Consumers Energy’s Mary Anne Marr has always supported her co-workers. She recently discovered that it may be more important to advocate for them. Listen to her story as describes her journey to understanding the difference.
Bill Krieger: Hello, everyone, and welcome to “Me You Us” a well?being podcast. It’s another well?being Wednesday here at Consumers Energy, and I’m your host, Bill Krieger. Today, my guest is Mary Anne Marr. She’s the Executive Director of Real Estate here at Consumers Energy. Mary Anne, if you’d introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.
Mary Anne Marr: Good morning. Mary Anne Marr, I’m the Executive Director of Real Estate for Consumers. I’ve been with Consumers for, going on 26 years, so a long time and all of my career has been in the real estate department.
Most people shift around a lot. I’ve been there. I love my job. I love our team. I love the company and all of the opportunities we’ve had over the years to learn and grow. Real estate departments may be one that most people don’t think about.
We have our hands in pretty much every major project that the company is working on, whether it’s our plant sites, whether electric distribution, new customer connections, our renewables development. Just about every transaction, somewhere, we’re in there.
Bill: I remember way back when they used to call us, customer energy specialists. Real estate was very important because we would go talk to the right?away people, especially when we had those right?away descriptions that were like, “Turn left at this rock and turn right at that tree.”
Mary Anne: Yeah. At the tree.
Bill: The tree and the rock weren’t there anymore. We really had to look.
Mary Anne: Try and find that tree now. Our surveyors take care of that for us.
Bill: Exactly. You gave us a pretty good description of real estate and some of the things that you do. For some of our listeners, executive director of real estate might not say exactly what you do. Could you talk a little bit more about how you earn a living here at Consumers?
Mary Anne: How I earn a living. Our team really is, we’re actually a pretty big team. There’s about 70 of us in real estate. It’s our survey, our acquisition team, and we also manage all of the assets.
My role is to help lead the team and facilitate and make sure that they have all the tools that they need, that we’re aligned with all of our strategic goals as a company, and making sure that we’re connecting those dots thinking about affordability, thinking about those goals, clean energy, how do we get there, and what does our team need to support that?
I’m part of the OPs support team under Jeff Schindler, and that would include corporate safety and facilities. Facilities play a big part of what we do as well, how we support that, where we’re going. I partner with Chris Shellberg, who’s our executive director there, helping to think about the strategy and return to the workplace, buildings are they in the right place, right location?
It’s a lot of different pieces that come into my role. I have to say, the team that I work with does the heavy lifting.
Bill: As any good supervisor or leader would tell you, there’s no magic necessarily to what we do as leaders. It’s the people that we work with that make the magic happen.
Mary Anne: They do. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. We do. We have a great team, very creative thinkers, out of the box. They take a lot of pride in achievement, accomplishment and getting it done, and delivery. We have a lot of projects that are under very tight timeframes.
Building new lines and getting those in service and our customers, and thinking about the impact we have, when we’re dealing with customers, and the impact we have on their lives. Someone needs a new service, we’ve got to figure out how to get that line to them because we’re not always just on their property.
They take pride in that, and they figure it out. That takes a lot of sometimes creative thinking and partnering with all the groups to make it happen.
Bill: I can only imagine. I want to ask you this. I don’t see a six? or seven?year?old Mary Anne Marr going, “Gosh, someday when I grew up, I want to be the executive director of real estate.” How did you get here?
Mary Anne: How did I get here? We were talking about that my career path was probably very different. I never knew quite what I wanted to do. I started my career in very young age in real estate sales, which I actually was not good at, I would say. I knew pretty quickly it wasn’t for me. I was fascinated with the valuation side and the math and things. I started studying to become an appraiser.
I lived in Canada at the time, that’s where I was from, and worked as an apprentice appraiser for a number of years doing large agricultural operations, dairy, hog operations, poultry farms. Ultimately, I moved to the States. I’ve been here for almost 30 years now. Again, I started working doing commercial industrial appraisal work for a small company out of Adrian.
Then I started specializing in, we call it the acquisition of partial interest, meaning we acquire easements, we’re not purchasing the whole property and started specializing in that and started doing things like highway work, doing new projects. They were doing the East belt line over in Grand Rapids. I did some work on that.
I did a lot of row commission work things for smaller projects. Then an opportunity came up at Consumers for an appraiser. I applied. I know it’s funny, I wasn’t the first pick. It took a while, took almost nine months from the time I first interviewed by the time I got the job offer.
I remember I was so excited because it was an area that I found fascinating. It wasn’t just a transaction, you got to see a project from start to finish, and everything that goes into it. It changed my thinking. I’ve been here ever since.
