Diversity in Florida Public Power

FMEA Executive Director Amy Zubaly recently sat down for a Zoom conversation with four of Florida public power’s women leaders – Traci Hall, City Manager for City of Blountstown, Barbara Quiñones, Electric Utilities Director for the City of Homestead, Lynne Tejeda, General Manager for Keys Energy Services, and Sandra Wilson, City Manager for the City of Ocala. Below are excerpts of that conversation from these four great women leaders.

Amy Zubaly: When you began your careers years ago, did you ever imagine you’d be a leader not just in this industry but in such a male-dominated industry?

Barbara QuinonesBarbara Quiñones: I knew I wanted to be a leader but no, I didn’t set out with a plan to move into one role or another. When I started in the electric utility industry as an energy surveyor, I was excited to have completed my Engineering degree and was looking forward to using that to solve problems. I eventually came to a point where I needed to make a decision in my previous job between being a commercial liaison for customers or being a field supervisor, and I made the decision to become a field supervisor—it was just something that appealed to me. I enjoy the work, I enjoy what we do, I enjoy the service we provide to the community, and I like the hands-on aspect of leading an electric utility. So, no I never set out to be in the role I’m in—different choices I made along the way ultimately led me to this role. The choices were always based on what meant the most to me personally when I came to a fork in my road. I wanted to work with people, I wanted to solve technical problems, and I wanted to be able to help and guide others and provide a quality service for our residents here in the community.

Traci HallTraci Hall: I can honestly tell you I never expected or imagined that I would be sitting with fellow electric utility leaders and here as the City Manager. It’s a lot of fun, I enjoy it, there’s never a dull moment, you stay busy. Electricity is interesting to me—I like working with the guys. I’ll go out in the field with them when we have outages and help, doing whatever I can do. I had to sit with the director and say, “Explain this to me, because this is completely new to me.” As the former Finance Director (and continuing to serve in this capacity as City Manager), I was used to spreadsheets and working on numbers, not going out in the field and looking at electrical lines and all the pieces and parts that go with that. I never imagined it, but I do enjoy the satisfaction in it. It’s a chance to work with the public and show what we can do because we have a great group. I enjoy working with them and they make the City of Blountstown look good. I’m proud of what we accomplish here in our electric department.

Sandra WilsonSandra Wilson: Having cut my teeth in public service, my first job was an entry-level position before I had any education—and I always aspired to higher levels. I knew I could do it, but I didn’t have the required education, so I had to position myself for success when one of these positions became open. After I attained my education, I started going to professional conferences and I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me—which was kind of hard. I probably came from a different perspective than others because there just weren’t very many people who looked like me in city manager positions or in the public power world either. But that didn’t mean a whole lot to me, because nobody told me I couldn’t do it. So, I just continued to learn as much as I could and I was hopeful that someone would give me the opportunity—and someone did time and time again, I’m pleased to say. I was given opportunities to go into positions where I didn’t necessarily have all the knowledge yet, but I was told, “You can learn it. You can learn it.” Being a leader is the main thing. You may not know all the technical aspects of the job but being a good leader and loving to work with people has served me well. When the City Manager who appointed me came to me and said, “What do you want to do?” I told him I’d never been over the electric utility, water resources or any of those technical fields and I’d like to learn more. He said, “You got it.” He appointed me as Assistant City Manager over those areas and I just jumped in and learned. The people who work in those utilities are awesome and have been very accepting of me and it’s been great.

Lynne TejedaLynne Tejeda: I feel the opposite of Barbara, who said she made choices—I feel like everything sort of just happened. I graduated from college with a degree in Journalism and then came to Key West and went to apply for a journalist position with the Key West Citizen. They either had no openings or just ignored me, so I went to the local community college, and someone said, “You know, I heard the local utility was looking for someone to do press releases and employee communications—you should go check.” I went down to HR and HR said, “No, that job’s not open, but let me call the manager.” The next thing I knew I was talking to the manager in their office, and that evening I got a call from HR saying, “We’ve scheduled you for a physical tomorrow.” I asked if that meant I was getting an offer. They said, “Just pass the physical and then we’ll talk.” So, I landed in a utility, surprisingly. Never really had a government job, never thought about business—I had been headed down the path of journalism. But I ended up in a public information role and I grew the job. Managers kept giving me more and more responsibilities until I got into strategic planning. I think I was willing to do things that no one else wanted to do. Strategic planning is something a lot of people don’t like, and I thought it was fun. Between communications and strategic planning, I was exposed to many areas. I got to talk to a lot of people in transmission and distribution, or generation, and learn more about all the different disciplines across the utility. And eventually that led to the Assistant Manager position—I didn’t apply for it. The manager at the time didn’t have an assistant. One day he called me down, totally off-guard, and said, “Are you interested?” My first thought was no—I’m too young, how could I do this? My second thought was that if I say no and get passed over, the opportunity will never happen again. That led to that position and eventually onto the General Manager position when he retired. So, for me it just happened. It wasn’t something I ever set my sights on and went after.

