Real Life. Real Leadership.
Stephanie Unwin joined Horizon Power as Chief Executive Officer in March 2019 and leads a team of 500 energy professionals to deliver power to some of Western Australia’s most remote and regional communities. Under her leadership Horizon is transforming the WA regional energy landscape in an increasingly decentralised delivery model. Stephanie is passionate about collaboration, inclusion and diversity to build an engaged and inspired workforce. Stephanie has significant executive and Board-level experience with a number of publicly listed companies, including Alacer Gold Corp, Zenith Energy, Integra Mining Limited and several non-listed joint ventures. She is currently a Board Member of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?
Stephanie Unwin: My leadership journey has been both planned and unplanned, at times like a bowl of spaghetti. I started out thinking it’s linear with a clear path. Then opportunities came to me which saw some big moves and curveballs. When I look back, I see that each decision forms part of who I now am as a leader and reflects my core values.
My career began in law with a relatively traditional start in resources law in Western Australia doing hard rock mining, directors’ duties and capital raising. I learnt early on that I wasn’t particularly good at finding or hunting for work and career breaks for parenting really cemented this. I like working inside a company to realise its strategy and to see it come to fruition.
Moving in-house saw me pivot from being an external service provider to working for a company on its mission, purpose and strategy. That led to a number of commercial opportunities that pushed me into the renewables field, which I am incredibly passionate about. During that time of transition, I was persuaded to apply for a general manager commercial role. I still remember – there were 196 applicants going through the whole process and that gave me assurance that I earned the role. I was awarded the position on merit and against an international field.
That was the end of pure law roles for me. I stepped into my first executive decision-making position working on strategy and business development. Transformational work was trending at the time which unlocked a new world for me. We were working with some of the best consultants globally and exploring how to harness the value in the company. I was also experiencing my own transformational leadership journey by absorbing the amazing knowledge and experience being shared and starting work on values and my own purpose.
In my GM role we came up with some quite innovative investments for Verve Energy (and then Synergy), including establishing an infrastructure fund to develop large scale renewables in Western Australia. This was quite a ground-breaking approach for a government trading enterprise to co-invest and recycle capital. It was at the end of that project where I remember thinking that I was ready to take my next step-up leadership-wise.
I’m sure I became annoying always questioning how strategic we were being, but I really wanted to push hard into a number of different areas where I believed we could make a difference. This is where the spaghetti analogy comes in because it was around this time that a left field opportunity came up to join a listed biotech company as its CEO and take the lead in an ASX listed company with intense shareholder interest and market obligations.
Originally, I went into law because I was no good at science and unfortunately I think I proved that in the early days as CEO of that biotech. I really struggled with the depth of science knowledge required to influence its strategic direction but learnt that part of being a CEO is communication and telling a company’s story in a compelling way for a mix of stakeholders. At the time, we needed to gain the confidence of investors and the market to keep investing in us and ultimately change the future of the company. To overcome my science limitations, I asked lots of curious questions to try and understand the value proposition and how the company’s work could make a difference.
I then took another left turn into a transformational role at Cooperative Bulk Handling. Transformational work is hard and means you need to win the hearts and minds of mostly internal stakeholders quickly. Jimmy Wilson was CEO at the time and provided me with a wonderful example of high end, quality CEO stewardship. I also took on responsibility for technology at CBH before leaving to join Horizon. I love the potential of data and being insight driven enabled by technology. This was very rewarding work, to lead such a skilled and creative team looking to surface information for great business outcomes.
Horizon is like my spiritual home. It brings together everything I love and am passionate about in a context that’s very service-orientated and community-driven. We are here to serve different regional communities, who all have their hopes and dreams and aspirations, and I am able to do so in my own way. I’m a very values and purpose-driven person and that is how I want to lead, but not for a personal ambition, for Horizon’s ambition.
Red Emu: You have responsibility for a significant, complex organisation – how do you create clarity for your team and the broader organisation?
