‘Today’s customers want to know where their energy comes from’

16 Feb 2021

Klair Neenan. Image: SSE Airtricity

SSE Airtricity’s Klair Neenan discusses the evolving energy market, the changing attitudes of consumers, and making time for family moments.

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Klair Neenan is the managing director of SSE Airtricity, the Irish retail division of the SSE Group. With offices in Dublin and Belfast, SSE employees around 1,000 people on the island of Ireland, supplying green energy, natural gas and energy-related services to homes and businesses.

Kildare-native Neenan has been with SSE for more than 10 years, during which time she has headed up IT delivery for SSE Ireland and led the overall IT function, before taking up the role at the helm of SSE Airtricity in 2019.

‘Digitisation and technology play a key role in meeting the changing demands of customers and that is integral to the future of energy’

Describe your role and what you do.

As managing director of SSE Airtricity, I am responsible for the strategic direction of the company and ensuring we service and support our 700,000 customers. With a strong focus on the importance of sustainability and ambitious climate action targets, my team is committed to delivering innovative energy solutions to our customers and democratising green energy – making it accessible and affordable for everyone across the energy chain.

The energy market is evolving at a fast pace and it is important that we adapt as a business to meet the future demands of our customers. I’m extremely passionate about technology and see considerable opportunity for advancements in IT and digital to play a major part in how we support and work with our customers.

We also have a responsibility to work with customers to better understand the implications of their energy choices and how adapting their everyday habits can have a positive impact on our planet’s future.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Working in the retail part of the energy sector means that my team and I need to be comfortable working in a fast-paced environment with changing demands. I think having an open mindset and being collaborative are very important for this. Trusting the people around you gives greater freedom and, in my experience, helps drive the business forward.

I think it is important to find the right balance between work and home life. With a young family, the need to be highly organised and focused on the most important things are key for me.

Like many people, my working environment has changed dramatically over the past year. My husband and I are trying to juggle a nine-to-five, stay ahead on the home schooling and be a parent – it can be hectic! I’m making an effort to carve out some time for myself during the day. That might just be 15 minutes of fresh air at lunchtime, but it is important that we look after ourselves amidst all the added pressures we’re faced with at present.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Right now, like every sector, Covid-19 is having an impact and it is certainly presenting challenges that didn’t exist 18 months ago. Aside from that, the energy sector is highly competitive and moves very quickly. Customers have a greater knowledge and understanding of energy than ever before. The manner in which they interact with utility providers has changed dramatically from a traditional relationship that was simply built on energy usage and billing.

Customer behaviours and attitudes are changing. Customers want to know where their energy comes from, they want their house to be energy efficient and they want to be able to make decisions based on what works best for them. Keeping up with these demands and ensuring we can meet the needs of our customers is certainly a big challenge, but it presents some amazing opportunities also. We’re all on this journey to net zero and a cleaner, greener future, and the challenge to the energy sector is to continue to provide innovative and sustainable solutions for customers.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Homes and businesses are embracing smart technology, enabling customers to cut both costs and their carbon footprint at the same time. Last year, we launched a home energy upgrade service with An Post. This is a one-stop-shop for home energy upgrades that takes away the complexity for customers in upgrading to a more cost and energy-efficient home.

Our Solar for Schools programme, developed in partnership with Microsoft, enables schools to power classrooms using energy generated from solar panels situated on their own roofs, while helping the schools to reduce their carbon footprint and their costs. Through this scheme, 27 schools across Ireland now have the capability to generate enough electricity to power 68 homes for a full year.

We’ve also just launched a home EV charging solution that will support our customers on their journey to net zero. In partnership with ePower, this innovation will make it easier for people to make the switch to an electric vehicle and to reduce their carbon footprint.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I began in customer service in the financial services sector. This provided a great foundation for my career and I learned a great deal about understanding the customer’s perspective. I had the opportunity to work in an exciting start-up for a time, which made me realise that if you are willing to put up your hand and try new things, you never know what opportunities await you.

One of the reasons I enjoy working in SSE and the energy sector is that no day is the same and there are plenty of exciting opportunities. Prior to my current role as managing director, I was head of IT, which involved the delivery of several large transformational programmes. There is no doubt that digitisation and technology play a key role in meeting the changing demands of customers and that is integral to the future of energy.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

The most important thing for me is the learning opportunity that comes when something doesn’t go to plan. Quite often, the occasions where things don’t work out are the ones which you learn from the most.

Throughout my career, if something hasn’t quite worked or achieved the desired outcome, I’ve taken time to reflect on what I could have done better, how I could have approached things differently, and what I will do next time and why.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I am incredibly lucky to lead a team that is committed, hard-working and dynamic. Every member of the team has a unique contribution to make and ultimately my role is to make sure they feel empowered and supported throughout.

I also think it is important to give team members the space to voice their opinion and challenge the status quo. That takes time to build and cultivate but is incredibly important. I think, as a team, you learn from each other every day and I try to encourage that mindset throughout the business.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Over the years I’ve heard people describe the energy sector as a bit lacking in diversity, and while there may have been some truth to that in the past, it is a different story today. The energy sector is on a journey and increasingly we’re seeing more diversity in terms of gender and background.

In SSE, inclusion and diversity is something we work hard on. We’ve initiatives that centre around women in STEM, Pride, working parents, mental health awareness and so much more. There is great strength in diversity and different experiences provide fresh ways of thinking, which all combine to help us avoid groupthink and that dangerous phrase: ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

I’m really proud of how our organisation approaches this but, like a lot of sectors, we can do more and we will continue to work on achieving more success in this area.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Yes, I have had a number of mentors and people that have been pivotal to my career. My parents and my husband have been an amazing influence and have supported me in any career decisions I have made. Whether it was taking the time to listen to my perspective, giving constructive feedback or supporting me as I navigated the twists and turns ahead of me, having a supportive network has been really important.

Some of the best advice comes when a mentor, colleague or family member challenges my thinking – whether I like it or not! You need people around you who make you think about your role in situations and what you can do about it.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I recently read The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger, who was the CEO of Walt Disney and is now executive chair. It is an interesting book that brings the reader through some of the biggest business decisions Iger had to make as he transformed the company.

Another book I enjoyed is Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change by Adam Kahane, which talks about how most social problems are addressed through either power or love when, in fact, the two approaches cannot happen without each other.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Planning ahead is essential to my working week, as is putting time aside to talk to my team and check in on how the business is doing. It’s important that my entire day is not full of scheduled meetings because that flexibility enables me to catch up with the team, get some exercise or read important material for the week ahead.

Thinking time is very important in a fast-paced environment. I really believe there must be time for problem solving, creative thinking and innovation to ensure we keep on top of our responsibilities and commitments to our customers and our teams.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I make sure there is time for the everyday family moments. I never would have thought chats about dinosaurs with my son were essential to the working week, but sometimes the most important update I’ll get is on what dino fact he has just discovered! Thanks to my daughter, I’ve also become an expert TikTokker which, besides embarrassing myself for her entertainment, has been great fun.

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