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Hydro head a tough job made tougher by partisan politics

It didn't take long for news of Jessica McDonald's selection as CEO of BC Hydro for provincial New Democrats to rev up the attack machine.

NDP Leader John Horgan was, he said, "gobsmacked" by the decision, suggesting Ms. McDonald was unqualified to hold the job because she had no background in energy matters. He wrote off the move as a partisan appointment, and attempted to link the newly installed Hydro boss to past government policies he said had greatly harmed the Crown utility.

I suppose this is the Opposition's job – denounce everything the government does. But just once you want politicians to be less predictable; just once you want the New Democrats to find it in themselves to wish someone good luck in what is an extremely tough job – one Ms. McDonald will be carrying out on behalf of all British Columbians, including supporters of the NDP.

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Why would you not want someone like this to succeed? Because it might reflect positively on the government? How incredibly petty. But I guess this is the political system we are stuck with and must sadly learn to accept.

This is not to say Ms. McDonald isn't facing a massive challenge at Hydro. The company represents a public policy quagmire, with billion-dollar decisions to be made that will affect the future of the utility, and province, for decades to come: the Site C dam, an aging infrastructure and a complex capital plan to replace it, ballooning utility rates and on it goes. Is Ms. McDonald up to the task? I guess we're going to find out.

While it may be true she doesn't have any specific experience running a major energy company, neither did most of the other Hydro CEOs who have been named in recent years. (And I don't remember much concern being raised about their energy bona fides.) It's also true that most premiers and prime ministers don't have a record of running a province or a country before they do either.

Not every person who takes over a major corporation has grown up in that organization or even has an intricate understanding of all aspects of the operation. The most successful leaders assemble smart people around them to give them the best advice possible and then try to build consensus around a particular course of action.

You have to be bright, but not the brightest in the room. What great leaders have to have is a high degree of common sense. Also, you have to have unimpeachable integrity and a clear set of values. And Jessica Ms. McDonald certainly has those.

She held the top position in the B.C. bureaucracy under former premier Gordon Campbell when she was still in her 30s. Her rapid ascent surprised many. And any time you leap-frog over older, more experienced people there are bound to be some bad feelings generated along the way. Consequently, it's not a huge surprise that inside the B.C. government there are also people who don't believe she's cut out for this job. And that's okay. Jessica Ms. McDonald has proved people wrong before.

Ms. McDonald is associated with many of Mr. Campbell's most contentious public policy experiments, including his ambitious Green agenda, which foisted Independent Power Producers upon Hydro. Resentment continues to linger inside the utility over that decision, but understand that was Mr. Campbell, not Jessica Ms. McDonald. Perhaps her greatest legacy while working for the former premier was the new relationship that was forged with First Nations.

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Many First Nations leaders in B.C. still have good things to say about the collaborative approach Ms. McDonald took to deal making. These skills are going to be crucial in her new job, where business relationships with aboriginal groups are vital. This is an area that she also focused on with Shell and LNG Canada while in the employ of Heenan Blaikie Management after leaving government in 2009.

She has, in fact, lots of experience in the energy sector.

But in many respects none of that matters now. She will be judged, and judged harshly, for the decisions she makes going forward. She has been awarded one of the most demanding jobs in the province, one in which there are no easy calls. And she has to know there are people out there just waiting, and possibly hoping, she screws up.

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