Interview with President of Vectren Energy

Former Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Commander Colleen Ryan, now President of Vectren Energy of Ohio offers some signature piece of advice for career advancement- “Do the best job you can in the job you’re in”. This did not only equip her for competition but enabled her to be sought out for new opportunities even when she wasn't looking.

In addition, she explains that leaders are confronted by unique challenges. This is something she has grown familiar with while serving as an Air Force Commander. In our interview, Colleen Ryan tells the story.

Women For Action:  How did your commanding role at Wright Patterson Air force Base(WPAFB) prepare you for your role as Vice President of Defense and Aerospace for the Dayton Development Coalition(DDC)?

Colleen Ryan: Literally, I was able to see things from both sides of the fence.  In my position as Installation Commander at WPAFB I experienced first-hand, and benefitted from, the DDC’s support of the base.  I saw the DDC bring together community organizations, community leaders and elected officials to coalesce around and advocate for WPAFB, oftentimes to advocate in situations where base leadership are restricted. As a VP with the DDC, I had insight into the workings of WPAFB and knew intimately the ways that the DDC could be most helpful to the men and women of WPAFB.   Additionally, with my past interaction and familiarity with many of the local defense contractors and their leadership, I could help the DDC bring value to the defense contractor community that makes up much of their membership.    

Women For Action: How did your most recent appointment at Vectren Energy come into fruition?  

Colleen Ryan: One of my leadership principles is to “bloom where you’re planted”.  Simply, doing the best you can in the job you’re in, not focusing on or worrying about the next job.  I know people who are so preoccupied with what’s next for them, they aren’t giving 100 percent in the job they are in.  If you give your all, day to day, you are going to be noticed and rewarded with new challenges and experiences – you don’t always have to seek them out.  One evening, when the Vectren Board and senior leaders were in Dayton for a Board retreat, I was tasked to brief them on WPAFB and it’s economic impact on our community.  The briefing took place at the National Museum of the United States Air Force(NMUSAF) over dinner. Several months later, they contacted me about a new position they were creating in Dayton, the role of the regional President, and asked if I would be interested in the job.  Never in a million years would I have thought that I could work for a utility company!  I like to think that I “bloomed where I was planted” that evening at the NMUSAF.  

Women For Action: Lean In is developing a program, titled Lean In Veterans which hopes to leverage resources for women veterans. What do you feel is needed to better assist women who are transitioning from the military to the civilian world?

Colleen Ryan: I think the question we need to answer is how we better assist all veterans to transition – I don’t think the gender distinction is of utmost importance.   Naturally, there is some unique assistance that a female veteran will need, particularly as it relates to healthcare, but overall, we need to a better job with every veteran.  Education of employers is key here -- helping employers understand the value of hiring a veteran and the unique leadership and training that they bring with them. Another need is helping the veteran translate their military job, training and military education into terminology that the civilian world understands.  

Women For Action: Which event or role in your life do you feel prepared you the most for leadership?

Colleen Ryan: The United States Air Force(USAF) does a good job of preparing you for leadership positions.  I feel it was a series of leadership positions that the USAF put me in gradually over the years, each one greater than the last, in terms of size of organization and span of control that set me up for success.  I felt prepared for each leadership challenge when I got to it.  Additionally, I worked in a multitude of different jobs as I progressed through the ranks (even as an aviator), and that helped me learn the bigger picture that is so important for a leader. I think this model works well for any type of organization or business.    

Women For Action: What has been the most difficult decision you have had to make as a leader?
Colleen Ryan: I don’t have just one but several and all of my most difficult decisions involved having to discipline a fellow Airmen – that could include a reduction in rank, a court-martial recommendation or even a discharge from the USAF.   While the Airmen involved did something against regulations or the code of conduct, I always found it very hard on me personally, knowing how my decision could be damaging to or even put an the end to their military career.   One never takes those decisions lightly.  

Women For Action: Being in an environment that is predominantly made up of men such as the military especially in positions of influence, how easy did certain opportunities and recognition for your contributions come for you?

Colleen Ryan: While it was, and is, a predominantly male institution, I always thought of myself as an Airman, and an officer, who just happened to be a woman.  I’d like to think that every opportunity I was afforded and every recognition I gained, I got on the merits of my performance.  Some opportunities were much more difficult and involved competing with others based on your record of service.  Some might be more luck – you were in the right place at the right time, but regardless you wouldn’t get the position if you weren’t the best qualified for it. I think it would be na├»ve to believe being a woman didn’t help on some occasions, but only perhaps as a tiebreaker between two qualified officers.  

Women For Action: How can we encourage more women to consider military careers?

Colleen Ryan: A military career is such a wonderful and fulfilling way to serve your country and provides a great sense of satisfaction. Military service also brings with it an amazing camaraderie, not just with those you have personally served with, but with others in the military.   There are more positions open for women now so there are many more opportunities than when I joined which should be compelling for many.  Finally, if those things don’t motivate you, we hear a lot in news about pay inequality between men and women – well it’s all equal in the military. Women and men who hold the same rank receive equal pay.  I will grant that military service is not for everyone, but I don’t have a single regret about joining the Air Force and making it a career – I am blessed.  

Contributor Julene Allen | This interview was provided by LEAN IN OHIO 100 Women Interview Series. Published May. 2016, #21

Julene Allen Julene Allen Author


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