Exclusive interview: Karen de Bruyn

HEAD OF DEVELOPMENT | G7 RENEWABLE ENERGIES
CO-FOUNDER | WE CONNECT

Karen de Bruyn leads the dynamic G7 Renewable Energies project development team managing over 2GW of highly competitive renewable energy projects. Karen is a highly motivated individual and takes a keen interest in the development of people for continuous growth. Being passionate about equality, she recently co-founded WE Connect – the first networking platform for women working in the South African renewable energy sector.

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU THE MOST IN LIFE?

I am deeply inspired by success stories of people who could be viewed as unlikely leaders that end up making a real difference for the better. Overcoming challenges as you rise up is part of the journey and it is inspiring when overcoming being underestimated is added to the success story. I am currently inspired by the compassion-focused leadership style of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and the ambitious work the members of WE Connect are taking on the renewable energy sector.

WHAT IS THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE READ THIS YEAR AND WHAT WAS YOUR KEY TAKEAWAY?

The book that influenced my thoughts in 2020 was Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It was written in the 1930s, but the lessons are as applicable today as they were 90 years ago. The author interviewed individuals that achieved great wealth and collated a list of common traits – sort of a blueprint for success. A key component was that they all believed they would achieve great success and acted on it. This book served as a solid reminder of how powerful thoughts can be. What you think becomes your reality.

WHEN MEETING OTHER LEADERS WHAT DO YOU ASK THEM?

I enjoy engaging with leaders with different leadership styles. A go-to question is ‘What type of leadership style has contributed to better results for your business?’ as there may be some lessons to take and implement in my personal leadership style. My favourite lesson is to ‘Be approachable’. When people feel comfortable enough to share personal details, they are likely to open up about issues they are experiencing in the workplace and share their career goals.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE AND WHAT LESSON LEARNED DO YOU CONTINUE TO PRACTISE TODAY?

One of my first managers was a great example of a bad leader. He preferred not to utilise and grow the skills around him, hiding behind the excuse that it takes too much time to train people. I remember the feeling of excitement to join the workforce and apply my knowledge only to be left disengaged. This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance to lead in a way that allows for continuous selfdevelopment and that of your team.

 IS A LEADER BORN OR MADE?

Leadership skills can certainly be developed, and I do not believe many people view themselves as natural born leaders. It is a skill I keep working on daily. My definition of a successful leader is someone who is people focused, able to motivate towards a common goal in challenging times, and approachable. Keeping the human element in mind is important to help a team maintain a healthy work-life balance. Leading a diverse team requires adaptive leadership styles – an area that any leader can continuously develop.

WHAT INDUSTRIES OUTSIDE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR ARE YOU LOOKING AT FOR INSPIRATION?

The tourism industry is one that comes to mind. This sector keeps evolving and innovating the user experience as we have seen with Airbnb. Most recently during 2020, Airbnb further innovated by offering online virtual Airbnb experiences, such as cooking classes. Disruptive innovation can happen in any industry and I am excited to see what will be coming next…

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE EVER TAKEN?

I had a vision in 2019 to create a network for women in renewable energy in South Africa. Despite the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, we forged ahead and launched the WE Connect Network in May 2020. While not entirely risky, it was certainly daunting to embark on this process with the uncertainty of how it would be received and not knowing if there is a need for this.

WE Connect has been a great success, focusing on improving the opportunities for women for networking, mentorship, training and sharing experiences to improve diversity in the renewable energy industry. I am proud of this achievement when I see new mentorship relationships formed and members of the network supporting one another.

IF YOU COULD WISH AWAY A CHALLENGE TO YOUR BUSINESS OR THE INDUSTRY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Eliminating the political red tape that has slowed our transition to a renewable energy industry ranks top. South Africa has signed and ratified the Paris Agreement and globally it is recognised that climate change is one, if not our most pressing, issue facing the world. Therefore, I am delighted that the South African Government has made such progress in the past year with the gazetting of the integrated renewable energy plan confirming the need for renewable energy to play a substantial role in our generation mix. The easiest solution to address the climate crisis is to transition to renewable energy at speed.

With this transition, I would like to see improvements to the low numbers of females flourishing in managerial positions in the energy sector. Currently, less than 30% of the workforce are female and less than 10% of the total workforce are females in leadership positions. Improving gender diversity is ultimately to the benefit of all.

