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Erroll Davis, Jr. on Energy, Education and Leadership

Erroll Davis Jr.On November 12, Tepper School of Business students enjoyed the entertaining wit and wisdom of distinguished guest Erroll B. Davis, Jr., BS/CIT ’65, as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. Davis, the former CEO and chairman of Alliant Energy, Chancellor of the University System of Georgia and superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools, spoke with M. Granger Morgan, Carnegie Mellon University and Lord Chair Professor of Engineering, as part of the roundtable event. 

Morgan opened the hour by asking Davis to briefly outline for the group his varied educational and career choices.

“I’m extremely pleased and honored to be here,” the former chairman of Carnegie Mellon’s board of trustees began. “For those who are deep, deep, deep into career planning, this answer will be a disappointment,” he said, smiling, while moving on to describe educational turns ultimately leading to finance and a career progression leading to energy and education.

He recalled a position he took in 1969 that “was the last time I looked for a job,” and singled out his one significant decision in agreeing to leave finance and run field operations, thus becoming an energy person.

Davis next discussed the challenge of assimilating corporate cultures as Alliant Energy was merged from three different organizations. He noted the importance of green energy and recalled the time Morgan had come to convince his board that the science is real.

He described the electricity industry as evolving and “an area where you can have tremendous impact which drives economies and is the basis of our infrastructure.”

“There are just so many opportunities now,” Davis continued. “The cadre of seasoned leaders is retiring and needs to be replaced by people who understand that climate change is real, that we need a portfolio of energy sources and how to truly quantify exogenous variables and externalities as they’re making decisions.”

He touched on his move into education, beginning with the governor requesting he sit on the University of Wisconsin’s prestigious Board of Regents. Of his later move to Chancellor in Georgia, Davis quipped, “When you’re on boards, you’re looking in and you never really know until you get inside. And then you find out it’s easier to change the course of history than to change a history course.”

He later agreed to take on the superintendent position for just three months…a role that lasted three years.

The floor then opened to the students. To a question on skills transferable from the corporate to the public sector, Davis observed that effective leaders employ the same skills in both environments — discipline, execution and planning.

On reaching the C-level, Davis replied, “If I was given something to do, my goal was to do it well. If you want to excel you have to learn your job, then reshape that job and show that you’re adding value to the enterprise. And remember that your boss is not going to promote you. It’s others who will want you for their team who will move you up.”

Regarding the future of our energy portfolio, he underscored the tension between science and politics, stressing that the science must play a larger role.

And finally, on his best advice: “If you do well, life will work out. Have the confidence in yourself. If you don’t like what you’re doing, find a place where you’re appreciated and can have more fun.” 

“You’re bright,” Davis reminded the group. “You have so many options available to you. Pick one you like.”


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