Strategic Investment in Talent

  By Mary Jo Rogers, Ph.D.

The cover story in the June issue of Power Engineering magazine highlighted the challenges facing the energy, utility and manufacturing sectors in finding skilled labor as baby boomers retire in greater numbers. These same challenges are being seen in the supervisor and manager ranks at nuclear power plants across the country. Engineering-more than any other department-appears to be the canary in the coal mine. Engineering organizations are feeling the loss of knowledge and the impact of too many open engineering positions and leadership roles filled by much less experienced engineering supervisors and managers. As U.S. nuclear power plants and their systems age and license extensions go into effect, the need for highly capable engineering leadership will increase, if anything.

Operations departments are not feeling as much pain as engineering because sites have been more diligent and proactive in feeding the licensed operator and non-licensed operator pipelines or face being out of compliance with their legal commitments for operating the reactor. Maintenance, work management and training organizations are right behind.

As nuclear operating companies make short- and long-term asset management decisions about what equipment to replace, fix, or maintain, they need to be making strategic decisions about investing in the talent they need to effectively run organizations as complicated as nuclear power plants. On the surface, most nuclear utilities across the U.S. appear to be doing so, in that they have recruiting, assessment, and leadership development programs in place conceivably to grow talent and increase leadership effectiveness. But scratch below the surface, and many companies’ programs fail to reach a large portion of nuclear power leaders and potential leaders. Leadership training programs may be limited in their effectiveness and/or not available to a large portion of the population. Succession planning, critical to focusing developmental activities, too often consists of lists of names repeated too often and discussions concentrated on personality and historical personal references, good and bad. Instead, succession planning discussions need to be regular meetings, supported by the highest levels of leadership, and centered on leadership attributes necessary to be effective in various positions. Candidates’ level of readiness should be based on independent assessments of these attributes, which also serve as a basis for future leaders’ development.

Fortunately, nuclear power operating companies are increasingly applying the necessary discipline and rigor to talent development in order to close gaps and grow their own talent, forestalling leadership shortages. In my book, Nuclear Energy Leadership: Lessons Learned from U.S. Operators (2013), I offered a checklist that nuclear sites can use to identify where they need to work to improve their talent development capabilities:

• The site must have documented processes (i.e., published guidelines or procedures) for succession planning, talent management and leadership development. In nuclear power, if it isn’t written down, it’s not happening. Once formalized, leaders need to follow these processes, which should be shared openly with the broader management team so future leaders can see what may be available to them and how.

• Line leaders, working collaboratively with HR, need to provide oversight to succession and development programs and processes. Leaders’ routines need to include succession planning, development and coaching in addition to the routines they use to run the plant.

• Leadership development and training programs must be seen as effective by participants; sponsors and implementers of these programs must continually measure effectiveness for the nuclear power plant participant.

• Leadership roles at the site need to be viewed as desirable opportunities by potential succession candidates. If not, site leaders need to figure out why.

• Line leader and HR roles and responsibilities should be documented, understood clearly and executed accordingly.

• HR personnel assigned to talent management and leadership development roles must be highly capable and viewed as effective by line leaders.

• Assessments of succession candidates and potential leaders need to be conducted by trained professionals who understand what nuclear power demands from the talent in order to be effective.

• Decisions about leadership changes and promotions should be made methodically, with adequate input from all appropriate parties.

• Overall program effectiveness reviews need to be conducted regularly, focusing on process, behavior and results.

Although these requirements may appear demanding, the more successful utilities are following them and have made strategic decisions to invest in the leadership capabilities necessary to run nuclear plants effectively.

Mary Jo Rogers, Ph.D. is a partner at Strategic Talent Solutions with over 15 years working with energy leaders. She recently published the book, “Nuclear Energy Leadership: Lessons Learned from U.S. Operators,” by PennWell. Contact Mary Jo at

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