When Richard “Stick” Williams announced last fall that he’d be stepping down as president of the Duke Energy Foundation, capping a 36-year-career with the energy company, he assumed he’d coast into retirement without too much fuss.
How wrong he was.
“As soon as I announced my plans, my calendar went crazy,” said Williams, 62, whose final day is Dec. 31. “I thought I’d be bored stiff by now.”
Some people called to share their thoughts about what he might do in retirement. Others wanted to make one last pitch for Duke Energy Foundation cash.
“And there were some well-wishers sprinkled in there, too,” Williams recalled. “And then just the normal Duke Energy business,” like helping his successor get acclimated.
Inside his corner office at Duke Energy headquarters, where pictures, books and mementoes were being systematically displaced and packed, Williams sat with Qcitymetro to talk about his career at Duke Energy, especially his last eight years as head of the company’s gift-giving arm. He also shared his thoughts as co-chair of Project LIFT, a five-year, $55 million program (co-funded by the foundation) that aims to help struggling schools in west Charlotte.
Announced with much fanfare in Feb. 2011, Project LIFT had three goals: achieving 90 percent proficiency in math and English, pushing 90 percent of students to hit growth targets in those subjects, and boosting West Charlotte High School’s graduation rate to 90 percent. Now in its fourth year, Project LIFT has gained mixed results, and while graduation rates are up, West Charlotte schools continue to struggle by nearly every objective measure. (At West Charlotte High, the graduation rate rose from about 50 percent before Project LIFT to 76 percent this year.)
Here is an edited transcript of our interview with Williams.
Q. Why retire now?
For the last four years or more I’ve been trying to determine when. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my job, and I could have continued to do it, but now is a good time, so I started having some conversations.
Q. What would you say has most contributed to your success at Duke Energy?
Growing up, when I think back on it, at every turn there were people there for me, and I didn’t always understand why they were there. What a tremendous impact those people made in my life. So when I became a branch manager for the company, one of the principle responsibilities was getting out into the community and being the face of the company. When I started doing that, my goodness, I felt like I had discovered my call. That helped me to be very successful as a branch manager in Shelby, then a district manager, and then an area manager in the Triangle. And the company saw that, too. They also saw that there were organizations like my alma mater – (North) Carolina – that invited me to be on their board of trustees. So fairly early in my career, I was invited to take on some interesting leadership roles out in the community, and I just flourished with that. So that made it a no-brainer for the leaders when they were looking for the next leader of the Duke Energy Foundation. But it all goes back to me seeing how people impacted my life and then seeing how, for the company, I had the opportunity to do the very same thing for people in the community.
Q. Speaking of community efforts, I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that some people are saying Project LIFT has failed. What would you tell them?
I have to look at the lives of the children in those schools that have been touched by us bringing extraordinary talent into those schools, and then bringing so much in the way of resources. That’s far more important to me than what somebody else might be looking at. What has happened in terms of graduation rates is great, and that’s the most visible thing, but when I see what’s happening in the elementary schools and the middle schools, and when I see the state school board and the state superintendent coming down to Charlotte to look at what is happening in those Project LIFT schools and trying to think about how they might be able to do some the same things in the state, when I see state legislators coming to Charlotte to look to see what’s happening in Project LIFT, and when I hear some of the parents talking about the new opportunities for their children, that, for me, is Project LIFT and my sense of the success we have had.
Q. In all fairness, though, test scores have scarcely improved at Project LIFT schools.
Yes, that is exactly right. This is hard work, and that’s been the big eye-opener. It’s not that we thought there would be a dramatic turnaround, but we didn’t realize just how hard this work is and the fact that you’ve just got to stay on it. The way Project LIFT has unfolded, you’re just focused on culture change – what’s happening in those schools, and how do you get the culture in those schools away from business as usual to determination that these kids are going to be successful. That meant having to make changes in staffing, and one of the things we really went about doing was flooding those schools with extraordinary teachers. That’s made a huge difference. …We’re not taking a victory lap yet. It’s hard work, and we’ve just gotta keep going. I am thrilled with what has happened in these schools and the success, and I’m not deterred by naysayers.
Q. What would you do different if you were starting Project LIFT today?
This is the most amazing initiative that I have been involved in. Are there some things we may have done differently? Yeah, probably. We always looked at it as an opportunity to not only impact these children but also an opportunity for the district and outside the district to determine programs that really could work, and also programs that weren’t going to work. We also were willing to invest in some things that we didn’t know what the impact was going to be, but it was going to be expensive, like calendar flexibility. …We may have chosen some different partners, but overall I’m very, very, very pleased with the work that’s been done.
