Four months ago Sara Patrick was named president and CEO of the Midwest Reliability Organization.
Patrick joined the MRO 10 years ago as director of regulatory affairs and enforcement and served numerous roles for the organization. Prior to that she was assistant attorney general for the state of Arizona and worked in government affairs for a service provider to the property and casualty insurance industry.
Patrick is a graduate of Lee Honors College of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and earned her doctor of jurisprudence from the Indiana University School of Law.
The MRO is one of seven regional entities working under the North American Electric Reliability Corp.
1. You started your career in the legal and insurance professions. What’s attracted you to grid reliability?
“I was introduced to grid reliability in a classic “who you know” manner. You see, MRO’s Vice President – Finance and Administration Sue Clarke was the Controller at my former company. She reached out and encouraged me to join the MRO team. At the time, I was not looking for different employment and considered myself perfectly content where I was working. Come to find out, that is the perfect time to find a new position. After learning more about MRO’s work, I was intrigued. When I considered the opportunity to shape public policy across multiple jurisdictions, I was sold. As a cross border region, MRO operates in the United States, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Each jurisdiction has its own structure, and being involved in helping set up a regulatory construct across multiple jurisdictions really appealed to me.
“After being at MRO for about two months, it became clear to me that I could work here until I retire and not know everything there is to know to be as effective at my job as possible. The opportunities for continued growth and professional development are vast. With the ever-evolving issues facing the industry today, there is no end in sight to the challenges and learning opportunities with which we are presented and the positive impact MRO can have on reliability and security. Our mission is compelling and the continuous learning environment is invigorating!”
2. Tell us how you see the mission of the Midwest Reliability Organization going forward?
“The MRO vision is one of the most significant factors in high employee engagement and retention. Contributing to the reliability and security of the North American bulk power system is a major motivation in providing “psychic compensation.” That is, the reward that comes from doing work that makes a difference in the world.
“In many ways, this year has been a year of transition for MRO, but we have not deviated from our vision or our core mission – “To identify, prioritize and assure effective and efficient mitigation of risks to the reliability and security of the North American bulk power system by promoting Highly Effective Reliability Organizations (HERO).” In July, our regional footprint expanded to include an additional 100 registered entities from the Southwest Power Pool Regional Entity (SPP RE), which has dissolved. With our eye on ensuring reliability and security of the bulk power system in our expanded footprint, for the next 18-24 months MRO’s focus will be on integration of the entities that transitioned from SPP RE; continued execution of our delegated functions producing high quality results; and the alignment of our efforts with the ERO Enterprise.”
3. One big challenge is grid resiliency, deciding what mix of resources is best to ensure service. Is MRO agnostic on these issues or does it have a point of view to advocate about the future of the grid?
“The ERO Enterprise, including MRO, is ideologically independent and does not advocate for any particular resource or resource mix. However, as a technical regulator, we must evaluate and respond to the impact of the changing resource mix on reliability. NERC has produced highly regarded work to understand the impact of the changing resource mix, the issues raised, and how to respond to those issues in the interests of reliability and security. As NERC’s chief reliability officer Mark Lauby noted recently, resilience has always been part of our mission. In fact, our definition of reliability includes resilience. It is something we have to understand, especially as the risks to reliability and security of the bulk power system evolve as the resource mix changes.”
4. You’ve spent 10 years at MRO before becoming CEO. How has the organization changed during that time?
“When I first joined MRO in August 2008, regulation of the very complex and interconnected bulk power system was in its infancy. FERC had just issued its first Notice of Penalty Order on July 3, 2008, and provided some pretty lengthy direction on what to include in enforcement determinations going forward. Fast-forward ten years and regulation looks significantly different. The last decade has seen a maturation of ERO Enterprise thoughts and processes as we learn to focus more on, and address critical risks. As an early supporter of risk-based regulation, I am incredibly fortunate to have been a part of this process from the beginning, to have watched our risk-based philosophy evolve, and to have helped nurture it through as it matures.
