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Sempra chief speaks on leadership

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To find an input team with a quality staff was the advice Sempra Energy President Neal Schmale offered to students at California State University, San Marcos on Wednesday.

“I don’t think you get the strategy right if you don’t get the right people,” he said of learning how to lead.

From starting out as a foreman on a drilling rig to becoming the chief operating officer at Sempra (NYSE: SRE), Schmale said his leadership style has changed with the job.

He told the students that personal evolution is important in order to manage the company. As a supervisor of a smaller staff, Schmale could work with the employees on an individual basis.

Now, as a leader in a company with 14,000 employees and a lot more responsibility, Schmale said he delegates.

He also emphasized the importance of gathering input from other people. He told the students to hire people smarter than themselves and always ask for feedback.

“People always come to me and say ‘I’ve got to have the answer by tomorrow.' I say ‘if you’ve got to have the answer by tomorrow, the answer is no,’” Schmale said, adding that usually the employee finds a way to arrange more time so Schmale can gather input from other sources.

Gathering feedback is also a way to avoid ethical dilemmas. A bad ethical decision is often compounded by lying about it afterwards -- and Schmale said the whole situation can be avoided by asking for feedback about the initial decision first.

He also told the future employers to be careful that their employees don’t get put in a bad situation.

As for how he has been so successful, Schmale blamed it on good luck and hard work -- saying the two go hand in hand.

“Good luck plays a large hand in anyone’s career,” he said. “On the other hand, you've got to take credit for it. You’re not going to have good luck if you don’t work hard.”

The attorney, engineer and finance executive also credited his versatility with allowing him to continually be on the move -- whether it was horizontally or vertically through the corporate ladder.

“The number one thing you can do at any stage of your career is to take responsibility,” he said. “You don’t find many people in senior positions who are afraid to take responsibility. You will be blamed; you will get things wrong. You have to have a strong view of yourself.”

There is no end in sight for the COO, who spends his Saturdays swimming at La Jolla Cove and sleeping. He enjoys where he’s at and doesn’t see a reason to retire anytime soon.

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Online Videos

* Neal Schmale's class discussion

* Interview with Neal Schmale


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