As the senior vice president for education and training at NRECA, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Tracey Steiner oversees the development of the association’s annual and regional meetings, national conferences, board of directors training, executive and staff-level education, and credentialing programs.
She is also the creator of “Tracey’s Takeaways,” a regular feature on NRECA’s website that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership, and organizational culture.
In this fifth episode of our series on the learning business in disruptive times, Jeff talks with Tracey about how NRECA is being impacted by the current pandemic including the related challenges and opportunities. They also discuss the thoughtful approach NRECA has taken to address issues around racial equity, the importance of cultivating a safe environment for difficult conversations, and what Tracey thinks learning businesses need to consider in order to successfully navigate times of disruption.
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[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Jeff interviews Tracey Steiner, senior vice president for education and training at NRECA.
[01:06] – Information about NRECA and Tracey’s role.
Tracey shares that her role in education and training is to provide professional development opportunities for their member cooperatives, including over 70,000 co-op employees and roughly 7,200 electric cooperative board members. She says their electric cooperative staff learning programs run the gamut from conferences to in-person and online training programs.
And some of those are cohort-based and long-term, while others are approaching micro-learning in terms of more just-in-time learning programs, which are predominantly web conferences.
Learn more about Tracey and her journey that led to sharing her passion for continuous learning with co-op members below:
How NRECA is Being Impacted by Change
[02:33] – We’re about to talk about the times that we’re in right now, which are obviously very turbulent times. But I imagine even before a global pandemic came along that there was an awful lot changing in the world of electricity/delivery of electricity. Is that true? And how is that playing out in NRECA’s world?
Tracey says it’s absolutely true but points out that electric utilities are probably not the first industry that you think of as going through transformational change.
But increasingly, their cooperative members are embracing a wide range of different types of technology to automate and get greater real-time intelligence about the functioning of the electric grid, which has been a multi-year effort.
She explains how they’re seeing the proliferation of renewable energy resources, which puts different demands on the system and requires different technologies and skill sets to manage an increasingly variable energy resource.
So from a technology standpoint, she says there is a lot of change.
They’re also seeing a generational turnover within their electric cooperative co-ops in both the staff and board level.
And that means different ideas, expectations, and work styles.
Lastly, they’re also seeing members want to interact with their co-op in different ways—they want ease of use, convenience, and choice.
They’re used to being able to do most things on their phone so they’re trying to take that Amazon-type of experience and expect it from their electric utility company.
Those are some of the kind of foundational changes that their members have been wrestling with and along with that, comes a need for new skills and capabilities.
And that’s where Tracey hopes they can help.
[05:13] – You and I are talking as part of a series that we’re doing now on the learning business in disruptive times. When you think about what we’re living and working through right now, what comes to mind for you? What are the kinds of disruption that you’re experiencing right now?
Tracey talks about how their biggest disruption/challenge as a learning business is related to the fact that prior to the pandemic, only about 15% of their business was actually being an online learning provider. The other 85% was in-person training programs and events like large conferences.
They’ve had to make some major pivots in terms of their skill set and what they spend their time doing to deliver online learning opportunities for members during this time.
At the same time, she notes that they are also trying to be mindful of the disruption that their members are facing.
So anything that they offer online, they want it to be easy. And they are also trying to make it as affordable and convenient as possible.
[07:48] – Are there any other ways in which you’ve changed very directly in your messaging and your offerings in the way you’re relating with members (to show them you recognize the pandemic’s out there and some of the stresses that it’s causing)?
Tracey shares that one of the things they’re hearing loudly and clearly is that their members really miss getting together with one another.
And you don’t always find that in a trade association because in many of them, the member companies are competitors of one another, so this is somewhat of an anomaly.
She talks about how that sharing of ideas and lessons learned happens so freely and a lot of it happens face-to-face, so people have developed very close relationships.
NRECA’s role in a lot of their programming has been to bring those people together (typically face-to-face) and enable them to collaborate with each other.
That’s been that kind of real disruption I think that people are still struggling through. And while we have offered a number of online programs and tried to build in that networking, it’s still not the same and people really miss that. So trying to be cognizant of that and not to try to sugar coat or over promise what we think an online learning experience can really deliver to them. And just being very upfront about that and letting them know that we understand that this is something that they miss. And that we miss it too, frankly.
Addressing Racial Equity
[10:26] – I’m wondering about other aspects of what we’re experiencing right now, because in some ways the pandemic has helped bring to the forefront some of the things we’ve already been experiencing that have been there for a long time in terms of systemic racial inequity that’s out there. Particularly around that issue of racial equity, are there ways that factors into this, maybe within the learning business and maybe within what NRECA overall is doing as an organization?
Tracey thinks it’s an issue that a lot of companies and associations have probably wanted to be a little more hands-off about before because it was fraught with a lot of peril—that risk of offending someone or leaving someone out, or just not knowing how to go about having intelligent conversations about it.
Thankfully, she says they’d already been going down that path internally at NRECA.