Stephanie Unwin: Creating clarity is one of the most important things you can do as a CEO. It is about where we are going, have you lined up your North Star and does everyone understand their bit in it and how to contribute? It was really important to me at Horizon that we created clarity from the get-go. We asked everybody what it was that motivated them to work for Horizon in the context of the strategy at the time. We found that in a couple of key areas the business said “I don’t see myself in here. I feel like you’re on a route that doesn’t really line up with what I’m here to do”. To create clarity, we needed to take those learnings and refresh our strategy to spell out a clear vision of what it would actually look like if we delivered on our strategy in 5 years’ time. We created a series of “imagine being able to say” speech bubbles that spelt this out – it is the vision I will be held accountable to.
We now describe that as “delivering energy solutions for regional growth and vibrant communities”. We do it because we have a really strong purpose. If the whole business is clear, then everyone understands why we invest deeply in trying to reduce customer bills. It’s the same when we talk about being a cleaner business, particularly in context with regional growth and vibrancy. Communities want to be cleaner and greener. So why are we in renewables? Because we want to leave a cleaner footprint than the one that we started with. Aha, we all get it.
That reinforcement of message came from listening first. Asking, who are we here to serve? What do our communities want? And what can we do to help? We hold ourselves to account too. Our purpose is clear, we know who we are here to serve and why. We also know what our business and communities will look like in five years if we deliver on our strategy and do the things we have committed to.
Red Emu: What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off you have had to make in your leadership journey?
Stephanie Unwin: My immediate answer is family wellbeing and balance, something that I will always keep working on. That’s not to say that I don’t have ‘balance’, I try really hard to keep balance in different ways like being home to cook dinner with the kids. But I do feel that sometimes there isn’t ever enough of me to go around and there have definitely been times in my career where I had the balance wrong.
I remember at a particularly defining point in my career I was working on a major issue which I gave myself fully to. Meanwhile I had one child getting up early to see me before I left and one trying to stay up late to see me when I got home. They both missed me so much and it was heartbreaking. It was a very tough time, but I have learnt from that and consciously make adjustments now which I wouldn’t have done in the past. I’m a single Mum full-time these days with two older teenagers navigating the complexities of the world – and it is such a different world from the one I grew up with as a kid in mining towns.
Red Emu: As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started out?
Stephanie Unwin: It would have been helpful to be advised to set some clearer boundaries between work and my home life. Earlier in my career I probably felt like I didn’t have the right to say “There’s a boundary and we’re not crossing it”. Now that is advice I give, particularly to women. It shouldn’t be just for women, but if you are the one juggling those things, it is good to know that you can set a boundary and I don’t believe that will stop you in life.
The other thing is that you can ‘have it all’, depending on what that means to you, but it doesn’t have to be all at the same time. Something that I have learnt is that there are these lovely times in your career where a consolidation is just as beautiful as a left turn. It just depends on your view at the time.
I also suggest to not worry about titles. A lot of people feel that they want to be on the executive, but there are only four or five roles there. Why not make your mark in the role that you already have? Expand the role you have to give you joy and passion each day that you come to work and give it your all.
Lastly, enjoy ‘the now’. I am always being asked what I will do next or where I will go next. It is great to just enjoy the now and to let people know that. Honestly, what I am doing right now gives me so much pleasure and fulfilment and I want to enjoy that for the benefit of myself, for my family and for our business. It is ok to do what you can uniquely do now.
Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?
Stephanie Unwin: In a couple of different ways. I’ve been very fortunate to be supported by a past CEO (Jason Waters at Synergy) through leadership coaching and I value it very, very highly. I was also fortunate enough to participate in an advanced management program at Harvard and really focus and invest time on the type of leader I want to be and my personal purpose.
Leadership development is something I see as extremely valuable and pay that forward by investing in it at Horizon with leadership coaching and a leadership development course for our executive.
Through thick and thin I feel you must continually invest at all levels of an organisation to give people the tools and capabilities to grow and develop, and it should also be values and behaviourally based. Those are our building blocks for future leadership. I truly believe that if you start to think about what you stand for, how you can bring that to the company you work for and how you can start to soften any rough edges, you can stay true to your unique self and still progress.
But seriously, don’t polish those rough edges too far. Be sure to stay authentic through the journey and never try to be somebody you are not.