Power Lines Blog

Six pieces of advice for women in energy and environment


Recently, I had the good fortune to be named the Woman of the Year by the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment. On March 7, 2017, WCEE held its Annual Gala, honoring me and its 2017 Champion, Dr. Robert Marlay, Director, Office of Climate Change Policy and Technology at the Department of Energy.

Many of you in the public power world may not have heard of WCEE, but if you are a woman professional in DC working in the energy and environmental areas, you likely know it. As its website states, it is a “non-partisan, policy-neutral organization that focuses on women, energy and the environment.” It has been around since the 1980s, and is a great way to meet others working in these fields, and to learn about recent developments. WCEE holds many luncheon programs, happy hours, and educational events.


The Gala started with a reception, which was a mob scene. It was amazing to me how many people I knew there  — it was like my entire professional life was passing before me! Everyone from our own Association board members (thank you Leslie James, Kimberly Schlichting and Tony Cannon for your support) to former law partners and clients, (including the esteemed Walter Wolf, winner of a 2015 James D. Donovan Individual Achievement Award for his many years of service to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority), and innumerable work colleagues from NRECA, EEI and other industry associations and organizations were at the Gala.

Before dinner, Bob Marlay gave a very inspirational talk about his work at DOE to foster an increased role for women: he is an Ambassador to the US Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative for Women in Clean Energy, and has championed its growth since its inception in 2011. He also introduced his daughters and wife and talked about their careers — surely they must have lived in Lake Wobegon at some point, because they were all well above average!

After dinner, I was graciously introduced by Robin Cantor of the Berkeley Research Group, WCEE’s President. Then Tom Kuhn, the CEO of EEI, led the group in a celebratory toast to me. Tom and Marv Fertel, the now retired CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, were very supportive of me when I first became CEO of the American Public Power Association in 2014. So it was an honor to have Tom lead the toast.img_2741

Being tasked with speaking after dinner is always perilous, given that attendees have been eating (and drinking!) for some time, and are already thinking about the drive home. And Robin had told me I had 15 minutes. So I decided to eschew deep policy pronouncements and philosophical discussions about our energy and environmental future. Instead, I passed on six pieces of advice I learned (often the hard way) during my 37 years doing energy work in DC. You can read the full talk here, but here are the six pieces in a nutshell:

  • Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Way too many women hold ourselves to impossibly high standards in both our work and personal lives. And when we don’t meet those standards, we beat ourselves up for that. I consoled my listeners by noting the very fact that I was standing before them was living proof that you do not have to be perfect to be a success. Then I shared some real-life examples of less than perfect moments I had had trying to balance being a good lawyer with being a good parent. My moral: don’t flagellate yourself for not being perfect. Do your best and that will generally be good enough.
  • Nobody goes away. Over my years in DC, I have learned that nobody goes away. A person you meet in one position is bound to show up later in another position. You may be across the table from someone in a negotiation one day. Then you wake up the next day to find out they have become your boss, or a client. It helps in dealing with people to know where they have come from and what their experiences have been.
  • Because nobody goes away, don’t be a jerk. Of course, you should not be a jerk anyway, simply because you should obey the Golden Rule. But if you are ever tempted to do something jerk-like to someone, recall that “Nobody goes away.” That way, when that person ends up being your client or your boss, you will have fewer regrets.
  • Do what makes sense for you, not what you are “supposed” to do. When you come to DC and start your career, there are established ladders you are supposed to climb in your field, and tickets you are supposed to punch. If doing those things actually makes sense for you, by all means do them. But if that career ladder does not feel right, or is not working for you, then figure out what you might want to do instead, and then do that. Make the choices that make sense to you at the time, given where you are in your life. And don’t lose sleep because you may not be following the conventional path.
  • Assemble a “Kitchen Cabinet” of Advisors. It helps as you move along in your career to assemble a group of friends and peers whose advice you can seek when you have to handle a tough situation or make a big decision. In the end, you have to make the decisions, but having smart and able friends you can bounce ideas off of is invaluable.
  • If you make the wrong choice, you can make another choice. I noted it can be hard — indeed scary — to make important career and life choices. Fear of making the wrong choice can be paralyzing. It can keep you in your current place even if it does not feel right. (Although, if you think about it, not making a choice is also a choice.) But at some point, you have to quit analyzing the situation, and check in with your gut. And if your gut is telling you to make a change, you should listen. When you do, take comfort in this — if worst comes to worst, and you later realize you made the wrong choice, then you gather your strength and your wits, and make another choice. You are going to be making choices your entire life — or at least, you should be. So use those decision-making skills, and exercise those muscles. The more you do it, the more natural it will feel. Don’t feel like the choice facing you now is the last choice you will ever make — it probably is not.

I had a wonderful time at the Gala. I reconnected with many old friends, and had the opportunity to meet many women who I did not know. If my six pieces of advice can help them to avoid making the same mistakes I did (so they can go out and make their own mistakes!), then my 37 years in DC will have been more than worthwhile. So, my deep thanks to WCEE for the honor of being named its Woman of the Year.

Sue Kelly

Sue Kelly

President and CEO

One Comment

  1. Thank you, Sue. You are an inspiration to women in energy, and I appreciate your candor more than you know. Keep on paving the way!

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