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How One Sustainability Pro Broke Out of Her Silo


Editor's Note: To learn more about Bill's thoughts on breaking through silos at your company, check out this post

By Bill Hatton


Sandy Nessing, managing director of sustainability and EHS strategy and design for American Electric Power, explains the keys to breaking out of silos: “Communication. Appreciation. Listening. You need to have all three to break down silos. You need to build trust with people, that they know you have their back. You have to listen to what they are saying and what they are not saying as well. You need to learn about their job.”

American Electric Power (AEP) is building numerous transmission lines throughout the country, and a big challenge is siting, i.e., getting easements for rights of way.

“You have to work with landowners, who don’t like it when you tear down trees and rip up the land; even though you restore it after, it’s still a huge issue in dealing with communities.”

The groups involved:

  • Senior management has 4- to 6-percent growth goals, and more than half its capital goes to the transmission business. So, building transmission lines is a high priority.

  • Forestry, which manages the rights of way, is primarily concerned about reliability. Trees knock out power lines; forestry doesn’t want that to happen.

  • Environmental services, which is worried about permit compliance and conservation, as well as restoring the land afterward. Part of their job is to keep regulators and community members happy.

  • Transmission outreach and siting teams. Their job is to build the lines: “Their job is to put that steel in the ground and get it done,” says Nessing.

  • Community members and landowners, who prefer as little disruption as possible.

“Forestry is very concerned about reliability,” Nessing says. “Because if a tree comes down and hits a transmission line, it could mean fines of as much as $1 million a day, depending on what kind of line it is. So it’s a huge risk to the company. If we are not being good stewards of the environment, there are reputational risks as well as financial risks. The foresters were not interested in what the environmental team had to say about ‘We can restore the land, one that attracts habitat, we can put the land back better than what it was.’ Forestry was just focused on reliability of those lines. They used to joke, ‘blue sky, you take it right down, you scorch it, so there’s absolutely no risk of a tree growing into a line.’ We’ve gotten away from that, thankfully.”

Forestry was where a key obstacle was in breaking free of silos, and thus creating a more environmentally friend solution that would keep the other groups happy.

“Forestry was where the obstacle was,” Nessing says. “If I could get through to forestry, then I could everybody to the table and I could get something done.”

Nessing called up the head of the forestry to ask what the issues were. “I called him up one day and said, ‘I have this idea about working with the Wildlife Habitat Council,’ and he just about had a heart attack first. I spent an hour with him on the phone.”

She then visited the head of forestry to get a walkthrough of the processes and concerns. She learned about forestry, business returns and budget issues, and even went up in a helicopter one afternoon while they patrolled transmission lines. Key: Listen and get inside the heads of that business unit.

“It was really beneficial because I earned his trust--he knew that I wasn’t going to throw something at him that would put reliability at risk,” Nessing says. “He was then willing to come and talk to the environmental services group and I worked with them one on one as well and helped them understand where [forestry] was coming from, and then brought in the transmission team. As a result, we did work with Wildlife Habitat Council and we developed a conservation toolkit the foresters and the outreach teams can use when they are siting transmission lines. So the teams came together for that project.”

Nessing spoke at a Nov. 5 conference organized by Skytop Strategies, a sustainability events firm headquartered in New Paltz, NY.

Image credit: Flickr/Eirik Refsdal

Bill Hatton is a veteran business-to-business journalist who has written on EHS, compliance, legal and management topics for 25 years. He can be reached at billhatton at mountainvieweditor dot com.

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