Interview with Project Director John Lowry25.01.2022Media
John Lowry is playing a critical role in helping Ireland reach its renewable ambition. He has played a pivotal role in leading the grid connection of over 1GW of assets as well as helping establish the system services market, a vital flexibility market in Ireland. John is bringing his experience to a European level through leadership of EU-SysFlex, a European-funded Horizon 2020 project, and is helping drive innovation at EirGrid.
WHAT’S THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE READ OR THE BEST PODCAST YOU’VE LISTENED TO THIS YEAR?
Apart from having a great love of music, I believe we can learn a huge amount about leadership from successful musicians and the musical process. My favourite book is Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography ‘Born to Run’. It’s an inspiring story about overcoming adversity and an unwavering passion for one’s craft. I love how it is written. It is brutally honest, from the heart and – like his music – the words are lyrical throughout.
My favourite podcast has to be from the Harvard Business School Review (HBR), Lessons in Innovation from Bowie, Beyoncé, and More. The podcast is focused on what we can learn about innovation from successful creative artists. It’s about the collaborative process of experimentation, of unlocking the potential of one another, coming to the table or studio without preconceptions. It’s about an openness to new ideas, trusting one another. It describes the importance of listening and observes that the best artists are also great listeners, which is a really important leadership quality.
Through my work, I’ve developed a keen interest in innovation and the innovative process. Successful organisations are those that can evolve, adapt and implement solutions and change. Organisations that embrace new ideas, and create the space and environment to collaborate and experiment without fear will ultimately succeed.
Whether you’re a TSO trying to grapple with renewable integration and the net-zero challenge or a high-tech corporation developing smartphones, innovation is the critical enabler to reach the desired ambition.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A SUCCESSFUL LEADER?
A successful leader can inspire others to perform by providing a clear vision while giving them the confidence to deliver. Someone who reminded me of this recently is Catriona Matthews, the winning Lady Captain of the European Solheim Cup golf team who beat the US in 2021. Against all odds, she inspired her team to win for only the second time on US soil. After the triumph, I listened to the team’s interview where they all echoed the same thing – she gave them the confidence to believe in themselves to go out there and perform.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU ASK OTHER LEADERS?
Firstly, I think it’s important to engage on a personal level to develop a connection and understand who they are and what interests them. Engaging with leaders who are time precious, you need to seek out the opportunity to create that connection fast, which opens the door for an ongoing dialogue.
Secondly, I enjoy learning how other leaders take different approaches to motivating their teams to push the boundary and achieve great things.
WHAT TIPS DO YOU HAVE FOR KEEPING A TEAM MOTIVATED?
The development of each person on the team needs to be supported by projects that contribute to making their work interesting, keeping them engaged and learning. People naturally want to grow and learn: it is in our nature, it is part of our DNA.
Secondly, ensure people feel valued and empowered. This is not necessarily a monetary thing. It’s about self-worth.
If these factors don’t exist in the workplace, it’s time to move on!
WHAT ARE YOUR GREATEST STRENGTHS?
Self-awareness is a critical part of growing and developing. Understanding one’s strengths as well as weaknesses is important. A 360-degree review is encouraged at EirGrid, as it gives us an opportunity to take a barometer of how we are doing. All too often, we reinforce what we believe about ourselves to be true and it’s great to get open and honest feedback from the people around us. This allows us to reflect and enhance our strengths and work on our weaknesses.
Based on this feedback, I have been told that I am a good collaborator, which I see as a critical leadership quality. Operating in a complex environment such as a TSO business, we rely both internally and externally on a broad set of highly skilled experts. We need to create the environment for these skillsets to collaborate to solve problems.
For example, I helped lead the creation of an industry-wide collaborative initiative called the FlexTech Integration Initiative. The sole focus of this initiative is to break barriers to renewable integration across key industry challenges such as the integration of battery storage, demand-side management, hybrid connections, renewables and small-scale generation.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE EVER TAKEN?
Moving from transmission infrastructure development, which I understood well, into energy markets where I was involved in helping our organisation establish the system services market in Ireland. This was a massive challenge for me as it was a completely different part of the business. I now had to identify how my experience and expertise could lend itself best to that new environment. It was a wonderful experience that opened up new possibilities and has led me to the innovation arm of the business, which has opened up a new world of opportunity.
This is how I now perceive risk – as an opportunity. Challenging the business to try new things. If they work out, great, and if not, we learn from them and move on. This is a big cultural shift that our senior leadership team have supported, which gives us greater confidence to fully embrace this new way of thinking and operating. For example, I’m in the process of helping to finalise our most ambitious innovation strategy ever. Central to this strategy is an ambitious plan to prepare for net zero, maximising the potential of the Irish territorial waters and land. This will facilitate the whole system thinking to export energy for the benefit of our citizens and that of Europe.