Bill: I want to go back a little because we were talking a little bit before the podcast about this. It’s important for people to get, especially when you’re talking about easements or right away you said, “We’re not purchasing the property, we just want to be able to use it for this purpose.” You can have all the technical skills in the world, but that comes down to relationships.
Mary Anne: It does. A big piece of our work is acquiring. When I think about a lot of our new business work, we are having to acquire from people that don’t necessarily want to sell or give us anything.
Building a relationship, building trust, explaining the need, and being able to knock on someone’s door and take that challenge of, “I’m going to work with them. We’re going to figure out a solution here.” It takes a unique skill because you have to have technical skills, but you also have to build that relationship.
We are working with customers on a daily basis trying to make that happen. We’re pretty darn successful. They take a lot of pride in being able to get that person on board, get a signature, and help drive that project forward.
Bill: I have to imagine that some of that is showing what the benefit is to the person that’s giving that permission or giving up that right.
Mary Anne: Sometimes there’s no benefit, though. That’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s, “We’ve got to serve your neighbor.” Quite often, people don’t always get along with their neighbors. Sometimes we hit some big barriers, then we’ve got to figure out, how can we move around? Are there other opportunities? Where do we go?
A lot of times, it is just tapping into, it’s providing that service for everyone. There are projects definitely where we talk about the benefits to the community. The benefits to reliability, and all the things we want. It’s very difficult because usually if we’re doing electric or gas pipeline installations, it involves trees and taking out trees, which people are very attached to.
You’re dealing with someone’s biggest investment, their home, usually. It’s where they spend their time. It’s what they take pride in. We’re taking something from them. It can be that empathy, that understanding, that communication. It’s not something that happens overnight. It takes building a relationship.
Bill: Absolutely. I know from my time here that that’s…I remember as a younger person, people always said, “Relationships matter.” The key is not building the relationship because you need something but building the relationship because it’s the right to do.
Mary Anne: Because you care.
Bill: Yes, it’s so very important. When we talk about relationships, one of the reasons that I reached out to you was that a good friend of mine said, “I can’t believe what my boss did for me.” I was shocked too because of the way sometimes we look at things with blinders on and don’t try to look outside the box. I’m not going to tell the story. I’d rather that you did this.
I will set it up to say that as we’re coming out of COVID, there’s a great deal of emphasis on meeting face?to?face and in person. There’s lots of reasons for that. We want to build those relationships. Sometimes that’s easier to do when we’re sitting across the table from each other like we’re doing right now.
We want to have those interactions. We want to do that networking, all these things, all these great reasons why. For some of us, we can’t. It’s not physically possible. I’m going to leave it there and let you pick up the story.
Mary Anne: I’ll maybe start from the end and move backwards a little bit. I do have permission. Teresa has allowed me to share this. I have one of my leaders, Teresa Stacinas, is disabled. She works remotely from home. Teresa has been working remotely from home since 2015, long before COVID, long before technology.
She’s in a position. We’ve developed a really close relationship to thinking about how I can support her. Teresa has MS. She has a lot of physical challenges trying to work. It’s progressed over time since 2015. We’ve been with her through the whole journey.
Teresa’s co?chair of capABLE, which is cool. She has her own personal perspective and can bring that. Thinking as a leader, back when we first started and Teresa was working remotely, she was the voice at the end of the phone. Quite often, you’d get to the end of a meeting and it’s like, “Oh yeah, do you have anything to add?”
It was difficult. We worked through that. We thought we were doing pretty well. Then COVID hit us. One of the things that dawned on me was, all of a sudden Teresa was on a level playing field with the rest of us. Actually, she had an advantage. She’d been working remotely. She’d figured this out. We had all the tools available to us.
We had Teams. For the first time, she could see us. We could be on video and engage. She wasn’t just the last person there. That started me thinking, “Why did it take us so long to figure that out?” and thinking about inclusiveness and how we bring people together.
Fast forward, I thought I’ve been, what I would say, supportive of working with Teresa and figuring out what needs to happen, but I haven’t been advocating and making sure that I’m supporting in a way that brings visibility and doesn’t put an individual with disabilities in this position where they feel they have to ask all the time.
It should be me thinking ahead and me being in that position where I’m out there. Perfect example, we have a upcoming leadership meeting tomorrow. Hopefully, the weather holds for us. Historically, someone like Teresa who can’t physically participate misses out. They’re waiting for someone to bring back information.
