Q&A with Paul McFadden, JEA Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
FMEA: JEA named you recently to serve as the utility’s first Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. What does it say about JEA to create this new executive position?
McFadden: JEA has always had its footprint in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but I think this will allow us to bring greater focus to the many things we’re already doing in the space. For example, JEA employees spend countless hours in our community, supporting church organizations, colleges, businesses, and charitable organizations, and those efforts have given us an opportunity to show ourselves as a diverse organization.
But I think this will allow us to further that conversation and bring the right individuals into the conversation, not being siloed. Perhaps we’re doing great things in one area, but another area is unaware. My role will allow us to centralize a lot of those things and bring more energy and focus to what we’ve done for many years. And with our new leadership team, their enthusiasm just continues to impress me each time I talk to them individually and collectively about where they want this conversation to go. They are very supportive.
FMEA: Is that one of your key goals — to create stronger connections with groups in the community?
McFadden: That is absolutely one of our desires because when we go out into the community, without even saying a word, the community automatically sees our diversity. Our employees engage in many different ways with our community, and if we’re ever given the opportunity to be a shining example, I think our employees take that opportunity. Taking it to the next level is what I would like to see.
FMEA: What’s the overall mission of your new position?
McFadden: I mentioned our plan to revisit a lot of the partnerships we already have because there’s potential for us to grow those connections and grow the DEI footprint, both internally and externally.
We’ve also formed a DEI Council, which is a cross section of employees within JEA. The number of people on the council will continue to grow, and they will work to help us reach employees who work in different ways in different jobs. For example, we have a variety of occupations from environmentalists to scientists, engineers, people who work in field services as technicians, and lineworkers. That describes the many ways we work differently, but it shouldn’t matter where or how we work. It’s mainly about the way we engage in the conversation around inclusivity. Those discussions should be similar or the same regardless of the position.
The DEI Council will help me to figure out what’s the right mechanism to move that conversation across the entire organization, no matter where you work or how you work. I want to continue to create that conversation between all of us because I wholeheartedly believe if we continue to enhance the dialogue, it will help us create the environment we want to see in the future. It’ll basically help us to learn more about one another and our unique differences that we bring to this organization.
FMEA: Is this new Council made up of employees or are there members from the community too?
McFadden: That’s a good question. Currently, it’s made up of employees from different parts of the organization, such as management, leadership and various levels of JEA staff. But our plan is to include some key individuals from the community a little farther down the line, so there will be a collaboration between internal and external parties when it comes to the DEI Council.
FMEA: Will you also be working to facilitate more diversity within JEA?
McFadden: I think we’re in a good place. I just want to ensure that we’re more intentional about DEI in the future because there’s still opportunity to grow the conversation. For example, we want to create safe spaces, if you will, where individuals with different backgrounds and education can come together to understand each other better. There are some things a person just has not been exposed to. What I’d like to see internally at JEA are safe spaces where we can dialogue about those things to help people have a better understanding — to get sharper in areas where they’ve not taken the time or had the opportunity to do so previously.
FMEA: Tell us about your background and how it prepared you for this role.
McFadden: I graduated from Clemson University and straight out of college, I entered a couple of different management-training programs, both in manufacturing, which is a lot different than what I’m doing now. I’ve worked in manufacturing, banking, finance, and human resources.
For about the past five years, I’ve worked as an HR Business Partner with JEA. That gave me a big introduction to the world of publicly owned utilities, and it helped me form new relationships in a different industry despite the challenges of the pandemic.
But I’ve tried to continue to grow those relationships over the past challenging couple of years, and I think that’s the recipe for any successful leader. You must maintain and build trust with the partners you’re going to work with. Keep those relationships alive. I think that’ll help any leader, including myself, to be successful.
FMEA: You’ve had a varied career, and sometimes a person can look back at those contrasting jobs and finally see how the pieces of a career prepared you, maybe unexpectedly, for a role you have today. Has that been your experience?
McFadden: I would have to agree. The first roles in my career were in recruiting. I was recruiting and helping people to find opportunities within an organization that really fit them and matched their skills. Even though it was recruiting, it was an opportunity for me to build relationships across the organization because I was working with leaders who were trying to build their organization, and I was working with individuals who were trying to enter the industry.
I think that experience, and the ability to present yourself as an approachable person, the ability to sustain relationships and build your networks, it all helped me to prepare myself for where I am right now.
And it hasn’t ended. I’m still learning every day. This industry is more than I ever imagined. We’re doing some things right. Forbes recently named JEA as one of “America’s Best Midsize Employers.” That was a great accolade for JEA. I hope that demonstrates we’re doing some things right, and we’ll continue to build on those.
FMEA: Looking ahead, what are your hopes for this job?
McFadden: Our CEO, Jay Stowe, consistently talks about a couple of key messages. One is to practice courtesy and respect in everything we do. Everything. I want to build on that message and strengthen that foundation for the organization.
I want to help leaders not to be afraid to lean into conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. And I would like to help people to understand it’s okay to be unfamiliar with certain things. It’s okay to say, “I need help to get better in certain areas.”
The dialogue is the biggest part. I want to encourage our leaders to have the courage to ask questions, as opposed to making guesses about things that might be based on our own personal biases. We need to ask better questions and be more committed leaders in that space. We need to be champions of that accountability.
FMEA: Lastly, what suggestion(s) would you offer to other utilities and organizations that want to move in this direction and implement steps to facilitate diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace?
McFadden: One suggestion that I have held onto from one of the recent discussions I have plugged into with other DEI professionals is: “Be consistent — smaller steps regularly are better than bigger ones and then nothing.”
Jay Stowe consistently encourages the organization to practice courtesy and respect in all that we do — that’s a first step that can pay huge dividends. I encourage leaders to encourage those they lead to grow a genuine curiosity to learn about things that make us unique and different.
Practice increasing your own courage and not being afraid to lean into the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion. Get more comfortable with being uncomfortable on topics that support inclusion. Create opportunities to dialogue and ask questions and admit when we hit a subject or activity that is unfamiliar and need help to be better.
Sometimes the best solution is the dialogue, but we as leaders often lack the courage to get a little uncomfortable and ask the questions. I advise committed leaders to be consistent role models and champions of accountability as we continue to grow our DEI initiatives and achieve goals within JEA and in the community.
McFadden also talked with the American Public Power Association about his new role. Listen to the podcast here: https://tinyurl.com/paulmcfadden