As conversations about racial and social justice continue across our country, Omaha Public Power District leaders are taking internal steps to address and improve diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We are really proud of our culture,” said President & CEO Timothy J. Burke. “We believe in empowering employees so they can bring their whole selves to work every day in service of our customers.”
It’s just the right thing to do, he said, not only from a moral perspective, but from a business perspective.
“When you have diversity you make better decisions,” he said. “You have a more rounded perspective. You develop ideas more fully, and better, and therefore your solutions are better.”
The utility’s number of female executive-level managers went from one to five since Burke was promoted to CEO six years ago. Women now make up half of the team. The utility also added its first member of the LGBTQ+ community to the senior management team.
Then, the utility added the first Latino to the senior management team, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Javier Fernandez. The OPPD Board of Directors recently selected Fernandez to lead the utility beginning in July, when Burke retires. When he takes the reins July 1, he will not only be OPPD’s first CEO of color, he will be one of just a few Hispanic CEOs now leading large Nebraska companies.
“Our work as a public power utility is to build and serve thriving communities,” Fernandez said. “In order to do this, to fully serve our diverse customer base across 13 counties, they need to have a seat at the table. We’re not doing our job to the best of our ability if they are not represented.”
Born and raised in Mexico City, Fernandez came to the United States 21 years ago to attend graduate school at Yale University. He joined OPPD four years ago, coming from the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, in Portland, Oregon, and bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience.
The welcoming atmosphere was one of the reasons Fernandez joined OPPD four years ago.
“It really is a family,” he said. “It’s a group of dedicated individuals who genuinely care for one another. They’re living our core values of having a passion to serve, honoring our community and caring about each other. It has been a great, great experience.”
Burke said in order to recruit the best and the brightest, “we have to have an environment that is far more inclusive than maybe we have thought about in the past.”
Over the past several years, employee resource groups have expanded to include the African American Network, Latino Society of OPPD, OPPD Pride, and Empowering Working Families. These groups give employees a way to socialize, network, work on professional development, and raise awareness of relevant issues.
OPPD also partnered with Inlcusive Communitities, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Business Ethics Alliance to build the LeadDIVERSITY program. The program, established in 2019, is for upper and middle management leaders across the community.
“Leaders engage in topics to educate and prepare them for addressing diversity and inclusion needs in the workplace as well as the community,” Burke said.
The utility established a series of “Gatherings,” meet-ups that provide a combination of socializing, networking and career development opportunities for women and professionals of color. To date, 137 employees have attended.
OPPD is growing its talent pipeline through Legacy I3, to help build a diverse, qualified pool of workers with the business-specific knowledge. Through this model, the utility has brought in and trained 94 African American, Latino, and Asian high school students.
In addition, 126 white male leaders within the company have gone through White Men as Full Diversity Partners learning labs to better understand the important role they play in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) solutions within the utility and the broader community. While these labs were taking place prior to the murder of George Floyd, the events of last summer did cause OPPD to ramp up its DEI efforts.
“We navigated into waters we had avoided before and embraced the role of being a catalyst in the community,” Burke said.
OPPD’s senior management team and its Board of Directors issued statements to employees and the public of zero tolerance for social injustice incidents, pledging to support impacted employees.
Last summer, the utility’s senior management team, Human Capital business unit and two employee resource groups held a companywide town hall on race. It was an interactive, virtual experience that included diversity roundtable discussions where small groups of employees shared their own experiences and stories.
“There were a lot of great, honest and open discussions, which helped inform revisions to our DEI strategy,” Burke said. “And these roundtables continue today.”
As both President & CEO of OPPD and Chair of the Greater Omaha Chamber Board of Directors from January 2020 to January 2021, Burke took another opportunity to help elevate the critical role leaders play. He is among approximately 260 CEOs who joined CEOs for CODE (Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity), making a number of personal commitments to lead change. The leaders pledged to take specific actions to help break down barriers, create opportunities, and support people of color within our workplaces and communities.
“We have the ability and responsibility to make an impact. We can help turn insight into actionable measures to better our workforces and our communities,” he said.
Fernandez promises to continue the work initiated under Burke.
“I’m truly honored and humbled to be able to lead this utility into the future. But I know that my work comes with a deep responsibility to make a difference. These efforts must start at the top.”
A Workforce Transformation strategic initiative is currently underway within OPPD. It focuses on sustaining a culture of inclusion and belonging and looks out 30 years. This month, the utility’s Safety division will launch a psychological safety project. The effort will touch all areas of the company and gauge how employees feel and where the utility may be able to improve.
“This is just the beginning,” Fernandez said. “We cannot afford to let up. We’ve got too much at stake.”
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