When Van Ton-Quinlivan came to the United States from Vietnam at the age of six, no one could have predicted she would be appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to be the Vice Chancellor for California’s Community Colleges, the largest community college system in the world, by the time she was 43. But looking back, she knows that it was by bringing together the ideas and interests of many different people into a successful program, PowerPathway™, and then scaling that program across her industry, that led to her becoming a recognized thought leader in her niche and placed her in line for the Vice Chancellor appointment.
It all began in 2007, when, after a variety of corporate roles, Ton-Quinlivan was recruited to join Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), one of the country’s largest utilities. One year later, she called me for some career advice as she was finishing a one-year stint as the Chief of Staff to the Chairman of the company.
As we sat down that weekend at the kitchen table in her Bay Area home, Ton-Quinlivan laid out a few options she was considering professionally and we agreed that one of them clearly gave her an opportunity to make a lasting impact in an arena that really mattered to her – workforce development – helping disadvantaged workers secure positions at PG&E.
From the first, it was clear to me that Ton-Quinlivan had the passion and commitment to make a real difference in this role, given her personal history as an immigrant who advanced through access to education. She also had the credentials and experience to be credible in that arena. In addition, the company was facing a looming problem that gave her lots of leeway to act.
As she explained, “The baby boomers were beginning to age out. All across the energy sector, between 25% and 50% of the workforce was on the verge of becoming retirement eligible. Within the next five to ten years these workers would be exiting the workplace, taking their extensive experience with them, and we would need to replenish them with new skilled workers.”
Ton-Quinlivan came to the role with a unique What If? future (WIF) – could she find a way to not only recruit new skilled workers to P&GE but also assure that they opened new pathways to diverse and disadvantaged candidates.
“For years the company had struggled to find diverse candidates for entry‐level positions,” she explained. Many different programs had been tried, but none had been successful so far. She had a new approach. “I had seen a model of collaboration in the biotech industry that would actually yield us the diverse, qualified candidate pool we needed.”
She knew that by bringing together industry, community colleges, and the workforce investment system (a statewide network of organizations that help displaced workers train for and find jobs), PG&E could prepare displaced workers, including veterans, for jobs in the utility industry, exactly as the biotech industry had done. She proposed that the company launch a new workforce development program called PowerPathway™.
But having a great idea, even a proven approach, was not enough. After all, PG&E was a 100-year-old company, highly regulated and slow to adopt new ideas. ‘That’s not how things are done around here,” was the constant refrain she heard in her initial forays to bring others on board with her efforts.
She persevered. “I started with no resources at all. All I had was an understanding that the company was facing an enormous challenge and I knew that no one was looking at it the same way I was.” Ton-Quinlivan explained. “I set up meetings one-by-one with people I knew within the company whose roles in some way were impacted by the upcoming tidal wave of retirements.” Through these meetings, Ton-Quinlivan gained a clearer picture of who was interested in aligning with her to make PowerPathway a success, and who was open to trying something new that had never been done before. They became her internal stakeholders.
Next, she enlisted regional stakeholders -‐ including community college presidents, leaders of veteran’s organizations and directors of local workforce investment boards. “Each of these supporters joined my efforts for different reasons – some because they wanted to help veterans find jobs at PG&E, some because they wanted to be affiliated with the efforts of a large local employer. Others joined us because of my personal connection with them or my company’s reputation. And some came on board because they had funding for community workforce initiatives.”
None of them had ever seen a program like PowerPathway before. But Ton-Quinlivan shared the success of the program in the biotech industry and she used her personal credibility to raise awareness and engage initial interested parties. In order to build momentum within the company, she went further, identifying and meeting separately with five senior vice presidents to determine what their individual needs were, then incorporated their interests into her plan.
“I learned you have to enlist all these stakeholders in the design of your program, not in a way that would water it down, but that it serves the interest of many parties. This is especially true when you’re trying to do something intrapreneurial.”
By integrating all of the senior VP’s interests into the design of PowerPathway, the program now met the goals and aligned the interests of five different departments in the company as well as a broad set of regional constituencies. This allowed her to overcome many of the internal and external naysayers.
The wide buy‐in for the program not only assured its success, it also gave Ton-Quinlivan a number of avenues for championing PG&E’s efforts more widely. The senior VP’s, local community colleges, workforce organizations and local veteran’s groups were all eager to trumpet the launch of PowerPathway programs across California. When the program had successes - including job placements for recently returned veterans into high-paying jobs – they helped her spread the word.
Media opportunities soon came her way, along with speaking opportunities at local and industry events. These led to an invitation to participate in policy discussions at the state and national levels and to testify before the United States Senate on workforce issues. Soon, other companies agreed to recruit candidates from the PowerPathway program.
What began as a way to help PG&E overcome its challenges as baby boomers retired – her first drop in the pond – grew into significant improvements across the entire utility industry. Within four years, the Obama Administration recognized PG&E for its workforce efforts and more companies began to adopt the PowerPathway model.
This led to Ton-Quinlivan’s appointment by Governor Jerry Brown to lead workforce and economic development at the statewide level as Vice Chancellor of the California Community College system. This allowed her to parlay her experiences into a larger platform – to impact more students and improve the systems that serve them.
Excerpt from the book, Ready to Be a Thought Leader? by Denise Brosseau
Van Ton-Quinlivan is Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus, CA Community Colleges and Executive in Residence, Institute for the Future. Here is her LinkedIn profile.