“Today, our regional risk assessment, entity inherent risk assessments, and compliance oversight plans reflect how we carefully consider risk in our oversight work. With the implementation of these risk-based oversight tools, compliance monitoring is tailored to each registered entity and more focused on the risks that may impact reliability. Our enforcement processes too, have evolved to be more proportionate to the risk a noncompliance poses to system reliability. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission now allows the ERO to exercise more discretion based on risk, and we have fully embraced and continue to implement streamlined processing methods, such as compliance exceptions and self-logging. With these new alternatives to enforcement, self-reporting has increased and settlements are rare.
“As the ERO Enterprise approach to compliance monitoring and enforcement has matured, we have recognized that there are other means of supporting reliability and security of the bulk power system that can be more effective. With a risk-based view, we see enforcement as just one tool in our toolbox. It is not the first tool we reach for or necessarily the biggest tool. As a risk-based regulator, we have several tools at our disposal to promote reliability and deter noncompliance. There are many ways outside of imposing financial penalties where we can help an entity be a HEROTM.
“As I see it, the greatest, most effective tool we have to preempt noncompliance is outreach—providing clarity on the requirements and sharing lessons learned and industry best practices throughout the region. In recent years, NERC and the Regional Entities have significantly expanded outreach efforts. At MRO, we have worked to promote a uniform understanding of the rules, effectively communicate our expectations, provide information and guidance where appropriate, build constructive relationships with those we regulate, and be a respected resource for industry participants.”
5. Tell us about a mentor who really guided or inspired you in your career?
“I am really fortunate to have started my career in a highly mentored environment. As an Assistant Attorney General in the Arizona Office of the Attorney General, I had many seasoned attorneys mentor me in various ways. One individual stands out the most though, and that is Mark Wilson, my immediate supervisor. Not only did Mark teach me to be more critical in my thought process and to hone my writing skills, he also taught me to tell people what they don’t want to hear. “No” is sometimes the best answer, but it is rarely the most popular answer. Mark kept a poster of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, on display in his office.
“Above all else, Mark taught me to maintain a sense of humor and to enjoy myself at work. I remember one time, shortly after a memo had been sent with reminders about the office dress code, he had one of his clients come through the office with a clipboard asking people to show him their shoes, badges, outfits, etc. This client was making notes and going door by door down the hallway. People were actually hiding in the bathrooms waiting for “the dress code enforcer” to leave the office. It was a joke that many did not appreciate at the time, but it provided a great deal of office humor afterwards. His shenanigans were legendary across the office. While I haven’t orchestrated anything at that level, I do try to have fun in the office!”
6. What’s the biggest mistake that turned out to be a blessing in disguise?
“This is a really tough question for me. I believe that we are human. We make mistakes. It is how we react to them that makes us the best possible versions of ourselves. To learn from a mistake, we first have to own it. That is not always an easy thing to do.
“I remember the first time I brought a problem to a new supervisor and presented him with several options. As an attorney, I had been trained to bring options and present the risks associated with those options. However, in this role, I was not acting as a legal advisor but as a business unit manager. My supervisor made it abundantly clear that he did not appreciate my report and advised me in no uncertain terms to never bring him a problem without a solution again. At the time, I felt that I had brought him several solutions, but what I learned was that I had not brought my preference, my opinion. I had not made it clear that I had a recommended solution. I had not owned responsibility for solving this problem.
“I now make it very clear to my staff that I want to hear their recommendations – their opinions matter. We don’t have to agree. I want to hear what they bring to the table when discussing issues or concerns. This doesn’t mean that someone can’t bring me a problem without a solution, sometimes it takes a village to talk our way through an issue to get to the solution. What it does mean is that no one can drop a problem in my lap and leave. One of the benefits of working for a small organization is that if you identify a problem, you can own it all the way through to resolution. That supervisor of mine from many moons ago taught me to own the problem and the sweet reward of solving the problem.”
7. What are is your favorite hobby and why?
“I am a self-proclaimed bookworm geek. I love to lose myself in a good book. Spending time escaping into a novel is an important part of my day. I usually read each morning while I enjoy my first cup of coffee. Taking this time to recharge, sets the tone for my day and makes me more productive.
“One of my most favorite activities is watching my kids’ sporting events. I spend a great deal of time during the spring, summer, and fall months cheering at various softball and baseball games. Most of my summer weekends are spent at tournaments for one or the other of my children. When I’m not cheering on a ball game, I can be found at our family cabin on Norway Lake in New London, Minnesota.”