About the Leadership Series
Good leadership is easy to spot, but hard to define. Popular idioms point to leadership as influence, or hope, or the ability to translate vision to reality. Some leaders are characterized by charisma, others by quiet acts of service. And debate continues over the origin of leaders: are they born, made, or something in between?
Benefactor Group is proud to counsel leaders of all styles and backgrounds. Through this series, we have asked a number of our partners, past and present, to share their personal leadership philosophies and career journeys. We found each conversation illuminating—and have shared their varied accomplishments, trials, and lessons learned below.
About Dale Heydlauff
Dale Heydlauff is a central figure of Ohio’s philanthropic landscape. Through his leadership roles at American Electric Power, a major Columbus-based corporation and community funder, and his volunteer service on countless boards, Dale has advanced the mission and values of the region’s nonprofits. As nonprofit leaders across the region can attest, his presence on a board or campaign cabinet carries many benefits: among them, his business acumen, influence, and deep commitment to the community.
Dale celebrated his retirement from AEP at the end of 2020, after more than 30 years of service. We were pleased to speak with him as he reflected on a long and fruitful career.
Our Conversation with Dale Heydlauff
Tell me about how you got to this place where you find yourself in the world today.
I have to give my parents a lot of credit. My mother was intent I would go to college, and wanted to ensure I had the financial means to do so. So, from the age of 14, I surrendered to her every paycheck I earned, which she put into a bank account with one purpose: my college education.
After college, I credit my career to a good work ethic and a bit of luck. I joined American Electric Power in 1988 in Washington as Director of Federal Affairs and then moved to Columbus in 1991 as our first vice president for environmental affairs. When we merged with another company nine years later, I was asked to lead Governmental Affairs as well. Four years later, we had a new CEO. He called our senior leadership team together one day—this was one of those seminal moments, forever embedded in my memory—and said to us: “I consider it a fundamental failure of the executive succession planning of this company that I’m sitting at this table with you today.” And he promised to fix that system.
He borrowed the Jack Welch playbook from GE: “I’m going to take people I recognize as having the right leadership skills, pluck you from your comfort zones, and test you in different areas. You will not have long to prove yourselves. You’ll have one or two years before I rotate you.” I was one of those people. He took me from public policy, the only field I’d ever known, and asked me to lead energy distribution and customer services, which I knew nothing about.
Fortunately, he allowed me to choose my leadership team. It’s important for any leader to do an honest self-assessment of their skills and limitations. I have always tried to hire people who are smarter and have a deeper knowledge of a given field than I do. Guided by this, I put my leadership team in place. In many respects, it was like going back to college: I was learning new vocabulary, new systems—and loving it. Just as I was hitting my stride, our CEO called me: “Okay, your next job is to create and lead a new department: building power plants.”
I did that for 18 months before I received my next call. This one was distinct. Our CEO asked me to serve as a lone executive on the Scioto Mile development. Two years prior, in his very first Columbus Downtown Development Corporation board meeting, he’d been asked to lead the project. Not wanting to say no to this cadre of community leaders, he agreed. But the individual he’d delegated the work to faced challenges. After two years, virtually nothing had been done.
He gave me a week to consider. It was an enormous decision. I was leading hundreds of people with several billion dollars of projects in development. And I learned that every Mayoral administration for decades had talked about redeveloping the riverfront, with little progress made. But our CEO said: “Dale, what this project needs is leadership and resources. We’ll provide both if you join me.” So I did.
Frankly, as I think back over the years, that was one of the most pleasurable, least stressful, and most meaningful years of my professional career. I learned about Columbus. I learned how to be a fundraiser. I put my old lobbying shoes back on. I helped build an organization.
And I remember, just as I was making a final presentation with the mayor, my phone rang. It was our CEO, reverting back to form. “Dale,” he said, “Tomorrow, you’re going to be named the head of corporate communications.” And that’s how I got to my final role.
What’s the common thread of leadership that connects your roles—from public policy to power generation to managing massive construction projects?
As a leader, you have to provide the vision. You have to advocate for the organization, particularly in the never-ceasing quest for resources. You have to select good talent, be comfortable with delegation, and set rigorous expectations. My team knows “Dale’s Axioms.” Each year, I iterate my expectations: be vibrant and energetic, open to change, daring to risk, and willing to act.
I also challenge them to strive for excellence. The quest for excellence begins by accepting we are never as good as we can be. I ask them to be insatiably curious. They have access to conferences, resources—whatever they need to constantly peer over the horizon and discover how we can be even more efficient and effective.
You want to challenge and equip your team, but you also want to stay out of their way and let them shine. We’re going through a leadership transition for my position right now, and I have no doubt that we won’t skip a beat.
Also: communication skills are key. Individuals who can cogently and compellingly make their case are the ones who tend to succeed. Virtually everything in life is a negotiation. In the public and private sectors, there’s always competition for resources. Those adept at verbal communication tend to rise up.
