Managing difficult change in large energy organizations: Catching up with Josh Silverman

Travis High
Travis High

By TRAVIS HIGH, Leaders in Energy

Leaders in Energy’s 4 Generations (4 Gen) event is a celebration of multigenerational achievement in sustainability. Last year was such a success, with over 100 people attending, that we have decided to host it again, scheduled for this December 4, 2015 from 5:30-9 pm at The Bier Baron in Washington, DC.

I thought this would be a good chance to catch up with the 2014 winners and get their perspective on the event and on this year’s topic, Leading through Adversity. So the other day I caught up with Josh Silverman, who represented Baby Boomers in 2014. This is the second in a series of interviews.

Travis High: Since it has been almost a year, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

Josh Silverman: I’m the Director of the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Sustainable Environmental Stewardship.

Travis: Now from the information I have, I thought it was called the Office of Sustainability Support? Did that change?

Josh: Yes, it did recently change. The new name more accurately reflects what we do, but we still have the same mission to promote more sustainable buildings, toxic chemical reduction, electronics stewardship, greenhouse gas reduction, green purchasing, and environmental management systems within the Department of Energy.

Josh Silverman
Josh Silverman

My focus is on reducing emissions with high Greenhouse Gases (GHG) potential – sulfur hexafluoride (chemical symbol SF6), for example, is the world’s most potent greenhouse gas. It’s 23,000 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat. So in my work at DOE, I found large gaps in air pollution controls at the Department’s national laboratories, production facilities, and power administrations. We were basically releasing 700,000 metric tons (mt)/year of SF6 at that point, and we managed to cut them by 1 million mt over three years, essentially by over half, to around 300,000 mt/yr. This is basically the equivalent of taking over 200,000 cars off the road every year.

We also work on other topical areas on sustainability, such as green purchasing, using less energy, and less waste – all of this within the laboratories and facilities operated by the Department of Energy.

Travis: Sounds like you’ve been busy! So last year was our first 4 Gen event. What was that experience like for you?

Josh: It was a terrific event, a pleasure to meet the other panelists. Really it was flattering to be on the same stage with them, particularly with Brent Blackwelder, who is a tremendous leader. It was funny for me to be there representing the Baby Boomers, being just a few years older than the Gen X max.[1] I would say I definitely identify more with punk rock than Woodstock.

It was a great discussion with a range of perspectives being presented. I have to say that I was very impressed by the great work that the younger panelists do, like with Elenor pushing for greater sustainability in the Arlington community. And then Logan Soya – his startup Aquicore looks fabulous.

Travis: It sure does. Thought that was really funny what you said about Woodstock and Punk Rock. I’ll go for the latter too, by the way! So in what way do you feel closer to Gen X in terms of your formative professional experiences?

Josh: Well I do remember the oil crisis, like with my family and I waiting in the gas lines. I grew up in an activist household. We were very much anti-war and environmentalist, so I was aware of these things at a relatively young age. Then when I was in college in the 1980s, I remember the big protest activity was divestment from companies invested in South Africa because of apartheid.

I would say at the time energy was not front and center for me, but then in my early career I did do some utility reform work. We were trying to shift from supply side to demand side management of electricity generation and distribution. We were seeing a lot of perverse incentives for energy efficiency and conservation. The shift to demand side management is what led to smart grid technologies.

Travis: This year we’re honoring leaders who have struggled in overcoming adversity. Was there ever a time when you really had to fight to accomplish a goal?

Josh: Nope, never. Everything has been smooth sailing. No. Of course, change is hard. Whenever you’re advocating for a change, you’re going to encounter opposition and resistance.

The most effective change advocates are able to identify what lies behind the source of the opposition, and then maneuver and align a coalition so as to overcome that opposition.

In my case there were pretty major concerns about disruptions to important equipment that might have resulted from our interventions to reduce emissions. Our job was to show that we could improve operations by implementing better practices to manage GHG emissions.

Travis: So you have to find the source of the opposition. How do you do that?

Josh: Opposition happens whenever you try to do something that they think will threaten their mission. Sometimes it’s just about turf, and for some people that has priority over broader organizational goals, like for example in sustainability. What you have to do is to transform potential opponents like these into collaborators by presenting a case that’s more attractive than the status quo. You have to persuade them that after changes have been made, they can still have the same or even better operational performance.

It’s always hard. It makes people uncomfortable because of the uncertainty of doing something different. I can tell you that facility managers are not big on uncertainty. In those cases I can also say that impatience doesn’t help. Think of it like this – you have to show the right degree of impatience to press for change, but not to turn them off.

Travis: Okay, well this has been an interesting discussion. Thank you for speaking with me today!

Josh: Oh I’m glad to do it. I definitely wish you guys all the best.

In my interview with Elenor Hodges, I was struck by her comments about playing the role of David in the same playing field as the Goliaths in the world.

By contrast, Josh works within a large governmental organization. He has a rather different set of organizational capabilities, requirements, dynamics, internal and external stakeholders, and even missions. But they share the challenge of motivating people and institutions to think about sustainability differently.

Josh was able to achieve success as a change agent by approaching institutions as they are – large, complex, with time-consuming processes, but also with a unique opportunity to achieve impact on a large scale. My big takeaway was that acknowledging the factors that lie behind our challenges seems to be rule number one for overcoming them. If you do that properly, you stand a better chance at achieving your goals.

Early bird registration for 4 Generations: Leading through Adversity is available through November 24, 2015. The event will be held at The Bier Baron in Washington, DC on December 4, 2015 from 5:30 pm to 9 pm. More information can be found on, at the link above, or on Leaders in Energy’s Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages.

[1] For the purposes of the 4 Generations event, we define generations as such: World War II (1927-1945), Baby Boomer (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1980), and Millennial (1981-2000).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.