Thursday, September 28, 2006
FUELED BY HER passion for others
As a master’s student in the SCSU social work program in the mid-1970s, Cyndi Lesher learned a powerful lesson in career success: understand yourself, understand the people you work with and understand the organization. It’s served her well. Lesher was recently named president and CEO of Northern States Power Company-Minnesota, an Xcel Energy company.
Social work may not be a typical background for a top executive in a powerhouse business, but for Lesher it makes sense. "You can have all the technical skills in the world," she said. "But at the end of the day, it’s how you understand people that counts."
Lesher was a social worker at the Minneapolis Rehabilitation Center while she pursued her master’s degree from 1975-77. She’d heard about the program in rehabilitation counseling at SCSU – then one of just three in the country exploring the impact of disabilities on individuals – and visited with the head of the department at the time, Gene Perkins. "It was just like coming home. It was the right place for me at the right time." Commuting wasn’t easy, she said, but it was worth it for the quality faculty, students and program.
Lesher was one of a cohort of 30 in the program’s third class. "It was very innovative at the time," she said. "I liked the authenticity and the intimacy. The others in the group brought great experience and great diversity of experience."
It was another big decision for Lesher, who is directly responsible for Xcel Energy’s operations in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, to leave the non-profit world three years after receiving her master’s. "I wanted to work in a company that matched my values." She was attracted to Xcel forerunner Northern States Power (NSP), where she worked with people with job-related illnesses and injuries.
"NSP had one of the first employee assistance programs working with people who had personal problems or chemical dependency," Lesher said. "It’s how people feel about themselves that makes them successful and happy. They don’t come to work and leave everything at the door."
Karen Young, manager of community and local government relations in the St. Cloud Xcel office, came to know Lesher in the late 1980s and watched her move smoothly into various roles, learning the "nuts and bolts" of the business. "She has loads of passion," Young said of Lesher. "She brings a sense of humor and a strong focus on making sure we’re doing the right thing."
Lesher is loved by her employees, Young said. And the feeling is mutual. "I get my energy from being with people," said the CEO. "If I’m having a bad day, I get in the car and go into the field. "
Throughout her career Lesher has been frequently honored for her commitment and leadership on a broad range of charitable activities and boards. She is chair of the Governor’s Work Force Council and is on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. In 2003 she was inducted into the Women’s Economic Roundtable, the top 100 women executives in Minnesota.
Lesher impressed former St. Paul Mayor and now U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman with her tireless work in the state’s capitol city. "Cyndi truly represents the best of Minnesota, someone who has set the bar high not only through her professional success, but also through her commitment to community involvement," he said. "She’s a leader with a big heart and big goals and the drive and ability to bring out the best in everyone."
Lesher ’77, St. Paul, acknowledges it’s been a long and unusual journey from social work student to CEO. "Back then, if you would have said to me you’ll be a business executive, I’d say you are kidding me."
"But I’m grateful for the things I learned about myself and others. It’s contributed greatly, I believe, to the success and experience I’ve had in my career, and that of my husband, who runs a program at an alternative learning center." Dennis Lesher received his master’s degree in special education from SCSU in 1979.