Amy: It’s interesting to learn how we end up where we are. So as a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier or challenge in your career? Sandra?

Sandra: I’ve been extremely fortunate to be given so many opportunities. I talk to some of my colleagues and especially now with all the talk of diversity, equity and inclusion—you see the statistics with the number of minorities who rise to the level of leadership or management—they look at me and say, “Yeah but you? You made it.” And I know, yes, I did—but there are so many others who just weren’t given an opportunity. I’m only the second female city manager for Ocala. From the beginning, timing has just been really good for me, in my favor. If I went back and told you what happened, it’s just that things fell into place. Looking at the literature, I never let it get into my head as far as the obstacles. It hasn’t been my experience. I’ve always thought I’m going to ride the waves, I’m going to do my best, and put people first and we’ll see what happens. And it’s been a great opportunity. It’s been a blessing. I have an awesome team and none of it would be possible without them.

Barbara: For me, the biggest challenge has been proving people wrong. I’m about five feet tall, so I’m not a real imposing person. I have a higher frequency voice —and I can be a little soft spoken— and so I have come across those who have underestimated me over the years. It’s something that I kind of look forward to—overcoming those preconceived notions. That’s what I’d say. I’ve worked through it obviously, but that first impression people get when they meet me is that I’m not anyone of any substance. So, I just prove them wrong.

Lynne: I’m having a hard time coming up with any barriers, at least external ones. If anything, I feel like the barriers are more within myself. Especially not having an engineering background, it adds a little self-doubt. When I have questions, I wonder if they are bad questions because I don’t have the technical knowledge. But I ask those questions anyway, and sometimes even engineers say, “You know, I hadn’t thought of that.” So, for me, the barriers have been more internal than anything external.

Traci: I can’t really think of a barrier per se. For me the biggest challenge has been learning the utility stuff out in the field. But the guys have always been patient with me. I ask them to explain it to me at my level, and I want to understand and know it as the City Manager. Having multiple utilities at the city has been a challenge for me. And it’s a matter of you wanting to know what’s going on as the manager to stay on top of things, but also so you can best relay that information to the citizens, the other staff, and the councilmembers. It’s so important to know what’s going on and make time to learn as much as you can.

Amy: Traci, I know you have twins. For all of you, how do you balance life and work?

Traci: Very carefully! Luckily my husband is a lot of help. He gets home before I do every day. With Blountstown being a small town, it’s nice to be able to run to school for a meeting or a program. I make sure my family knows they come first. Bottom line, my children are the most important thing to me. It’s not easy some days, but you always have to make sure your family and children know how important they are. I work a lot of long hours, there are many times that I have come in very early or I’ll go home, cook dinner, and make sure everyone’s ready for the next day and then come back into the office. It’s a hard job but it’s very rewarding.

Sandra: Work-life balance is very important. I have a great team and I let them do their jobs. It makes my job much easier because I’m not a micromanager and we have good working relationships. My daughter is now getting ready to become a mom herself –I’m getting ready to become a grandmother. My husband and I like to travel so I do take time off—I need that time away from the office. I have two Assistant City Managers and they’re both fully capable, as is our whole staff. When there is an issue, they know how to respond and for the most part, things don’t rise to my level. I pray I’m doing everything I’m supposed to—someone once told me this was supposed to be really hard, but it hasn’t been. Don’t get me wrong, we do have a lot going on and there are times when you have to put in the extra hours. I think I have a healthy framework though and handle things as they’re in front of me. I don’t take work home with me, but anytime I’m there, I’m there. My husband won’t call me at work unless it’s critical. I try to keep a healthy balance to avoid burnout and keep a separation between my family time and work.

