Outstanding Directors 2023: Lynn Casey

Outstanding Directors 2023: Lynn Casey

For board service to Xcel Energy (2018-present)

Other board service

Walker Sands Inc. (2020-present)

Lakewood Cemetery (2019-present)

Mia (2016-present)

Walman Inc. (2014-22)

Greater Twin Cities United Way (2004-09; 2011-17)

The Minneapolis Foundation (2006-13)

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (2002-08)

As Lynn Casey tells it, she didn’t exactly expect to end up on a public company board. “Communications pros don’t typically have the financial acumen, understanding of P&Ls, that you need on a public board,” she says. But perhaps that’s trademark Casey humility. After all, she built Padilla into a top 10 national comms firm while transitioning it to an innovative employee ownership structure.

“Lynn is a remarkably gifted businesswoman,” explains Tim Welsh, US Bank’s vice chair of consumer and business banking. He served with Casey for over a decade on the working team of The Itasca Project and the board of Greater Twin Cities United Way. “How that shows up in the board room is extraordinary judgment,” Welsh adds. “Knowing the right thing at the right time in the right way. A deep and genuine care for the community.”

But Casey’s acumen in internal and external messaging has risen in value as a skill set, to the point that boards have to be dialed-in, even at regulated monopolies like Xcel. “Boards realize brand-building and reputation management is increasingly important,” she says.

Xcel CEO Bob Frenzel inherited Casey at the start of his tenure in 2021. He also inherited a changing landscape in the once-insular utility universe. “The last four years have been particularly challenging in managing community/employee relations. The pandemic, George Floyd, the reversal of Roe v. Wade. We’ve been asked [by employees and community members] to be involved in non-traditional areas of corporate engagement. Lynn’s counsel about how we talk to stakeholders is critical.”

It’s not an era when shareholder value is primary, secondary, and tertiary among priorities. “The idea of a triple bottom-line—people-profits-planet—is ascendant,” Casey explains. “[BlackRock investment management CEO] Larry Fink’s [2022] letter to CEOs talked about needing to pay attention to employees and communities. It was the shot across the bow.”

Frenzel is unsure how Xcel would have navigated this transition without Casey. “Picking sides has never been a goal of mine,” he says. “[Utilities have] tried to stay out of controversies of the day, but that isn’t always the way now. Lynn has been invaluable in helping us set a course, instrumental in helping us envision what we can be.”

After our conversation, Frenzel was headed to lunch with Casey, where he expected to discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in university admissions. It didn’t have an obvious relevance to Xcel’s work, but he knew Casey would see beyond the linear, if it had subtler ripple effects.

Casey has a simple slogan that guides her approach as a director: “Noses in, fingers out. You need to remind yourself you’re not managing.” It’s not a stretch, as Casey has long been an adherent to the philosophical school of “servant leadership.” She is the antithesis of the blustering CEO. “Lynn doesn’t speak loudly, so you have to pay attention,” says Welsh. “It’s never about Lynn, and that’s what makes her special.”

Adds Frenzel: “Her even keel, her soft-spokenness, gives her gravitas.”

Casey says she looked to her Padilla board to help her see things she was not seeing and has thus appreciated the opportunity for direct interaction with various Xcel employee groups. “It’s intense, and some weeks it feels like a full-time job, as it should. The expectation is you will speak up, call the CEO if need be,” she says. “Electricity is low prominence in the public eye until it’s high prominence, and then you usually have a problem. It’s a brand/reputation builder’s opportunity, but it’s not an easy story to tell.”

Casey describes Xcel’s power monopoly a “burden the board bears” as it focuses on its “trinity” of concerns: reliable energy, affordable energy, and progressively clean energy. “We have a goal of being carbon free by 2050,” she notes. “Part of our job is determining how we deliver on it.” She feels “the tremendous responsibility the board bears in exchange for that license to operate.”

Frenzel’s goal is a board high in expertise and functionality: “I want a board of accomplished people with skill sets relevant to where we are going. I need business leaders who have solved business problems. I’m looking for creative thinkers with respect for infrastructure and investment; a cohesive unit in tough times.”

Casey embodies that mandate. “Every company,” says Frenzel, “should have someone with Lynn’s skill set on its board.”

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