They had created an employee group to first provide a forum to better understand what people were experiencing and how they felt NRECA was responding as an employer.
Before they went out to their membership, they wanted to make sure whatever they were going to say would be truly genuine and authentic.
So they first wanted to really understand where they were at and live through that kind of early formation of something more intentional and deliberate around these issues.
Tracey notes they also have a board president who has championed these issues and they have some member resolutions that state the desire for cooperatives to live up to their potential.
Cooperatives as a whole have something unique about their business model in that they subscribe to certain values and principles.
And she says some of them really do center around equality, democracy, and ensuring self-help for those communities of people that have been underserved in one way or another.
She explains how that really speaks to the heart of what electric co-ops were about since they were formed because for-profit companies did not want to go out and electrify rural America (because it was too expensive and they would never reap a profit).
It kind of touches on their roots and gives them a plank to stand on to begin to have those kinds of conversations.
The way they’ve tried to translate that through their learning business is to combat that as sort of diversity awareness, fairness, equality, and inclusion from a particular skill set or cultural competency that is built into the frameworks they’ve created.
They created an electric cooperative competency framework for electric cooperative staff, and then another one for board members, that really speaks to those knowledge, skills, and abilities that they need to be successful in their respective roles.
And they are now working to make sure they are highlighting those competencies more and focusing programming more directly and intentionally on helping their members build those competencies within their own systems.
The Impact of Politics
[15:09] – A lot of times, organizations don’t necessarily want to touch politics so much. But it feels like a very unstable environment out there right now. Nobody knows which way things are going to fall in the fall (this interview was recorded in Sept 2020). How does that impact your organization overall and how you’re thinking about the coming months and the coming year?
Like many associations, Tracey acknowledges that they probably have members that span the political spectrum from very conservative to very liberal and progressive.
Where she sees it really impacting some of what they do is when they talk about certain topics.
Particularly in their industry, climate is one where it’s very easily a slippery slope of people going to polarized ends of the political spectrum and having that debate because the parties have aligned more on two opposite ends of how we address climate change.
Sometimes a difficult challenge for them is that some of the most pressing issues in their industry are ones that have been politicized.
So they need to need to look at how they can help their members in terms of their role as a convener of leaders within their industry who want to get together and talk through tough issues and share ideas.
And how they can help them have those conversations and have them in a safe environment where it doesn’t immediately devolve to those ends.
Tracey points out that really takes a lot in terms of facilitation skills to be able to pull that off.
She says it’s very important to craft the messaging correctly and set the expectation around how those kinds of conversations are going to take place.
Too often I think we can want to just take the easy way out and just say, “Let’s just not go there.”…And at least from my own personal standpoint, I feel we do our members a disservice if we’re not willing to put in the hard work of finding a way to have that conversation, not ignore the elephant in the room. And when you have helped to create and cultivate an expectation among your membership, that your organization is where we can go and agree to disagree, but have constructive and productive conversations about tough issues, that’s where I think there’s a lot of value to be unleashed.
Tracey is hoping they continue on that path of being able to take on those subjects since they are necessary to achieve their mission of moving their cooperatives forward and helping them be successful in the future.
Facilitating Difficult Conversations
[18:24] – Are you doing anything or planning any initiatives around helping instructors/staff in being more deft at facilitating in a way that they’re going to be able to handle these types of conversations well when they come up?
Tracey shares that they do try to take some time to think first about who has the credibility in terms of the knowledge base to really understand the issues, which are much more complex than they’re often made out to be in popular media.
They want to have someone who is facilitating those conversations that has credibility with their members, that understands the industry, is perceived as a neutral party, and that their role is there strictly to be the facilitator, not to take sides or to declare a winner.
So they’re not a judge or an arbitrator—they are there to merely keep the conversation going and to try to help the parties get to whatever conclusion it is that they’re seeking for that particular conversation/meeting/program that they’re a part of.
They first look for people who already have that skill set and then also try to coach and prepare them.
Tracey says you have to have someone who is willing to be in a difficult or uncomfortable conversation at times.
And not everyone is.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re not a great instructor. They just may not be perfect for that particular facilitation role.
Potential Threats – and Silver Linings – for Learning Businesses
[21:54] – I’m wondering what you see as some of the potential threats right now, particularly for organizations that are in the learning business. What worries you most as we’re heading forward?
Tracey admits that threats are what worries her most moving forward out of this time.
She thinks it’s important for us to remember that while this feels like it’s been going on forever and that it’s not going to resolve any time soon, it is something that we will get past and we will have a new normal.
The threat she sees most is people who misjudge and think we’re somehow going to go back to the way things were before.
But there are going to be ways that we’re changed fundamentally as a society, as well as learning businesses, in responding to COVID and what comes after.
She says it’s important to keep an open mind and recognize that some of the strategies we’re employing right now to get through this may or may not last.
The real imperative is to try to see beyond this and Tracey knows some people have a hard time with that.
