14 Dec 2015
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A Leader’s Call to Action

A lifelong leader taps her network for a collection of lessons on getting the best out of individuals and organizations
by Margie Kelley

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Photos by Joe Szurszewski

“What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.”

That observation, attributed to Plato, is inscribed on the Athena Leadership Award that graces Barbara Nick’s home office in Madison, Wisconsin. Nick (AMP 165, 2003) received the award for “professional excellence, community service, and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills” over her more than 30-year career in the electric and gas industry in the Midwest.

It’s fitting that Plato’s words grace such a prize: Nick has been a fan of his since reading The Republic as an undergrad majoring in English literature at Arizona State.

“Plato shaped my worldview of leadership,” recalls Nick. “He said a leader is a philosopher king. A leader is someone who thinks deeply, knows deeply, and is a person of positive action.”

Honoring—and cultivating—great leadership has become a personal and professional mission for Nick, who was coaxed out of retirement last year to take a new post as president and CEO of Dairyland Power Cooperative, a multisource energy provider made up of 25 local distribution co-ops in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. With $1.5 billion in assets and approximately $450 million in annual revenue, Dairyland Power employs more than 550 people and owns more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines.

It’s an opportunity Nick didn’t want to pass up, as she’d just recently published Lenses of Leadership: A Call to Action, a collection of essays written by leaders of all ages (one as young as 15) and experiences. The book is intended, says Nick, “to provide candid insights, helpful tips, memorable quotes, and inspiring anecdotes about how to lead effectively and inspire others.”

Nick’s inspiration for the book came during a time when she was reflecting on her three-decade career working in the gas and electric utilities industry and realized that she could credit a series of strong leaders and mentors for helping her rise through the ranks. Starting as an entry-level technical writer doing task analysis for a nuclear power plant, she ultimately rose to be president of Michigan Gas Utilities Corporation and Minnesota Energy Resources Corporation, within the Integrys Energy Group.

“I had several instrumental leaders who believed in me, who saw my potential,” says Nick.

When she was just 28 years old, Nick earned a management role at the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation that included a team of 42 union and administrative workers spanning four counties. At 34, she was assigned line responsibility for electric line crews and gas technicians. “I demonstrated leadership in a very male-dominated industry. But I saw it as a way to learn the business—by understanding the craft that the crews put into their work. I came to see the line crews as heroes restoring power during some of the worst weather conditions.

The guys in the power plants are really unsung heroes. No one ever sees them but they keep everything going. I came to really appreciate them. I remember a machinist showing me how he created the smallest, most precise parts to restore power in a power plant. He had such pride of workmanship, so much knowledge and initiative. It was guys like him all across the board that gave me a love for this industry. That’s why I stayed— and why I came back!”

In 2000, Nick took a role as assistant to the CEO at WPS Resources (formerly Integrys Energy Group, now WEC Energy Group) and that’s where she learned the ins and outs of corporate boards and mergers and acquisitions.

“I saw, again, the care and expertise that dedicated people gave to their work; it was just at a different level and skill set, and with a broader range of impacts,” she says.

Shortly after, Nick was offered the chance to attend the HBS Advanced Management Program. “That was such a gift, a dream come true for me, both personally and professionally,” she recalls. “It was a deep dive into the key aspects of accounting and finance, strategy and organizational performance, and—most of all— leadership. We got this larger worldview from colleagues who were business leaders, politicians, legislators: people who are very close to the issues and whose goals are often to figure out what is the best for the most.”

Nick made many friends among her AMP classmates, and many of them would later contribute to her book on leadership.

“Many of us were together for our 10th reunion at HBS in 2013,” says Nick, who had by then been running the Michigan Gas Utilities and Minnesota Energy Resources corporations and was planning to retire.

“Everyone was talking about wanting to leave a legacy of leadership,” she recalls. “We all wanted to help young people and add value to our companies and communities. All of us believe business, done right, can lead to prosperity for everyone, for a greater society. Good leaders want a society where everyone prospers.”

Over her career, Nick had realized the value of strong leaders and the destructive nature of poor leadership and wanted to find her own way to “honor and cultivate” positive leaders for the future. She asked her HBS classmates if they’d contribute to a book of essays on leadership, and without hesitation, she says, ‘they delivered!”

Nick collected and edited 26 essays written by executives, entrepreneurs, young professionals, CEOs, and even a high school freshman, hailing from all over the world and each sharing their take on what makes a good leader and what inspires them to lead.

“There is a scarcity of and a need for more leadership in every venue of life, and we, as leaders, hope that by acknowledging and honoring leadership that scarcity will turn to abundance,” Nick writes in her preface to Lenses of Leadership. “We are all hungry for visionary leaders and engaged followers. We all have something to contribute to improve the state of affairs in our families, schools, businesses, and governments.”

In pulling the book together, Nick realized she’d always been a leader herself. She’s been class president at school, editor of the school newspaper, captain of the cheerleading squad. She’d worked hard and risen quickly in her career, all the while raising six children. “I asked my youngest son what one word he would use to describe me,” she says. “Without hesitation, he said, leader. His comment struck a chord with me as true. I am definitely a person who sees a problem and says, ‘let’s solve it.’”

Nick had just completed the publication of Lenses of Leadership when she was offered the chance to take the helm of Dairyland Power last fall. “I had to take it,” she says. “I can talk about leadership, but here was an opportunity to do it. It’s a new level and a new chance to be a role model. I’m sharing my view of leadership with our board and our staff and hope to shape the values and culture at all levels. I’m committed to the kind of leadership that makes the world a better place and that keeps it a better place.”

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Class of AMP 165

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