Get to Know: Jennifer Williams

1. Where did you grow up?

I grew up near the Avalon mall on Larkhall Street in St. John’s.

2. What are your greatest indulgences?

I think my greatest indulgence is taking vacations with my family. Prior to Covid, I tried to plan vacations once a year. The last one was a special trip with just my two daughters. Another indulgence that seems small but is meaningful to me, is taking short trips in a kayak on a very calm pond. I seem to be able to do this about a dozen times a year and I really do enjoy every single time I go.

3. What is your favourite movie or book?

One of my favourite movies is Planes, Trains and Automobiles – I still laugh out loud even though I’ve seen it many, many, times. And a more recent favourite is the Broadway musical Hamilton. Last year, it was released as a movie, which was great because I love Broadway musicals. For this one, I love the music but there’s a lot to learn from it. I find parallels about how organizations, society and those in it choose to live, which can still apply to our lives today even though it’s set back in the late 1700s.

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett is a book that I really loved. For me, it connected some early historical civil engineering achievements with a fictional historical background. I really started to enjoy learning about life in the 12th century. It’s been a long time since I read that book, and I know that there is now a prequel, which I will have to put on my list!

4. What is your most treasured possession?

One of two things. My mother was from a community in Placentia Bay called Little Harbour West, which was resettled. I had the opportunity to have a painting done of that community a few years ago. Another is a wine decanter that had belonged to her mother (my grandmother). My mother passed away 21 years ago, now, and I miss her all the time. I think both of these things would mean a lot to her, and so they mean a lot to me.

5. Who was your greatest mentor?

I really have had some very good mentors, however I think the best have been ones that haven’t carried that official label. I have to mention my mother. I didn’t know her very much during my working career but I believe she taught me some pretty critical characteristics and was therefore an amazing role model. Her work ethic was uncommon, her determination also uncommon, and her unspoken and unrelenting requirement to “make it” despite so many major hurdles was something I feel I learned without even knowing it.

And another recent role model would be Jim Haynes. I really admire Jim’s ability to truly understand the system, his ability to ask “helpful questions“ so that he would expand the thinking of others and teach them the kind of thinking he knew utility folks needed, and his fundamental approach to being a servant to his province. I don’t think I’ll ever quite measure up, but I do try to channel Jim Haynes many days. I am grateful I got to know him and work with him for several years.

6. What do you do in your free time?

My life is quite boring in my free time! When I’m home I’m pretty much at the disposal of my family. I have two teenage daughters with busy lives, so I do everything I can to be available to them when I am not working. I try and cook for them most nights, I try to get them back-and-forth to where they need to go so that I can spend a few minutes in the car talking to them. Otherwise, I spend some time at my cabin with our two dogs that I adore, or simply watching some TV on a Friday night.

7. What would people be surprised to learn about you?

That I am the youngest of eight kids and I have a half brother as well, and that I grew up with very little from a financial perspective – and I mean very little. I have zero financial privilege in my background.

8. What are you most grateful for?

I think it’s related to the previous question – I actually think I am most grateful for a really big family whom I adore. That comes with in-laws, nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews! I actually have seven great nieces and nephews right now with two more on the way. It really is a wonderful gift for which I feel so lucky.

9. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?

From a work perspective, I was involved in the strike at the airport that went on for just under a year. For everyone involved, it was physically and mentally exhausting for a very long time. It was incredibly stressful. And while I would never wish it on anyone, I learned a lot about myself and others in that time. It really did educate me on so many fronts.

10. What is your best and worst quality?

I don’t know if this is an official quality but is “dog on a bone” a quality? If it is, that might actually be both a best and the worst quality. Once I’ve got the bone, I want to see it through even if I’m only peripherally involved. This especially applies to really important aspects of our work. When something is really meaningful, I dig in and guide a file. I think that could be a good quality and allows me to participate with authority and knowledge in key files. However, it can also be bad because I can sometimes play too big a role and get too “into the weeds” as they say. It can also prevent other people from being developed so I’m conscious of this and I am working on getting better at letting go.

11. What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

My dog looking for his dog chew every morning! I don’t have a choice, I have to get out of bed! I actually dislike going to bed at night and therefore I’m tired many mornings. But I have to say, getting up and heading into work is in and of itself motivating. I really do love being part of an organization that is doing something on behalf of the province. I end up referencing that fact at least once every second day in a conversation with somebody. So I think it’s the obligation to the province and the people of the province that gets me out of bed (after the dog wakes me up).

12. What’s your number one priority for the business right now?

My number one priority now is to continue to keep all of our amazing employees informed on this evolving organizational change, and on what we are doing as a business. All of us collectively doing a really good job, are delivering amazing things to this province. So I really feel accountable to keep everyone informed about what’s happening, so they have what they need and feel motivated to do a really good job. It’s amazing what we can all do together.

13. What keeps you up at night?

Waiting for my teenage daughters to get home. Or when my dogs bark at the tiniest noise outside. I don’t think that’s what this question really meant but literally that’s what keeps me up at night!  But also, it’s the desire to make sure we’ve done everything to keep employees safe so everyone goes home to their families, and the desire to make sure we meet the expectations of the public and government. It’s really hard to shut my brain off at night when I think about these things!

14. You can have a dinner party with any 4 people (from the past or present). Who’s invited?

Terry Fox, Helen Keller, my mother and Dave Letterman.

15. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

This is more of a mantra during challenging times as opposed to advice. It came up during Obama’s run for president in the states. Michelle Obama gave a speech at that time, and in that speech she said, “When they go low, we go high.” I loved that at the time and I reference that a fair bit in the course of my life.

16. How would your kids describe you?

Irritating. A terrible singer. Bossy. As someone who has a very strange sense of humor. I don’t think I’ve hit role model stage in their mind yet, but one can hope though, right?!

17. What is your leadership style?

What I attempt to do is to build a team of complementary strengths. I really try to connect with people, understand their strengths and what they enjoy. Then invest time with them to explain why we’re doing something so that they can be fully present and able to contribute fully in what we’re doing.  Collaborative leadership is the ideal which I strive for – but I’m not perfect in the execution and have been known to jump in and make a decision.

18. What skills and traits do you think contribute to your success?

I’ve actually put a lot of thought into this this last few years, and for me it comes down to:  “Listen, be humble, know who you serve.” Really simple.

We have to listen to our critics, the shareholder, the public, employees, etc. We can be experts in our field but if we don’t listen to what’s expected of us, we will never deliver the right product. We have to be humble and make sure that, in the area where we are experts, that we also value what the non-experts have to say to shape what we deliver. We do not have perfect perspective – this applies to interacting with people outside the organization but also as we work across teams. And finally, knowing who we serve and knowing who I serve, has served me well. I have great respect for government and what they ask of us. It’s a pretty simple formula overall, using these three key traits.

19. Do you have any advice for new employees?

Always be eager to listen. Make sure you are projecting a lot of interest in what’s going on around you, then participate with passion. And finally, really look for how your job connects to the benefit of this province. And be very proud of it. I am.