WHAT TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES DO YOU USE FOR KEEPING A TEAM MOTIVATED?

With remote working arrangements, we transitioned to create a daily routine. Our days start with a 30-minute alignment call with all members of staff. This creates space for a combination of informal and formal check-in. Additionally, I make a point of catching up with each of my team members every 2 weeks to see how life is outside of the office as that often flows into the work environment. Quarterly performance reviews are critical to provide space for honest, constructive feedback flowing both ways. I also believe that small victories need to be acknowledged and celebrated. Motivating a diverse team is not a one size fits all exercise as some need regular recognition and feedback, some thrive on being challenged, while some require you to acknowledge when times are tough to normalise the feeling.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE YOUR AND YOUR TEAM’S PERFORMANCE?

G7 consists of a team of strong performers each growing in their own right. My preference for measurement of performance is to assess each member’s progress and growth against their personal baseline to complement pre-defined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Openness to learn new skills to grow is something we foster as a team. Aligning to a common goal, setting the priorities, and creating space for staff to take responsibility for their workload is a recipe for success to keep everyone accountable to themselves and the team.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH UNCERTAINTY AS A LEADER IN A TIME WHERE LEADERSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER?

It is important to acknowledge that it can be challenging. Everyone has their way of coping with uncertainty and adopting your management style accordingly can go a long way to offer support. It can be reassuring to set the focus on what is in our control. We have a daily team call with open conversations to measure the ‘mood’ of the business; encouraging everyone to share personal challenges, creating an open and equal environment. Encouraging the team through recognition of hard work, regular rewards – not necessarily monetary but through the culture of celebrating successes – and team building, are important.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE YOUR TEAM PLAYING IN THE ECONOMIC RECOVERY OF THE 2020 GLOBAL PANDEMIC?

The installed capacity of wind and solar energy will increase almost tenfold by 2030, which will bring much-needed job opportunities, especially for the youth. It is a young, vibrant  and technologically advanced industry. At G7 and in the wider RE industry we have seen how young people jump into this with enthusiasm and vigour and excel beyond expectations.

We are seeing a green economic revolution worldwide, with calls for a post-COVID-19 recovery linked to the growth of renewable energy and the motto to ‘build back better’. South Africa’s New Growth Path strategy document classifies the green economy as one of the ten ‘job drivers’. The Outlook for Wind in South Africa is particularly impressive with an allocated annual capacity of 1,600MW resulting in a total of 14.4GW by 2030, not considering other energy procurement through programmes such as the RIMPPPP. Wind will contribute 18% to the total power system by 2030. South Africa and the world is on the verge of a green energy transition and I am so excited to be a part of a team embracing this. Through WE Connect I hope to play a role in developing and growing future female leaders to lead the energy transition critical to post-pandemic economic recovery.

HOW IMPORTANT IS SCENARIO PLANNING WHEN IMPLEMENTING ANNUAL STRATEGIES?

G7 prides itself in being able to adapt when needed. We are very data-focused and scenario planning involves the full team to ensure we receive inputs from our diverse workforce to view a challenge from as many points of view as possible. Scenario planning is critical to ensure that plans are pulled apart, viewed from different angles and that you eventually proceed on the best path possible. This approach allows our entire team to be on board with company goals as they are formulated and implemented as a team.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DIGITALISATION, THE COMPLEXITIES AND INTRICACIES, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AROUND THIS AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR AFRICA?

Digitalisation is ingrained in our everyday lives. It plays as big a role in the life of Africans as access to power does. Just looking at the renewable energy sector, digitalisation allows for integration regardless of scale – from decentralised generation to management of utility-scale generation. I believe it’s a true enabler and core building block without which advancement cannot occur.

With the looming introduction and large-scale coupling of battery energy storage with renewable energy generation assets, sophisticated systems will be required to integrate with the network and to manage dispatching and charge regimes real-time. We can dream up complex generation technology and systems and they can become a reality.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR LEGACY TO BE?

Ten years into my professional career, I dream of leaving a legacy of a fleet of sustainably developed renewable energy facilities across South Africa, and a flourishing WE Connect organisation supporting a group of female leaders driving change and improvements in our industry.

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