This is in person. We know there’s a drive for everybody to see everyone face?to?face. She’d be there if she could, but she can’t. I reached out to Leslie Roth and Sherry Burris and said, “Hey, you know…” I was a little nervous asking. I thought there’s this pressure right now to be face?to?face, but she can’t.
I want her to get that benefit so that she can share that and bring back that experience to her team. We asked the question. What can we do? Is there a way we can think about bringing her into this meeting in a way that doesn’t distract but allows her to hear and participate?
I was absolutely amazed at the reaction we got. I was expecting, “Well, we want everyone there face?to?face.” It was the exact opposite. It was, “We had an idea. We’re bringing in an Owl. We’re going to set it up so that, yeah, she can hear.” It’ll be a bit of a tester. This is the first time we’ve done something like this. We’ll use that feedback.
Thinking about, how do we build a future for our employees who aren’t able to participate physically and in person? That’s where I see my role helping drive that thinking and helping bring that awareness and visibility a little further forward, and helping create that environment so that someone doesn’t necessarily have to ask all the time.
It puts them in a difficult position where it’s like, “Yeah, I understand. I get it.” No, I want her to be part of those things. I want her to be able to hear and experience it to the best of her ability. That’s the most recent thing. I’ll back up a little bit.
I grew up in a household. My father was disabled. He had a very rare neurological disease. It was called Charcot?Marie?Tooth disease. It’s a genetic disease, inherited, in some ways very similar to MS. His muscles were wasting away. He basically had no reflexes, so his muscles were wasting away. I watched my father from the time he was first diagnosed ?? I was very young ?? until he passed.
His desire to maintain his independence, his desire to be a part of things…He couldn’t always be because of physical limitations. What I also observed, looking back, was his creativity. I know duct tape solves all the answers to everything.
Bill: This is true. [laughs]
Mary Anne: In our house, it was hockey tape. Stairs were wrapped in hockey tape so that he could grip things. He’d come up with all these different ways of managing and thinking about things. I realized when you have and live with someone with disabilities, that creativity that they have to have to enable their lives, it goes across the board.
I think about, it’s that overcompensation that an individual brings and that heightened sensitivity they have, they can bring so much more to their work because they have to think out of the box. They have to think differently. They have to cope.
I’ve followed that, and I learned a lot in thinking about my father, thinking about what it was like for him, knowing how stressful it was for him. I would always talk to him about these things and what I viewed sometimes as stubbornness was just that desire that he had to be independent, maintain his independence, and be a part of something.
I was able to relate that in working with Teresa. We’ve been together for years now. Thinking about, how do I support, not just support, how do I advocate? That’s the shift. I’m towards the end of my career. Thinking about how do you make that difference as a leader and take that extra step versus I’m not just going to accommodate, I want to help that person excel.
I know there is so much they’re capable of. There’s so much they can bring to the team. There’s so much they can help us with. Creating that environment where it’s OK to talk about it, it’s OK to understand, and we can work together and really make a difference, not just for the employee but for the company too.
Bill: There’s a couple of things there. One is that distinction between advocacy and support. We all want to be supportive. Advocacy’s that next level of support where we’re doing something and taking some actions to make sure that people get what they need.
The other thing in all of that discussion is that when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, this is a great example of diversity, inclusion, and equity not just for the sake of diversion, equity, and inclusion. Teresa’s a very successful leader. She’s very good at what she does.
To your point, she brings a different way of looking at and thinking about things because of her unique life to the table, which is probably help in problem?solving and all these other things. Sometimes we talk about DE&I, we think about maybe checking a box somewhere. This is a great example of how this is not just good for Teresa. This is good for our company and our coworkers.
Mary Anne: Absolutely. I will say, I’m always super proud of Teresa and what she brings, but, highest, think about this, she had out of our entire OP support organization, the highest rating on our employee engagement score for employee?supervisor interaction.
She’s never met face?to?face with some of her employees ever. Yet, she’s managed to create that environment. That’s something we can all learn from is how do you create that environment where you can have those relationships?
Her team is, I will tell you, devoted. They cover for each other. They’ve learned how to work together and pull together as a team to find solutions and make things work. I see her. I look to Teresa is really the one person on our team that brings a lot of that empathy, feeling, understanding, and compassion to her team to the rest of our employees.
It makes her a unique leader. It really does. There’s just so much there, that if we’re not creating that environment, we as a company are really missing out.
Bill: I’m going to go all the way back to 2015 when working from home was unheard of. I remember right around that timeframe, if I had the opportunity to work at my kitchen table, I felt guilty, like I was doing something wrong. I was getting a lot of work done.
