Talking leadership with Jon Wellinghoff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
By Tom Fox,
Jon Wellinghoff is chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil, and reviews proposals to build liquefied natural gas terminals and interstate natural gas pipelines. Prior to joining FERC, Wellinghoff was in private law practice focusing on issues such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and distributed generation. He served two terms as the State of Nevada’s first Consumer Advocate for Customers of Public Utilities. Wellinghoff spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.
Was there a critical event that influenced your decision to pursue a career focused on energy issues?
Since I was a little boy, I had an interest in science and technology. Ultimately, I got undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. I think it was my love for mathematics that led to my appreciation for efficiency, not only in technology but also in nature. I’ve always been interested in optimization by natural processes. Looking at our society in that way, I’m fascinated by learning how to help it to operate more efficiently.
If you were speaking to a college class, how would you describe your job and what you like most about it?
I like that I get to help our country work better by making our energy system more efficient. I love working with what, I believe, is the best team in the federal government. They are extremely confident, dedicated and focused individuals. Also, I get to learn from the best and brightest in the energy industry, seeing their new technology and discussing their new ideas. It’s a continually exciting job, and I try to translate that excitement to my staff at FERC.
What are some innovations at FERC that you are most proud of?
First is the creation of the Office of Energy Policy and Innovation, one of 11 distinct offices at FERC. Also, we’ve done a lot of work on integrating how customers change their energy use at different times in order to increase efficiency. This method brings customers into the equation and allows them to start controlling their own destiny when it comes to energy use. We have also put into place new rules and regulations that use emerging technologies that provide better, faster and more efficient grid services.
How do you create an environment that fosters innovation?
You continually push the envelope with new ideas while also keeping your focus. My focus has always been on improving the efficiency of the system. Your staff will be excited and interested because they are constantly trying to work with you to achieve the end result of your focus.
How do you communicate with your employees to solicit their ideas and feedback?
First you set out a strategic plan. Next you hire the best people you can, and then you let them do their jobs. That’s what we’ve done here at FERC. All of our employees have read the plan and understand the focus of where we are going. On a continual basis, you engage in dialogue with your staff. My staff and I talk with innovators in our industry to learn about the barriers to different types of innovation. After that, I task them with their assignment and we work to figure out ways to break down those barriers so we can incorporate innovation into the system. Whether it is rule-making, a request for information or a technical conference, we move forward with the implementation strategy.
What are some of your hobbies or passions outside of work, and how do you think they influence your job?
My main passion is my family. I love to spend time with my wife and two boys. Another passion is technology. I do a tremendous amount of reading on technology even outside the energy field. One of my other passions is art. I love to go to museums and galleries and spend a lot of time with art. In fact, I just got back from the reincarnation of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia. I think my passion for art helps to keep me thinking strategically and creatively, two essential things I do at FERC.
Who are your leadership role models and what lessons do you take away from them?
One is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is quite a thoughtful, meticulous person and nothing but strategic. He is a very intelligent guy who fights for what he believes in. He has the leadership concept of focus, focus, focus and never gives up. Another role model is Steve Jobs. I think you can learn from him that simplicity and elegance in design and purpose is essential, whether it is being incorporated into an iPhone or a FERC regulation. We have too much complexity in life. We need to make sure that we are making things as efficient and functional as possible if we’re going to continue to survive in this world.
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