make it right by them."

She doesn't like think tanks. Strategic plans, she said, "sit on a shelf. No one looks at it."

At the state's largest utility company, she said: "We created a culture of customer obsession."

"Customers want green energy, they want it for free, and they never want an outage. That sounds good to me too," she said. "Our strategy was, 'Well, our customers have spoken. We better get to work.'"

Powell was the fourth to speak in a leadership series hosted by the Lightning Jar co-working space and held at the museum. Her talk covered leadership and culture in a company or organization.

The collaborative co-working space on North Street for entrepreneurs, freelancers, professionals and more is "positioning itself to be the hub of entrepreneurial activities in southwestern Vermont," according to its director, Dimitri Gardner.

"We're looking to foster innovation and creativity," Gardner said in opening remarks. "Our ultimate goal is about job creation and business growth."

Powell has served as the utility company's CEO since 2008. She was awarded the 2015 Vermonter of the Year by the Burlington Free Press. Fast Company named her in 2016 one of the 100 most creative people in business. And in 2017, CEO Connection included her in the top 25 most influential women in business.

The youngest of three children raised in New York City, she grew up immersed in the arts. Her actor father's perseverance inspired her. She recalled feeling sorry for the well-dressed businessman in her apartment building as he left for work each day.

"Everything I've done in life has been a surprise to me," she said.

A business she founded with husband Mark Brooks in 1993, "Spot the Dog," offers reflective outerwear for canines.

"I think Vermont is best place to start a business. You can have conversations [with people.] You can create things."

Life went through "twists and turns." She did consulting work and eventually wrote a pitch letter to GMP.

Good CEOs, she said, "have an awareness of things they may not be good at. If you're working with a team, you need to make sure you're not hiring people that are just like you. You need to bring people with whole different skills and abilities."

Innovation at the company, she said, "all came out of our love and obsession with our customers."

"The greatest value that comes out of life is the ability to connect with people and to do work that matters."

The fifth speaker, to be hosted on June 7, will be Michael Wood-Lewis, CEO and co-founder of Front Porch Forum, an online neighborhood discussion group.

Ed Damon can be reached at edamon@benningtonbanner.com, at @edamon_banner on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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