For you and others to say, “Hey, we got it, Teresa. You’re a great employee. We want to keep you here, so let’s figure out how to accommodate this,” and you did.
It would have been very easy not to. We would have lost out on all of these years of having her amazing supervision, her ideas, and her skill set that will be passed on to others so that when you and I aren’t working here anymore, and when Teresa is not working anymore, people will have learned from her and carried that forward.
Mary Anne: I think back to when we first started with this remote work, it was like, “Oh.” There were so many things as a leader I was thinking about, is, “OK. Does this start a trend?” It felt like in some ways, it’s an exception, so I have to be careful in how I move forward rather than letting it go and learning and saying, how do we make it work? There was always that fear.
As her situation changed, we had to figure out ways to make her work environment better for her. She’s the only one that could tell us that. Getting comfortable having those kinds of discussions, and being open and honest, there’s a lot of fears. There’s a lot of insecurities. There’s always that fear of, “Am I doing enough?” I know that would run through her mind is, “What’s going to happen?”
She helped prepare our team for the pandemic and for everyone having to be remote because for her, it was like, “This is no different than every single day I’ve been doing this.” I think it’s an opportunity for us as leaders, lean into that a little more than you have. Don’t be afraid to explore it.
Don’t be afraid, because it’s not just me, it’s our entire team, that is thinking about, how do we make sure we’re having that communication and that interaction? How do we make sure we’re working together as a team? It hasn’t always been easy, it hasn’t always been perfect either.
I can’t imagine it being any different than what we have now. I can imagine it being better. Technology has changed so much. It’s going to keep changing for us. Just making sure that we’re taking time to see that whole person, and what they bring and what they offer, we’re missing out if we don’t do that as leaders.
Bill: I also think, you said something, it was a very small part of the conversation. You said it wasn’t perfect. I don’t think perfection should ever be the goal. If we think about the old adage, “Oh, practice makes perfect.” It really doesn’t. Practice makes progress.
As long as you’re moving forward and making progress, it’s the imperfections that help us to hone that into a better experience for people.
Mary Anne: I can tell you a lot of support, Jeff Shingler, who’s our VP for Ops support, in one creating that environment where Teresa was included, we have leadership meetings. We did our last one and brought in an Owl. It was a two?day meeting. How do you sit at home and not participate?
We made it work so that, one, she could participate. She could communicate with us. She could share. That experience for her made it better. It made it better for everyone in the room because we’re all thinking about it. We’re all aware of it.
It’s like, “Oh, yeah. It’s not Teresa, the voice at the end of the phone line. It’s Teresa, the leader who is taking her team and participating, and being brought into that discussion.” It’s not that hard. Takes a little bit of extra effort, but it’s not that hard.
Bill: Even if it was that hard, we should probably be doing the effort anyway, I would think.
Mary Anne: Absolutely.
Bill: I’m glad that Teresa sent me the email and shared that story with me and that we were able to connect. This is the first time Mary Anne and I have met face?to?face. It’s been a great experience. We are getting close to the end of the podcast.
Before we go, you’ve already left the audience with great nuggets to take away. What would you like them to take away from this conversation today?
Mary Anne: My key is, as a leader, let go of some of the fears that you have about, “How am I going to do this?” “How’s it going to work?” Really just lean in and recognize that there are plenty of places for us to make a difference. We make a difference with our people.
Thinking about our people and what they bring to the company. Providing that opportunity, especially for those with disabilities, to be a part of this amazing world we live in here at Consumers and to embrace it. Do whatever you need to do. Ask. Don’t be afraid to ask and engage in the conversation and build that relationship so that it can be one of, “How do we make it work? How do I help you?”
Not just, “How do I help you, but how do I support you not just day to day, but how do I help you grow?” Teresa’s one I’m proud of. Her stepping up to the role of co?chair of capABLE is just a tremendous opportunity for her to make a difference. That’s my goal, is how can I help others make a difference?
Bill: Thank you for that. I do want to say some of the audience, so not all of our audience members are members of Consumers Energy. Some of them work in other places. When we talk about capABLE, here at Consumers Energy, we have business employee resource groups or BERGs, and capABLE is one of them for our differently?abled co?workers.
They do all kinds of advocacy and support work for folks here at Consumers as well as for our customers and folks out in the communities that we serve.
You can learn about them through our website, consumersenergy.com. There’s a whole section that talks about the different business employee resource groups that we have here. I just wanted to make sure that I pointed that out. Thank you so much for agreeing to come on and chat with me today. I’m looking forward to talk to you in the future.
Mary Anne: Thank you so much for having me.