Barbara: It’s important to prioritize and put your family and yourself first. Sometimes as women we take care of everyone else first and we forget to take care of ourselves. We definitely have to remain healthy and have outside interests that get our hearts pumping—because that makes us better at everything—with our families, our coworkers and jobs. I think, as Sandra said, you also have to trust your people so you can be at ease and not worry when someone is covering for you when you do get the down time. Another thing I do is to keep work and personal life as separate as possible. If I need to work late, I’ll do it here in the office—I don’t like to do work at home because home is my sacred area. Occasionally, work will intrude on my personal time, but it’s infrequent—and I’d rather be in the office for it. When we had the option to work from home during the pandemic, I never did, except for two weeks while I was quarantined.  I feel that home is my personal space and work needs to go on here at the office. I know that I just have to separate the two and try to take care of myself mentally, emotionally, physically, so that I can give the best that I have to both my work and my personal life and family.

Lynne: My husband worked here at Keys Energy too for a long time before he retired, so keeping work and family separate was almost impossible because of course we talked about it. And my son Justin lived Keys Energy just as much as we did because he’d hear it in the car and over dinner. Sometimes it’s been very hard to separate work, but I do think that especially since my husband retired, I’ve been doing a lot better with trying to compartmentalize it. I’m fortunate he gives me a tremendous amount of support. I do what I need to do at work, then we have our time at home. And beyond that I do think it’s really important to be present wherever you are. When I’m at work, I try to be at work. When I’m at home, I try to be just at home. Of course, there are always text messages and emails, but I try not to be subject to it constantly.

Traci: I’ll add one thing too. Being in a small town, you can’t go to the grocery store, to church, to school, even to the neighboring town’s Walmart without someone stopping you, “Hey when is such-and-such?” or “Why were the bills so high?” In small towns where everybody knows everybody it can be hard to get a break. But that’s where you’ve got to love people, love the public, be a people-person and be willing to take that as part of the job because you’re on call 24/7. You have to plan and organize your life to have a good work-life balance but wherever you go in small town you’re going to be approached. I’ve learned to go with the flow.

Amy: That’s a good point. You are always on in public no matter what. So where would we find you on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m.? What do you do on the weekends? What’s for fun?

Traci: On Saturday morning, I’m probably going to be cleaning the house or at the grocery store catching up on my weekly duties! Depends on what time of the year it is. In the coming months I’ll be attending college football games because my son is going to play for Cumberland University in Tennessee, so I’ll be taking lots of trips to watch the games.

Sandra: As for me, I like to sleep in, but I also like to spend time with my mom who turned 80 recently. Spending as much time with her as I can is where you’ll find me. Occasionally I do spa days—I love to go to the spa—and I do like to take that time to maybe get my nails done, do some self-care—for either myself or my dog. Gotta take care of the pooch too and take her to the groomer.

Lynne: You know it’s different now because of the pandemic. Before, we would usually get up and go have breakfast and stroll around Key West in the downtown area—just get outside and enjoy our community. But we haven’t resumed breakfast yet, so either lounging or reading a book, or out in the yard or cleaning the pool. Just relaxing.

Barbara: Along the lines of what Lynne was saying, pre- and post- pandemic things look very different. Usually, I would have been going out for breakfast or on a boat or taking a flying lesson or doing something fun! During the pandemic, not so much. Lot of house cleaning going on, my floors look great. Lot of laundry, and I also enjoy reading.

Amy: What advice would you like to give to women of the future generation? Opportunities for women are better than they used to be, but we have a long way to go.

Sandra: My advice to any female is to be proactive in removing anything that can be a barrier to your success. For me, that meant I had to get my education and experience because I wanted to remove that barrier as an impediment to why I wouldn’t be considered for a position. Then just reach for the stars!

Lynne: My advice is to really to just go after things. When you have a job make sure you do it to the best of your ability, but also look for other things of interest that may not be in your job description and do those things too. That’s your opportunity to shine and be noticed. Give it your all. I don’t know that it’s different advice for females than males. In any job, for those that do more than is expected, that’s really how you move up and make your mark.

Traci: I think you have to have confidence in yourself. People will sense when you don’t have it. Maybe it’s more of a southern thing, but being a woman, I really want the public to feel comfortable with who’s sitting in the seat and leading the town, directing everything. I think you need to learn all you can and utilize all your resources.

Barbara: My best advice for future female leaders is to leverage being a female. We have some special strengths and for me it’s always been easier because I am a woman. I think I’m able to listen well, understand where people are coming from, and have certain instincts that come from being a woman. Also build strong relationships and a firm network because those people will help you out when you don’t have the expertise—both at work and in your personal lives.