Women in Business Q&A: Anne Pramaggiore, CEO, ComEd

16/02/2016 16:12 | Updated 16 February 2016

Anne is the president and CEO of ComEd, a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, which delivers electricity to approximately 3.8 million residential and business customers across northern Illinois. Promoted to this role in February 2012, she is the first female to hold the post of president and CEO at the electric utility. Prior to her appointment as president and CEO of ComEd, Anne served as president and chief operating officer (COO) of ComEd, responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the company. Anne initially joined ComEd in 1998 to work on the company's transition to an open and competitive energy market under the Illinois Consumer Choice Law of 1997. Currently, Anne serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Babcock & Wilcox Company and Motorola Solutions and also the boards of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Botanic Garden, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Urban League, DePaul University, Lincoln Park Zoo and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She is a 1989 graduate of DePaul University School of Law and has a bachelor's degree in Communications and Theater from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I believe leadership is a constant process of becoming your best self. Leadership is personal and it is never perfected. At its foundation, leadership is about having a goal or vision, a willingness to relentlessly pursue the goal and feel ultimately accountable for its outcome and, most importantly, to revel in the accomplishments of others because you must necessarily reach the goal through the work of others.

I have been fortunate to have had a number of experiences that allowed me to understand this equation. I had parents with completely different takes on the world, but the combination was a tremendous learning laboratory for my sister and me about life and leadership. My father was hard driving and a zealot on accountability and my mother loved people and could engage anyone. My first job out of college was in retail - as a buyer for a department store chain. As a buyer, you are responsible for the success or failure of your area in very stark terms - margin generation. If you generate strong margins, you succeed; if not, you are out. This is a job that exposes you to absolute accountability immediately. It was a tremendous experience to have early on in my career. I have had many experiences since then that allowed me to test myself in different contexts, but the experience that next stands out for me is my role as Chief Operating Officer and now CEO at ComEd. The combination of these roles required me to learn to engage and motivate several thousand employees, diverse in every way possible, to take on the monumental job of modernizing one of the biggest and most complex machines in the country - the Chicago power grid - and to do that while we raised the bar on safety and quality, changed processes for stronger outcomes and evolved to a more customer-oriented and innovative culture.

As we move farther along the path on this journey, the team gets stronger and stronger and I am increasingly impressed by our people and what they are able to accomplish. The ComEd employees have taken on accountability for achieving the vision of a modern energy business, internalized the culture change necessary to support the vision and innovated beyond my expectations.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at ComEd?
In at least two major ways. First, I have had the opportunity to develop an important set of skills at each stop I have made. In my first job, as a buyer, my experience was the equivalent of running a small business -- managing margins, marketing and people -- and having ultimate accountability for results. In my legal career, as an antitrust lawyer, I tackled global issues of economic policy and competitive markets. At ComEd, I have had the good fortune to learn a business critically important to the health and safety of our residents and to the competiveness of the U.S. economy. As important as these skills are, it is the opportunity to develop a playbook for learning on the job -- learning how to learn - that is the second and perhaps the most valuable outcome of the totality of these experiences.

What are the highlights and challenges during your tenure at ComEd?
For me, these are two sides of the same coin. Overcoming challenges leads to highlights. The biggest challenge for ComEd, and for me, has been the effort to transition the company out of its fairly staid and static 20th century business and operating model - one that had seen little change in 100 years - and into a dynamic and technology and innovation-oriented model that will serve the digital customers and digital economy of the 21st century. This decades-long evolution is requiring us to rethink every aspect of our business - from our grid design and functionality, to our connection and interaction with customers, to our business model, to our very relevance in a new world.

Our first phase of work is our ongoing Smart Grid modernization program, built on legislation passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2011. The passing of that legislation - which took roughly two years -- is a highlight for me and for ComEd. With this progressive legislation and the change it has brought, we have seen ComEd's best operational performance in history, created 3,600 new jobs, attracted multiple new businesses to the state and connected with customers and communities in many new ways. This legislation has also unleashed a torrent of innovation by employees in all areas of the company - meter readers have created route apps for efficiency, fleet managers have designed hybrid operating vans lowering our carbon footprint, and engineers are creating patentable grid designs -- and also has created a platform for designing Phase 2 of the evolution - our utility of the future vision. I consider our work in Phase 2, although in its initial stages, to be a highlight as well. The company has done some leading thought work in this realm. By designing a model whereby the utility choreographs activity over a triad of networks -- the grid, the digital communications network that supports our grid intelligence and our social network defined by our unparalleled access to customers -- we are looking to capture network economies and value creation on a major scale for consumers.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
First, I enthusiastically invite them into the energy field. It is a business that has enormous impact on a macro level as we operate and maintain primary economic infrastructure and also at the most individual and human level - our business literally powers communities and powers lives. It is a business that has many facets - technical, operational, economic, policy, political - and as such is a never-ending learning laboratory. I urge women, really anyone, seeking a career in energy to focus on career more as a series of learning experiences - skill-building opportunities -- and less as a path to a specific end. I believe when you focus so intently on a specific outcome or desired position; you sometimes miss the very interesting and life-changing opportunities that might be sitting off in your peripheral vision. So be alert to opportunity presenting itself in unexpected forms and perhaps not directly in front of you. Second, when you see opportunity, take it. Do not hesitate because you think you might not be the perfect match from an experience standpoint. If you can learn - and learning to learn is a critical skill-set in itself - you can chart a path in unfamiliar territory. Push for experience in line positions (in addition to staff roles or in lieu of exclusively staff roles). You will accelerate your development of accountability and leadership skills and will create an objective track record that employers will understand when they assess you for future opportunity. Finally, always work to be excellent.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Certainly one of the biggest issues for women in the workplace is that women occupy so few leadership roles. This is changing, but it is changing slowly. The result is the leadership model for most organizations in our economy lacks much shaping by women. Without visible and successful prototypes, women leaders are left to experimentation and guess work about leadership. There is a growing awareness of the deficit, however, and many organizations are tackling this issue. At Exelon and ComEd, we are taking significant steps to engage women and support their leadership progression.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been blessed by the presence of wonderful mentors in my life, beginning with my parents who I spoke of earlier. In my professional life I have had five significant mentors. Judge Charles Kocoras, McDermott Will partner Frank Kimball, ComEd's former CEO Frank Clark, Exelon's former CEO John Rowe and Exelon's current CEO Chris Crane have all mentored me in different ways and at different times in my career. There have been many people who helped make a difference for me with wonderful advice and shared perspective, but these five actually reached back for me and threw some light on the path I needed to take to move forward. That is ultimately what really good mentors do - they look back from their perch, as people who have already walked the path, and help guide your walk forward. Without people like this, you are destined to take the walk on your own and, in my judgment, your eyesight is rarely good enough to avoid the pitfalls. So yes, these mentors have made an immeasurable difference in my life and I am grateful to each of them.