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October/
November 05
Diversity/Careers October/November 2005

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Anniversary special

Suzanne Sitherwood of AGL: a passion for diversity

Starting at the top with a female CEO, AGL Resources' diverse leadership team extends its influence to pace-setting supplier diversity and employment practices

 

Suzanne Sitherwood

As SVP of southern ops for AGL Resources, Suzanne Sitherwood oversees Atlanta Gas Light, Florida City Gas, and Chattanooga Gas, all AGL companies. She's spent her entire career at AGL, starting in 1980 as a co-op. She has a BS in industrial engineering technology from Southern College of Technology (now Southern Polytechnic University, Marietta, GA) and an MBA from Brenau University (Gainesville, GA).

Her many jobs at AGL have included VP of gas ops and capacity planning, VP of engineering and construction, chief engineer, director of competition planning, director of rates and regulatory affairs, and director of residential markets.

In 2001 she received a "Diva" award, honoring top professional women, from Atlanta Business to Business magazine. She lives in Marietta with her husband and son.

AGL Resources (Atlanta, GA), parent company of Atlanta Gas Light and five other natural gas utilities on the East Coast, may well be the oldest company in Georgia. Its president and CEO is Paula Rosput Reynolds, one of just a few women to head up Fortune 1000 companies.

Reynolds has led the company since 1998. She's joined on the AGL executive team by other technical women and minorities: Kristin Kirkconnell, company CIO; African American Ralph Cleveland, senior VP of engineering ops and environment; and Jodi Gidley, head of AGL's operations unit.

Suzanne Sitherwood works closely with Reynolds. She became SVP of southern ops, in charge of AGL's largest operating unit, about a year ago. Diversity/Careers editor in chief Kate Colborn spoke to Sitherwood about the influence of this particularly diverse leadership team.

Kate Colborn: How does AGL support diversity, especially with technical women employees and minority-owned supplier companies?
Suzanne Sitherwood: Paula Reynolds, our CEO, has a passion for diversity, but it doesn't stop with Paula. We all believe that support for diversity should be part of what we are, so it lives in the company.

There are many diverse individuals in our leadership structure, many with engineering and other technical degrees. We are working hard on succession planning and mentoring programs. It's important to get diverse people into jobs where they can be truly successful; that way you create momentum.

COLBORN: Has there been more emphasis on this kind of support since Paula took over?
SITHERWOOD: Absolutely. There were few women in technical positions when I started here in 1980. Only one other woman engineer joined at the same time I did, and she did well, too: she just retired as an officer of the company.

As I came along in my career, more women have gotten involved in the industry. Leadership from someone like Paula really creates an opportunity for success.

When Paula took over there was a spotlight on the diverse slate of top officers. All the employees knew about it.

COLBORN: Does the supportive climate extend to your suppliers?
SITHERWOOD: We created a diversity plan for suppliers in 2001. We work with groups like the Georgia Minority Supplier Development Council, which includes the Atlanta Business League; the chambers of commerce; the Governor's mentorship programs; the Minority Contractors' Association and more. Many of our senior leaders are involved with those groups. And we recently hired a director of global supply chain to take us even further.

COLBORN: Can you tell me about some of your largest minority suppliers and what they do for you?
SITHERWOOD: AGL has a heavy orientation toward construction and infrastructure development. We have two MBE contractors, All About Gas and Natural Gas Specialties, that are both above-ground contractors. They lay service lines and do compliance and maintenance work. Some of our former employees work for them and have taken our culture there. One of our primary staffing services contractors is also an MBE. And there are many more.

COLBORN: How would you say gender has affected your own career?
SITHERWOOD: In the early days there was still some question about the viability of females in the utility industry. A number of times when I was out at the construction site for a new development, the developer would ask me to leave because I was too much of a distraction for "the men"!

But at the same time I had supporters and good mentors in the company, and all my managers were fair and honest with me.

I believe that a lot of it is just digging in and really understanding the industry and the business. I always tried to focus on the value that my woman's perspectives could offer the company, and people began to see it my way.

COLBORN: Are you still sharing your insights?
SITHERWOOD: I try to help young women see that there is a world of possibilities for us. Everybody needs good role models, a line of sight for their aspirations. Paula and Ralph provide that and I try to, too.

When I started out I had no clear line of sight. But I knew within myself that one day I would have a position that would take me into those traditional male roles. Today I wouldn't call them "traditional male roles" at all. We're creating a new tradition!

COLBORN: Summing up, can you tell me the value that diversity brings to AGL?
SITHERWOOD: We believe our workforce diversity brings different perspectives, and we're better as a company because of our variety of perspectives.

We try to mirror the diversity of the communities in which we live and work, and that helps us come up with great innovations and great ideas.

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