shes the boss

Everything I Learned Leading a Fortune 500 Company

“To speak with authority does not mean that you bully people. To do a good job and present your work with a point of view and thoughtfulness does not mean you’re self-aggrandizing.” — Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good

Lynn Good is one of only 26 female CEOs in the Fortune 500, having been at the helm of Duke Energy since 2013. She’s the first female CEO and president of the $120 billion operation, as well as being one of the few top women executives in the energy sector. We spoke with Good about the strategies that have worked for her along the way to the top of her field, starting with why she skips the company softball games. (And the happy hours!)

You’ve been in a male-dominated industry for most of your working life. How did you deal with it, starting out?
This has been my career for over 30 years, and I can remember, early on, there was a softball league, and there was the happy hour on Thursday nights, and fantasy football … All these social things were primarily centered around things that the men wanted to do. I felt some pressure early on: “How am I going to do that? Am I going to be successful in that environment? Is that going to put me in a situation where I’m looked at as a colleague? Or is it going to put me in a situation where I’m looked at differently?” And I would make decisions. I know I can’t be successful in the softball field, with everyone playing, so I didn’t go play softball! I think those are choices that you have to make. Everyone makes them based on their degree of comfort. And what I said to myself is, “If this is an environment that recognizes the skills that I bring to the table, then that’s the environment that I can be successful in. And if it’s an environment where my softball skills are more important [laughs] than what I bring to the office, then I probably don’t belong there.”

What’s your meeting strategy? So many women feel like they get talked over or ignored by male colleagues.
You know, I would say come prepared. Do your homework in advance. Think through what points you think you can make, where the conversation could move in an area where you have something to contribute. Think about what your best one or two points are going to be. And then in the meeting itself, I think women have some extraordinary gifts of watching and looking and listening. Kind of get the flow — figure out who seems to be the most outspoken, what the agenda is, and read the room. And then when you see an opening, speak with authority. And the way you speak with authority is delivering on that preparation. “This is my chance. I’m going to step in and make comments to people here.”

You can’t control what other people do, if they make the same point or if the conversation goes in a different direction. But you can control how prepared you are, and take the opportunity to speak with authority. So in the moment, if someone repeats what you said, you could chime in at that point to say, “You know, that’s consistent with my research, with my findings. I agree with that point for the following reasons …” So if you can distinguish or add to the point in a way that’s unique, don’t let that opportunity pass by! I think to try to do something after the meeting, to try to draw attention to what you said and what someone else said, that’s difficult. And it won’t be received in the way you intended to present it.

Is there a way to impress your boss without … looking like you are trying to impress your boss?
Do a great job! [Laughs.] You know, I feel like one of the simplest pieces of advice is do a great job at what you’re given to do. And when you do have an opportunity to sit down with someone you work for, one on one, be thoughtful, be as articulate as you can, and distill your information into the two to five points you want to make. I often talk about having a point of view, when you present your work, and what I mean by that is, if you are sharing with your manager or vice-president, “This is the analysis that I’ve completed, this is the project that I’ve completed,” if you take the time to step back from that work and put yourself in the shoes of your manager, and try to provide a recommendation or context, “This is what I think about it … This is what I think is important, from what I’ve given you … This is how I would think about next steps …” it takes the work to a higher level. And my experience is that not only will your manager or vice-president appreciate that, but it’s a real development opportunity for you as a burgeoning leader.

Do you ever have a hard time pushing your team? Do you worry about being considered bitchy?
It’s an interesting question, because I feel like on so many of those things, whether you’re male or female, there’s a line you can cross where you lose your effectiveness. To speak with authority does not mean that you bully people. To do a good job and present your work with a point of view and thoughtfulness does not mean you’re self-aggrandizing. So I think that women need to find that right balance just as men do, and I feel like women can be effective doing that. You know, I have been in meetings over my career where I feel like people are not hearing me, so this is something I’ve experienced, and so I feel like that is a career-long challenge that you just keep working at, by just delivering great work. And over time, I have found that people listen, when you deliver great work, when you consistently show up well-prepared, speaking with authority, all those other things. So what I would share with you is that the work is never done.