Q. What are you going to do in retirement?
That’s a good question. My wife, Teresa, is waiting to see if this really is going to be a retirement. Around the time I was thinking about retirement, a corporate board opportunity materialized, so that’s going to maintain some structure. It’s a bank in Asheville, and I’m really excited about that. But I’ve still got to stay engaged with several initiatives, Project LIFT being first and foremost. I’m still going to be on the board and co-chair of the board. I’m sure you’ve heard of the new initiative Read Charlotte. I’m on the board and I’ll stay on the board in trying to determine exactly what my engagement looks like going forward. Over the next six months or so I’m going to try to be intentional about taking on new things, so that I can determine what I’m most passionate about.
Q. I didn’t hear anything about travel, golf or relaxing.
(Laughs.) I am intending to get my golf game consistent. I don’t know that I will ever be a great golfer, but I want to be consistent. My golf game is like a roller coaster right now. So I’m going to play more golf. The first thing I plan to do is get back into good physical shape. It’s not that I’m in bad shape, but I really want to get myself in better shape and loose 10 pounds or more. …Teresa and I took a fascinating trip to Germany back in July, and we were gone like three months. We are going to do some travel; it’s just that it’s not going to be the first thing that we do because we just came back from a great trip.
Q. What’s the hardest part about retiring?
Determining what to stop doing. I’ve been on a lot of boards and a lot of committees. Teresa has been trying to teach me to say “no” over the years. The other thing I know, too, is that I can’t just retire, so that’s why I’m going to commit myself to determining what I really want to do, what I would like to create in the next phase.
Q. What do you care about?
When I look at the children in the Project LIFT schools, that was me. That’s what I care about. So much of the promise that black folks had in the 50s and 60s has not really materialized. Our children aren’t getting the kind of education that they (parents and civil rights leaders) thought they were fighting for. And a lot of the opportunities are not materializing for great jobs and so forth. I certainly experienced that in my life, but it just breaks my heart to see that so many of our children aren’t getting a great education, and then those that have an opportunity to get a great education aren’t oftentimes pushed to take advantage of the opportunity that is before them.
Q. Somewhere out there is a young Richard “Stick” Williams who is just starting a career. What advice would you offer?
Be very, very careful about foregoing opportunities. When I think back on my career, there were opportunities that were presented, and my first reaction was, “No, I’m not interested in doing that.” I was fortunate that some other folks came to me and said, “You really need to do this; you really aught to consider this.” Those things became game changers – the experience I got and the people I met. So be careful about turning away opportunities. The other thing is, it doesn’t matter what the setting is, it doesn’t matter how romantic a job might be or not be, you’ve got to consider it an opportunity to get in there and compete and show folks what you’re made of and what you can accomplish. There will always be people who assume that you can’t do it – you don’t have the background to do it; you don’t have the intellect. Use that as a motivation to go and show folks that they have made a big mistake not having you or somebody like you in their organization. If I could encourage a young Stick Williams to have that mindset, I would be ecstatic.
Q. I know we’re not writing an obituary, but how do you want to be remembered?
I hope people will remember that it was never about me. My name seems to be prevalent, but it was never about me. I had the opportunity to go and to serve, and I just took advantage of that opportunity. If that’s what people remember, I’d be a happy man.
Q. Everybody wants a do-over with at least one thing. What’s your one thing?
When I was an area manager for the company – my office was in Durham at the time – I reported to a vice president, and he and I were just so different from one another. Our philosophies were different about how you manage people, how you manage an organization. I’ve been able to get along with everybody in my career, but that was a real challenging relationship for me. And it got to the point where, and I wasn’t really so cognizant of it, I was really competing with him. I was intending to show him that my thinking and my ways were far superior, and I think that damaged the relationship even more. From my perspective, I was right, and I was going to show him. If I could manage that relationship differently, I would. When I look back on it, I cringe at some of the things I did and said. Nothing abusive or anything, but I didn’t handle that one very well.
Q. Is that last day going to be a sad one?
Yeah. Thirty-six years I’ve been at the company. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know so many of the employees. It’s just been interesting to me over the last number of years what the employees of the company say to me and how they suggest I have touched their lives or the work we’ve done out in the community. This is a big part of my life. So turning that page is going to be a challenge.
Name: Richard “Stick” Williams
Born: 1953, Greensboro, N.C.
College: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Degree: Bachelor of Science in accounting.
Family: Wife Teresa; three daughters; one grandchild.
Duke Energy Career:
1979: Joined Duke Power as a financial analyst
1984: Manager of investor relations
1989: Branch manager of Shelby office
1990: District manager for Chapel Hill area
1991: Triangle-area manager
1995: General manager of business and community relations.
1997: Vice president of business and community relations for North Carolina
2002: Vice president of diversity and business ethics, initiatives, policies and practices; served as corporate compliance officer
2004: Vice president of diversity and employee development
2006: Senior vice president of enterprise field services
2007: President, Duke Energy Foundation