TAMPA – Helen Wesley, president and CEO of TECO Peoples Gas, says there’s no substitute for hard work and preparedness. And curiosity. These are the important skills that have served her well in 30-plus years of executive leadership in the energy sector.
She also believes in chasing talent to find a mentor and to advocate for yourself.
“You have to find the people you admire, and you go and talk to them,” she said. “Fifteen minutes can go a long way with the right question. It’s refreshing to have a conversation with people who want to learn.”
Wesley’s observations and career advice were highlights from the Conversation with a CEO event series hosted by the USF Muma College of Business in downtown Tampa on Wednesday. The event was led by Interim Dean GJ de Vreede, who asked about Wesley’s career and advice for building an executive team.
Wesley is the president and CEO of TECO Peoples Gas, the largest natural gas distribution company in Florida. The company has about 750 employees who serve nearly 470,000 customers statewide. She joined the company in 2020 as chief operating officer.
During the hour-long conversation, Wesley talked about lessons she’s learned as an executive. She also touched on what growth looks like in Florida and the innovative ways the company is focusing on sustainable energy.
“We’re doing everything we can to transition the energy business to reduce the carbon footprint,” she said, adding that some of the innovative sustainability projects involve landfills, wastewater facilities, and dairy farms.
When asked about the upcoming trends and the biggest challenges facing the industry, Wesley noted that the company’s strategies are centered on three pillars — decarbonization, decentralization, and digitalization — with a focus on customers.
“A lot of companies in the utility sector have to think, ‘How do we serve energy to customers the way they want to receive it?” she said. “We need to be thinking of customers and anticipate what customers want.”
Wesley said that the company surveys homeowners to gauge whether they want to fuel their homes with renewable natural gas and how much they’re willing to pay for it.
“The utility companies of today are not the utility companies of 20 years ago,” she said. “There’s a lot more focus on innovation and communication.”
Prior to Peoples Gas, Wesley was with ENMAX Corporation in Calgary, Alberta, where she served as chief financial officer and executive vice president of Finance and Information Technology.
It was at another company where she faced one of her biggest leadership challenges, she said.
When she started there, it was a rapidly growing company without a lot of structure around that growth, she said. After talking to many people, she made a list of 40 things that she felt needed to be done differently. That’s when a colleague told her, “The wheels haven’t fallen off yet,” and advised her to pick her top three priorities.
After a sleepless night, she whittled the list down to three and decided her No. 1 item was to sort her team out.
“At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what was on my list,” she said. “People were the means to get that list addressed.”
Wesley also shared advice on building a successful executive leadership team. She said her formula requires a diverse team. Not simply diversity in terms of gender or ethnic origin, but she looks for people with diverse personalities, skillsets, and those who can handle conflict.
Another key to setting up a successful team: having regular one-on-ones with team members.
“It’s something people can count on. Consistency is important to me. The lesson in all that is if you create a culture focused on conversation then there’s a safe place. It really helps the team gel,” she said.
On the attributes she looks for in new hires:
“I would take someone with raw smarts and is a learner over someone with strong technical skills, because you can teach technical skills,” she said. “Attitude goes a long way. Humility is important. There’s the curiosity, a learning mindset. I’m happy to look at someone with the raw goods.”
Wesley earned an MBA in international business from Bentley University in Boston and a Bachelor of Commerce in marketing from the University of Calgary.