Stephanie Smith: The natural collaborator21 October 2020
The new CANDU Owners Group president, Stephanie Smith, comes with a pedigree of senior nuclear plant operation backstopped by a chemical engineering degree. She says the real power is in the team
Above: Stephanie Smith is the new president and CEO of the CANDU Owners Group
FOR STEPHANIE SMITH, SUCCESS HAS never been about being the smartest person in the room, despite accomplishments worth the bragging rights.
After graduating high school with 100 per cent in mathematics, Smith took what was a relatively unconventional path for a young woman in 1986, gaining a chemical engineering degree.
Through the following three decades, Smith’s early success would prove to be a harbinger of what was to come. She moved through the ranks at Ontario Hydro, then its successor generation company, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), in roles that successively broke glass ceilings. In her journey from junior systems engineer to shift manager, director of operations and maintenance, and deputy senior vice president at the multi-unit Darlington nuclear station, Smith earned the title “trailblazer” for the list of firsts accomplished along the way.
On 1 September this year, Smith added another first to her list, becoming the first female president and CEO in the 36-year history of the CANDU Owners Group (COG). The organisation’s mandate is to drive innovation and continuous improvement in Candu nuclear plants through collaboration between its members and the broader nuclear industry. More recently, the organisation has also facilitated its members’ ambitions beyond Candu, in new nuclear technologies and in decommissioning and waste management.
In her new role with COG, Smith will once again push her own boundaries, this time leaving the insular world of the nuclear plant to build relationships and programmes across nuclear utilities, suppliers, and organisations, worldwide.
The road to nuclear leadership
It was a class trip to Ontario Hydro’s Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in the late 1980s, in the third year of her degree studies at the University of Toronto, that introduced Smith to nuclear. But it was not the engineering side of the business that caught her attention.
“I went into the control room and there was the shift manager, kind of like [Star Trek’s] Captain Kirk, hands on the controls, in the chair, and I thought, ‘That is the coolest job ever’,” she recalls.
At 22, degree in hand, Smith landed a job at Darlington as a junior systems engineer. “I made it known I really wanted to be a shift supervisor and was looking for the experience to get there,” she says. A few years later, when an offer came for her to transfer over to the company’s other nuclear station, Pickering, 45 minutes down the road, she crossed over into operations and never looked back.
The Pickering plant had eight units – four commissioned in the early 1970s and four commissioned in the early 1980s. These were pioneers among the Candu stations and early on had not benefitted from the operating knowledge or maintenance programmes put in place in subsequent years. As a result, when Smith transferred in the mid-1990s the plants were showing wear and tear, though they were still relatively young by today’s standards.
“In those days, there was a lot to improve at Pickering,” Smith says of one of the most challenging periods in the plant’s history. “I wanted to go somewhere I could make a difference.”
In the years that would follow, Smith became the first woman ever licensed on the plant’s newer units (Pickering 5-8) after taking the rigorous training required to gain authorised nuclear operator credentials. With her sights set on the shift manager role, Smith juggled home life with the gruelling demands of training and work, while trying to maintain enough emotional reserve for her two young daughters. It was not always easy. She shares credit with her husband, who left his own job to focus on raising the girls, given the demands of her schedule. “This was a family decision,” says Smith. She says, that even with the benefit of having a parent at home, the long hours and challenging work could still leave her feeling torn between two very different all-consuming worlds. She notes that the nature of control room shift work is that you report in and you do not leave until the shift is done. There is no stepping out to manage a child’s illness or to fix something that has gone wrong at school. And, after 12-hour shifts, it isn’t always a smooth transition between the control room and the household. “Sometimes, the girls would tell me to stop talking to them like a shift manager,” she laughs.
From 2006 to 2014 Smith took on the role of shift manager at Pickering Nuclear
The toll of hours away from home is a challenge and a commitment faced by all families when one parent signs
on to control room operations. The unique demand of the training and work is part of the reason many utilities provide spouses with their own sessions early on during the operator-in-training programme.
With her shift manager goal still in mind, Smith completed the required tests, exams and the 400 required hours shadowing a licensed shift manager. At last, in 2006, she had earned the right to sit in the ‘captain’s chair’ of her own control room. It was a role she would play for almost nine years. And just like the fictional Kirk, she would rely on a close-knit team of skilled and highly-respected colleagues to co-pilot the journey.