The big threat is not being able to recognize that this too is a period in time. It will pass. We will be changed from it, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We should stop focusing on what we have lost or what we can’t control and start focusing on the good that’s coming out of this.
In fact, one of the silver linings Tracey has seen is that they have been overwhelmingly pleased and pleasantly surprised by the reaction of their co-op board members to online learning.
She discusses how there was a cohort (very small but vocal minority) who would speak up from time to time expressing the need for more online learning opportunities. But because they didn’t have a majority who felt that way, they never did.
However, they started offering those courses in an online format in May and people have really gravitated to it.
Tracey says they sell out sometimes in a matter of a day as soon as they open a course, which tells them they need to stop thinking of this as an “either-or” and look at it as a “both-and” situation.
And she recognizes there are segments of their membership for which this is all they’re ever going to want after this, while other can’t wait to get back in the classroom.
She understands that they have to be flexible enough to be able to deliver their programming and content across different channels and in different formats to satisfy those different member segments.
Impact on eLearning
[25:52] – Do you feel like that’s going to be a lasting change that e-learning is going to be a much bigger percentage of your portfolio going forward?
Tracey thinks it absolutely will.
There is a fairly significant portion of their membership that are very small companies and don’t have the luxury of being able to allow someone to travel out of state for four or five days to go take a training program.
Yet they had not been able to figure out how to do something to serve that part of their membership.
And she says this has taught them that that is an opportunity. But that they shouldn’t think that online is only for those that can’t afford the time or the dollars to come to in-person training.
They’re also seeing that there is a large appetite within their more moderate and heavy users as well because they like having choices.
Tracey says that it’s going to be really important to continue to provide those options. And that is something she thinks will be a lasting change.
She recognizes the challenge there will be how to staff their organization to be able to meet that demand when at this point it’s somewhat unknown.
But she’s been pleasantly surprised by the adaptability of her team to learn new skills and to get outside their comfort zones because prior to this, they were predominantly focused on in-person events and in-person training.
However, Tracey says they’ve risen to the challenge and learned a lot through the process.
She notes that her challenge is going to be helping her team figure out how to balance what they probably really loved to do before (and were great at) with the new skills they’ve learned to also align those with their strengths and what their members are now asking for.
Other Lasting Changes to Expect
[28:58] – What other changes do you think will be lasting out of what we’re experiencing right now, whether they’re good or bad changes?
As an association, Tracey discusses how they don’t just rely on registration fees for revenue associated with learning programs. They also have trade shows and sponsorships.
She thinks one of the things that’s going to change as a result of this is that they’re going to look more holistically at all the different ways they might engage with their vendor community.
And they’ll look at how to provide them the value that they’re looking for, which is to connect with their membership in meaningful ways, to be thought leaders and content contributors.
Instead of doing that very piecemeal and event by event, Tracey thinks they’re going to be looking more broadly at how to put together packages or bundles of benefits that meet vendor’s needs as well as their own needs.
And help to be able to provide more than what they could with just their own resources or maybe at a more affordable price point that’s more attractive to their members than they could otherwise.
Tracey thinks it’s really going to help upend their whole approach to sponsorships and trade show involvement from those vendor companies and hopefully invite a deeper and more strategic partnership with those key vendors.
Advice for Learning Businesses
[30:45] – What words of advice, caution, or courage do you have for anyone who’s in the learning business right now about how they can thrive, how they can be their best in this moment?
Tracey advises to first acknowledge to yourself that this is a trying time. That it is wearing, and it’s particularly wearing as a leader when people are turning to you for answers and clarity in what is a very uncertain time.
So it’s important to take a step back and recognize that in yourself.
She says not to be afraid to share that with your team to acknowledge that you, like them, are feeling unsettled and that you don’t have all the answers but you’re going to help them find the answers that they need to do their best work.
Tracey also recommends keeping your mind focused on what your true goals, purpose, and mission are and not so much on the day to day disruption about how you achieve that mission.
And to celebrate when you do have those small wins or maybe big wins.
There are multiple ways to achieve our goals and objectives, and we are going to find them, some very intentionally and others by happenstance, and that’s okay. It’s what we can pick up and take with us that helps set us up for success moving forward.
[33:00] – Wrap-Up
Tracey Steiner is the senior vice president for education and training at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. You can find out more about NRECA’s membership and industry at electric.coop.
For more on what NRECA is doing to serve its members, particularly from an education standpoint, go to cooperative.com, NRECA’s primary member-facing Web presence. Here, you can access information, before the firewall, on what they offer to members around director training, cooperative staff training, conferences, meetings, and more.
NRECA also focuses on helping its members navigate the educational offerings and think holistically about how they develop the knowledge and skills of their team.
The help NRECA has put in place includes competency frameworks and a set of short articles called Tracey’s Takeaways. Tracey writes some, and she’s also invited colleagues in to contribute to Tracey’s Takeaways, offering snippets on learning and development, organizational culture, leadership, and more.
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[35:31] – Sign off