You know, I’ve also had experiences where I felt a sense of urgency to do a great job, and to get my team to deliver a great job, and I have, at times, been hard on people, especially early in my career, expecting more from them, or expecting them to react or behave as I would have, and that’s a style that I’ve had to adjust, in order to be effective. Because if you have that approach where you’re so hard on people, you don’t draw the best out of them. That can limit the effectiveness of you as a leader. There are style changes that I have had to experience over my career to continue to work on my own effectiveness as a leader.

Any other ways you avoid getting caught up in gender stereotypes? 
Always play to your strengths, whether your strengths are gender-based or just natural aptitude. You’re well-spoken, or you’re very analytical, or you’re a great team-builder, or you’re great with relationships … Playing to your strengths is always something good to build on, because you’re trying to develop a foundation to keep growing, as a professional and as a leader. On some of the stereotypical things, like being emotional, I will guard against some of those things. Early in my career, I reached a level of frustration where I thought, I could cry if I don’t address this, you know? And I’m not someone who cries easily! So I said, “I’d like to take a moment, I’d love to go get a cup of coffee, I’ll be back, and then we’ll talk further about this.” And I went down the hall for a moment. I don’t think anybody knew what I was doing, but I was not going to put myself in a situation where I had an emotional reaction. So I have guarded against that, from time to time. And I think that’s just maybe common sense. Just take a moment to step out of a charged situation. “I’d love to go get a cup of coffee.” If you feel like there is going to be an emotional reaction that won’t be helpful to resolve the situation, anger or other things. Disarm the situation in some way, and you can use different techniques to do that. And so this issue of stereotypes, behavior that’s consistent with gender, I think every woman needs to evaluate how those things help your effectiveness, because ultimately what you’re trying to do is be the most effective leader, the most effective professional, and you want to add to your foundational strengths, and not detract from them.

Have you ever taken too much on, in an effort to prove yourself?
I had a situation early on, where I was in a leadership position at my then-firm [Arthur Andersen], and through the client I had worked with, I had worked way too much overtime. And I was really reaching a point where I had given it all I can give. I can’t do any more. And so I went to my managing partner and said, “I feel like I have worked more than I feel like I should be. It’s wearing on me. I’m exhausted. I feel like I need to talk about this.” And he said to me, “Lynn, thanks … because you’re the only one who knows you’ve been given too much to do.” And that was so eye-opening to me, because I think on some level, I thought that someone was helping me calibrate when I need to say no … when in fact, it’s my job to say no. You enter into that situation, and if someone asks you to do something, you should evaluate, Does it fit? Does it not fit? What are some of the trade-offs? Is there something else that you’ve been given to do that’s more a priority? And then I would openly discuss it. “This is what I have on my plate. These are the resources I have. This is how I see it sequencing up. If I put the new project in, something else might be delayed.” And you present a plan of how you could work through it. I do think it is something you need to manage and control, because you’re in a unique position to do that — present a plan with all the priorities you’ve been given.

Real talk: Have you ever had a moment where thought your career had a serious setback, and it felt like things were over? 
Sometimes, it does feel like it’s over! [Laughs.] And I think it’s almost like a grieving process. You’re putting one foot in front of the other while you’re trying to figure out next steps, and it can feel chaotic. It can feel overwhelming. It can feel discouraging. For me, I’ve had a great support system. My family has always been incredibly important to me, and it’s important during those times that you have a voice of encouragement, in how to think about things, so you can move forward. You’re going to run through the whole gamut of emotions no matter what, and I’ve found that when you step back from it, the happiness, for me, comes from the relationships of friends and family. They’re extraordinarily important, first and foremost. Because you need resilience. You just have to keep going. That doesn’t mean it’s not painful. That doesn’t mean it’s not in the back of your mind. That doesn’t mean you’re not challenged by it. But I’m a person who keeps going. I get energized around a plan — what’s it going to be like in three months? Six months? You’re not going to let it defeat you. You got to keep going.

What I Learned Leading a Fortune 500 Company