“These guys — and I say guys because they were all men — they saved my bacon more than a few times,” she says. “Even if you’re the boss, it’s OK to admit when you don’t know the answer.” Together, for almost a decade, they found the answers and when Smith moved roles, the crew chipped in on a $500 spa gift certificate.
Smith became assistant operations manager, manager and then director of maintenance. Eventually, she became director of operations and maintenance (DOM) for the entire Pickering station.
“Maintenance manager, out of all the jobs, was the one I most thoroughly enjoyed,” she says, of her time leading the team of 800 maintenance staff. “They want to do work and the best part of my job was just finding ways to remove barriers for them. They were the best bunch.”
Every other week, Smith says, she would pull the entire team together so she could hear what challenges she needed to tackle on their behalf. At 5 foot 4 inches high Smith needed a platform and bull horn to ensure she could connect visually and be heard by the full group, but the regular meetings were effective and fit well with her hands-on leadership style.
In May 2017, when she took over the role, Smith moved to a level of busy that surpassed even her previous roles. “As plant manager, you can’t delegate. It is all consuming for an average of 70 hours a week. It isn’t a role you can sustain indefinitely,” she says.
In the years between when Smith first transferred to Pickering until she left in early 2019, the station’s performance improved steadily. The continuous improvement created an opportunity to extend the plant’s operating life. In 2019, for the first time ever, the plant was recognised for operational excellence by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). Smith says, “The greatest reward has been the opportunity to work as part of a team tasked with a single-minded purpose. You become a family. We laughed, we cried, we rallied around a common goal.
“At INPO, they really focussed on teamwork and I would say my greatest accomplishment was seeing Pickering succeed and getting that rating of excellence (in 2019).
It served the plant well to adopt a more facilitative and inclusive atmosphere. Pickering is an example of good teamwork. People still want to work there, even though it is scheduled to end operation. Everyone feels part of the team.”
The strong performance coupled with breakthrough research conducted through COG, demonstrating fuel channel fitness for service, has earned the plant the right to continue operation several years beyond its original design basis. Most recently, the Ontario government has expressed support for a plan to extend the newer four units (5-8) until the end of 2025, a year later than is currently approved by the federal nuclear safety regulator. OPG will make its case for the extended operation at a future hearing.
After two years as Pickering’s DOM, Smith headed to WANO, working through the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) in Atlanta, criss-crossing the US in 32 aeroplanes over seven months. Upon her return to OPG, she moved into the role of deputy site vice president at Darlington, where her career had begun.
In July 2019 Smith became the first female deputy site vice president at Darlington nuclear power plant
Smith’s daughters are now at the age she was when she started her career and these two strong and independent young women are unlikely to see gender as a barrier to their own aspirations.
At the helm of a new ship
In early September 2020, a few weeks after Smith started with COG and just a few days after officially taking the controls from COG’s president of the past six years, Fred Dermarkar, Smith conducted her first all-staff meeting as a president and CEO.
Thanks to COVID-19, she doesn’t need a bull horn or even a microphone for the COG ‘town hall’ meeting. Like many support organisations, COG’s team is mainly working from home. It’s a reality that Smith acknowledges makes sense for the times, but it is one she struggles with.
It’s not that she can’t manage the technology. She appears at ease and poised on camera. Her issue is the lack of in-person interaction. As she puts it, “I’m a people person. What I value is communication, working together and having a little fun as an organisation, and so it’s a little bit different coming in this way.”
She tells her new team to watch for invites each of them is receiving for a personal one-on-one virtual coffee chat, so she can get to know them better and learn what they need from her.
As it is not only the time of pandemic but also the time of Black Lives Matter, she asks for their help to figure out the best way for COG to respond. “The one thing you will find about me is I am always honest. And to be honest, I really don’t know what I can do and what COG can do. I need to really understand the issues,” she told them. “So, I would offer, when we have our one-on-ones, if you want to talk about it and share some of your experiences, I would really value that because I really want to figure out what we can do to help.”
Using just seven minutes of the 15-minute time slot in her first president’s address, Smith manages to extend an invitation to her team to help her do her job, offers them the help needed to do theirs and shares a short story of some exciting moments during her days as shift manager, revealing to them some key insights about her collaborative leadership style. And with that, she finishes, ensuring the meeting ends ahead of schedule on a busy Friday morning, likely endearing herself to many on her new team for that alone.
For Smith, leadership is about creating the environment for dialogue, learning what’s needed, removing roadblocks, getting help from those who can offer it.