What’s the biggest risk I have ever taken? I’d like to think I have not taken it yet!
WHICH OF YOUR LEADERSHIP SKILLS WAS THE MOST DIFFICULT TO DEVELOP?
I see leadership as a continuous journey of learning and developing with a constant need to reflect and be aware of how we show up in the world. However, what I feel needs the closest attention is the ability to listen. I feel I am a good listener and generally open to other perspectives and points of view; however, sometimes when you are focused on something and believe you are on the right course, it can be challenging at the time to open up and listen to other points of view and pivot. It is getting the balance right of providing direction while at the same time having the sonar tuned to new information.
WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED?
Be comfortable with ambiguity. You do not have to have all the answers but be confident within yourself to look to others who do. I had a mentor who taught me that you do not have to be the person with all the answers, you just need to know how to get the answer with the people around you effectively.
WHAT INDUSTRY CHALLENGE KEEPS YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT?
Climate change. We are seeing the destruction of our planet before our eyes, which is the greatest threat to humanity. I worry for my children and future generations and I hope that I can play a small part in helping to make a change.
I am privileged to work for an organisation that is playing its part in the energy transition. We are capable of operating the system with up to 75% of wind power at any given time and have increased efforts to achieve 95% by 2030 and beyond to help Ireland deliver on its RES-E target of 70% renewables. The challenges ahead are enormous; however, I am confident we can deliver.
WHAT DOES ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL AND GOVERNANCE (ESG) MEAN TO YOUR ORGANISATION AND WHAT DOES YOUR ROADMAP TO ACHIEVING THESE GOALS LOOK LIKE?
EirGrid has sustainability and climate action at the heart of its strategy and its primary goal is to lead the Irish electricity sector in sustainability and decarbonisation.
We are in the advanced stages of developing our new Sustainability Strategy, which will be aligned with the company’s contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the requirements of ESG.
This strategy will include a series of aims, goals and commitments regarding how the organisation can embed and execute our ESG principles throughout the business.
HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC CHANGED YOUR VISION OF THE FUTURE FOR YOUR COMPANY AND THE SECTOR AS A WHOLE?
It fundamentally challenged what we consider to be the workspace, how we work and where we work. This has changed forever. The pandemic has only served to accelerate that change process. Technological innovation has filled the gap and will continue to enhance our remote collaborative experience. At EirGrid, this will mean a hybrid arrangement between the office and home. We will move to a communal and collaborative workspace where we can develop our collaborations in a more meaningful way. Moving to this arrangement helps us reduce our office footprint and reduce our overall environmental impact. From my perspective, I hope that this also helps with work-life balance and reduces the strain of commuting.
From an industry-wide perspective, allowing collaboration to happen in a much broader and efficient way is critical. No longer is it necessary to get on a flight for a meeting. Instead, we can connect on a variety of virtual meeting platforms. While it is great to meet up with people in a physical environment, online remote collaboration has been extremely productive.
While most of us in an office setting have benefitted from the opportunity that remote working presents, I think it is important to acknowledge the thousands of people in our industry who did not have this option. My colleagues in the National Control Centres and support functions in Dublin and Belfast who work day and night to keep the lights on, and who have continued to work tirelessly and seamlessly throughout the pandemic while implementing new operational and safety practices to minimise the spread of COVID-19. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AROUND THE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) EVOLUTION AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR?
The possibilities are endless, as computer power continues to increase exponentially and as our understanding of how to develop complex algorithms further grows the role of AI and machine learning in power system operation and the broader energy sector will rise.
We know that power system operation is becoming more complex as we move towards a system with significant penetration of power electronics embedded in wind and solar, significant HVDC interconnection and the possibility of HVDC offshore grids; as well as a more decentralised and distributed environment with the growth of microgrids, residential rooftop solar/ batteries and electric vehicles. We will also see greater decision making by individuals on how their energy needs are met and managed. If we are to maximise the potential that all of this presents, AI and machine learning will play a critical role.
Machine learning and AI cannot just help us with decision making in the real-time environment but also has the potential to help make system studies and analysis much more efficient, effective and accurate. Today, system studies can take months and years to complete but with machine learning this process can be reduced significantly, helping us make better-informed decisions.
The interview was conducted by the Global Power And Energy Elites and is featured as a part of the 2022 Global Elites Leadership.