I also think it’s critical to maintain an open mind and commitment to lifelong learning. Serving as vice president of environmental affairs was my first experience having direct reports. Our CEO told me something that always stuck: “Firing someone is the most difficult thing you’ll confront as a leader. Hiring decisions are the second most difficult thing you’ll do. But if you get the second one right, you never have to worry about the first one.”
How much of leadership is a team sport, and how is individual achievement?
It’s primarily a team effort at AEP, which this pandemic has brought to life. Virtually overnight, 70% of our workforce was asked to work from home. We had no idea what to expect. We saw our productivity skyrocket. Creative juices were unleashed. It led to positive change and incredible cost savings. A lot of that stemmed from the culture we’ve built around collaboration and teamwork.
Are there daily practices that help you maintain your effectiveness as a leader?
I realized very quickly that I’ve got to be organized; it’s key to being focused. The day never materializes the way you originally think it will—but each day has contours you can rely on. I try to have one or two gaps in my schedule. You can’t be in meetings all day and still respond.
I believe in consistent touch bases, and do quarterly performance reviews with my direct reports. This is not just an evaluation of their performance, but also my performance. Am I doing what I need to do to support them?
Lastly, maintaining personal relationships is key to generating loyalty and a sense of family. It’s one of the things we do really well at AEP. Our longevity of service is because people feel appreciated. They feel a part of something bigger than themselves.
If I were to ask those direct reports how they would characterize your leadership skills, what do you think they would say?
I know exactly what they would say because I get a report card every year! Every leader does. We’re transparent about our culture scores: our CEO sees them, and we are compelled to identify areas for improvement and compose annual action plans. Our action plan informs our departmental goals. Our performance against those goals drives incentive compensation.
This year was the first time I received perfect scores on my report card. I suspect it was their “going-away present” to me since I was retiring, but they all know how seriously I take it.
Is there a difference between leading in the for-profit sector and leading a nonprofit?
Not in those fundamental talents of leadership. Those are easily transferable. Stay engaged with your people, and be respectful of differences. Strive for diversity of thinking. Be a good communicator and advocate.
And be committed to professional development. As part of our succession planning process, I have to identify candidates for my role each year and create individual development plans for them. In these plans, we identify strengths and opportunities for improvement; we focus on giving them experiences to hone those skills. This is something nonprofits can do. You don’t need a big HR organization to do that. Commit to your team’s professional development, and your people will love you for it.
Have the disruptions we’re facing placed different or new demands on leaders?
It has asked us to be even more engaged and attuned to individual circumstances. I know more about my team members than ever before simply because I’m on Zoom calls with them; I see their pets, children, and houses. We also recognized early on that some of our employees were more isolated than others—for those individuals, we’ve tried to provide extra oversight and care. Provide a bit more attention. Monitor their mental health to make sure they’re doing okay.
What are some questions that I haven’t asked you that I should have?
I think it’s important for a leader to recognize when an employee just isn’t the right fit. There’s an immutable truth to life: we’re going to spend more hours at our job than anything else for 30 or 40 years. If you’re not happy, you owe it to yourself to make a change.
The other thing I am huge about is work-life balance. I’ve never denied a request for someone who wanted to go to their kid’s 4pm soccer game, or who needed to stay home with a sick child. I relentlessly tell my team to take vacation, to the point where I won’t approve vacation carryover. Remember what is important in life: your family and your loved ones. Make time for them.
If you could ask these questions of anyone in your life, who might be on that list?
Our CEO, Nick Akins. His mother had an unwavering commitment to her children’s education and sacrificed mightily to achieve that. That commitment never left him. Our signature philanthropic program, the Credits Counts Program, was his vision. I think his story is incredibly inspirational and very informative.
Pete White also comes to mind. He was once asked at a dinner party how he became CEO of AEP. He said: “50% hard work, 25% ability, and 25% luck.” It’s disconcerting to some that there’s an element you can’t control about your fate, but I think that’s true for many people.
You’ve talked about what you’re proud of within AEP. What are some of the accomplishments you’re proud of outside of AEP?
I’m very proud of what we did with the Scioto Mile. It’s catalyzed $750 million of investment in the downtown area, and brought dormant parts of our city to life. It’s become an iconic Columbus image, which I’ll always love. It’s nice that I can take my grandchildren to the Scioto Mile and say, “Your grandfather helped create this.”
I also derive considerable personal satisfaction from a number of other campaigns, like the one we worked on together for the YWCA. There are so many projects I’m grateful for. I have loved that dimension of my job. AEP gives back to the community because they understand our ability to thrive is inextricably linked to the health and vitality of the communities we serve. I’ve just tried to serve that mission as well as I could.
What’s next for you?
I haven’t figured that out. What I have committed—to myself and to my wife—is that I’m going to take time to rest, relax, reflect on the past…but also begin to think about what I can do that will be purposeful and provide meaning to the next phase of my life. One of my central objectives: how can I continue to do things to improve the quality of the community where I live?