Interview Series – Elaina Ball

elaina-ballElaina Ball
Interim Chief Operating Officer, Austin Energy

Interview with EUCI conducted September 20, 2016


What does the first hour of your day look like?

The first hour of my day starts around 6:00 am, before my family wakes up. I start with coffee and my overnight ops reports, I like to see how the system and plants performed overnight. After scanning work email, I switch on the news and catch up with the world, while I cook breakfast for my 10 and 13 year-old children. There are some days that evolve into late work, so I always like to spend time with them before the day starts.

Who are your role models? Mentors?
I have to say that I have worked with some of the most progressive and instructive executives in the utility industry over the last decade. I don’t think I could name just one, but each have provided me with mentorship in action. Some of the most impactful learnings that I have had are not things they told me, but rather watching how they lead teams, manage through difficult/controversial issues and how they make choices in their personal/professional lives.

Looking back, what one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
This is a tough one. In my early career, I worked in the chemical industry, specifically global commodities manufacturing. The intense market pressures and my own drive allowed me to develop skills that I use to this day. However, I spent several years living solely for work. I now have a much fuller understanding of balancing business results and personal goals, and probably would tell my younger self to go home more.

What is one book or reference you recommend to be a better leader?
As strange as it sounds, I would suggest a couple of great business improvement books (not traditional “leadership” books.) “The Goal” is by far the first significantly impactful read I had in my early career. Its process orientation and interesting story line, weave together a helpful picture of how leaders can align their own understanding of profitability and that of their employee’s contributions. The Goal is pure Gold. Later in my career, as I was studying Lean/Toyota Production Systems, I read “Getting the Right Things Done.” This book also teaches goal alignment/strategy deployment, but the thing that I love about the management system is that it puts people at the center. How we work with our teams is so critical. Personal respect, sharing the problem solving process and open/clear communication yields such powerful results.

Where do you see women in the industry in 5 years?
My hope is that the industry will continue to grow/draw talent in all areas-system planning, design, construction, operation, and all of the support areas for the business. The utility of the future is here, we are seeing rapid re-powering of the grid to renewable sources, faster adoption & integration of distributed energy resources, and evolving markets and regulatory environments. Utilities are experience change and have dynamic/interesting problems that need to be solved. Drawing from all of the available talent on the market will be the key to delivering effective solutions. It’s my hope that in 5 years, our industry will be viewed by women/girls of all ages as a leading career choice.

When I hire, I want?
I hire for attitude, work ethic, and aptitude/skill. In that order. With a positive attitude and drive, you can accomplish most anything. Adding intellectual horsepower to the mix gives you a team member that is a strategic advantage.

What was your childhood dream?
When I was a kid, I really wanted to be an astronaut. I love astronomy, math and physics, they are hobbies to me. I read modern physics for fun (nerd alert!) And while I chose chemical engineering over aeronautical engineering, my love of science & math has translated into a varied and interesting career. I look forward to coming to work every day to solve problems and help people.

What does your power suit look like?
Hard hat, steel toed boots, & safety gear. I’m most at home in the field/plants. I love seeing systems/equipment at work, regardless of the industry. I love to construct, operate, and troubleshoot processes/systems. It’s in my DNA. Most days, my power suit involves an actual business suit, but I enjoy my field days most.

What is the one character trait you can point to that made your success possible?
I try to be relatable to all the folks I work with. Early on in my career in the chemical industry, I would spend hours in the plants with the on-shift operators. They were tremendous teachers and such good folks. In exchange for my lessons, I would fix irritations they had running the plant – whether it was a poorly place valve or sloppy control scheme, whatever. It was a simple exchange, but I learned a valuable lesson early on. Being relatable and truly getting to know your team builds a foundation that allows you to achieve whatever business goals you need to for the organization.

What is your take on Work- Life Balance?
It doesn’t exist. I’m a mom. I’m an energy executive. I’m a wife. I’m a board member for other organizations. Balancing all of these commitments gets messy sometimes. “Work-life balance” implies that the lines are clear, that you just have to right size the time on either side of the line. But in my experience, they are blurry. It means my daughter may come to work with me off hours during a plant or system issue. I could feel bad about it, but she gets to know the work-me, she also gets to see that a girl can run gas turbines or power systems. It may mean that I have to reschedule a meeting to cover a school need for my son. It’s ok for folks at work to know I am a mom, too. We are all human and have commitments in many areas. I think the more we can see each other as whole people, the better we can support each other for the benefit of our organizations.