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Lessons in Leadership Series: Scott Avirett

Rowena McAllister recently interviewed Scott Avirett, General Manager of Energy Systems Group (ESG). Scott has held a number of high level sales and management positions in a career that now sees him leading the Southeast US and Caribbean region for ESG, a subsidiary of Vectren Corporation (NYSE: VVC), a leading provider of energy efficiency, renewables and sustainable building solutions.

Q: What would you say are the keys to developing strong teams and is it different say in Asia than North America, if so how?

A: All people, regardless of culture, need to be led by a common purpose and vision. It’s is all about the “why” and not just the “what” or “how”. Also, if people and teams are going to spend time together all day long, you have to make it fun! Life is short. In my region at ESG, we are known for having the most fun regional meetings, where everyone is soaking in the team spirit and given a chance to be themselves and blow off steam. We do fun things like ’80s parties and skits at some of our meetings. Culture trumps process or strategy all day long. These kind of things translate across most cultures. You also have to celebrate the wins vigorously and laugh along the way!

There are also differences across cultures in team building. In Asian cultures, particularly China, it takes more time to build bridges. Trust-based relationships or “guanxi” is truly the only way to generate team momentum. It takes a lot of time to build consensus and a true team spirit where you get buy in from everybody. It’s hard work. In business and team building, the “soft stuff” is truly the “hardest” stuff!

Q: In your experience as a General Manager, what makes someone stand out and how would you approach identifying future leaders?

A: I love team members who are proactive and think out of the box in solving problems. We have a mantra is our region that “creativity is not just welcome; it’s a requirement!” I also value candor and transparency in everything. There is too little time for everyone not to be speaking their mind. Of course, in the Asian context, it takes a lot more time to reach a complete state of candor. Sometimes a more “direct” approach can backfire. Context is everything and we need to be aware not only of the culture in which we’re operating but the personality type of the individual we are dealing with. I have definitely learned these lessons the hard way.

Q: If you had to identify a single event in your career or life that contributed the most toward your emergence as a leader, what would it be?

A: The biggest life changer was being dropped into Asia to suddenly be in charge of a multi-million-dollar initiative that impacted more than 1000 employees across more than 9 countries and several languages. In this case, we had a very strong vision “to build a connected sales community around our customers.” Starting with a compelling “why” was very important. It was a very rewarding and transformational experience on many levels.

Q: What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self about how best to influence and guide others and what pitfalls to avoid, hard lessons to avoid?

A: Take risks while you are young. Follow your heart. In the long run there is actually more inherent risk in being risk-averse. Tinker, experiment and say “yes!” As far as influencing and guiding others, I would tell my 21-year self to be much more patient with people and understand that we are all wired very differently. Take time to understand and process our differences as well as your own human strengths and weaknesses.

Q: What do you foresee for renewable energy (trends in the market, growth areas etc) and how influential will sustainability be in business decisions going forward into the future?

A: Energy storage via battery systems combined with efficiency and renewables is the biggest thing to happen to energy in our lifetime. Once we finally reach “grid parity” across all markets in terms of its deployment cost vs. current energy costs over the lifecycle, we are going to see radical changes in the utility landscape. “Sustainability” is yesterday’s buzz word. We need to put more emphasis on “innovation” with regards to Sustainability. Elon Musk is certainly a shining light. Government policy alone is limited without unleashing and incentivizing the transformational forces of human ingenuity and creativity to solve our problems.

Q: Can you share a humorous event in your career – maybe something that brought some levity to a serious situation, or perhaps something that was lost in translation?

A: Karaoke or “KTV” in Chinese business dealings is the ice-breaker that would melt the Arctic! Watching me in Karaoke attempting to sing Cantonese love songs with my Chinese colleagues is something I’m glad is not on video. Quite hilarious. When people can just be themselves and laugh, great culture building tends to happen.