Melanie Littlejohn, a top National Grid executive, in lead role at CenterState CEO, CNY’s largest economic development group
By Lou Sorendo
Melanie Littlejohn did not experience what one would term a “routine” upbringing as a child in Jamaica, a neighborhood of Queens.
“I have two amazing parents, an amazing brother, and my parents also fostered 24 girls,” she said. “So I have 24 amazing sisters and am the oldest of my sisters.”
“I learned about service and commitment to others up close and personal,” she said. “I had two amazing human beings show me how to give unselfishly.”
She was brought up in a three-bedroom home in Queens and attended both Catholic and public schools as a youth.
“So, I understand service and a deep commitment to it, and that is how you also learn the art of negotiation and collaboration,” she said.
Today, Littlejohn is vice president at National Grid — NYS jurisdiction.
Recently, she was elected as the new chairwoman of CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity’s board of directors in Syracuse.
Lessons from parents, grandparents
While not realizing the gravity of lessons she was learning as a child, Littlejohn now refers to her parents as her “co-CEOs.”
“They showed me what leadership was supposed to look like,” she said. “I grew up in an environment where I saw what service looks like and I also grew up in a time and space where there were lots of changes going on.”
Littlejohn’s maternal grandparents also lived by the mantra, “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
“They didn’t think they had much, but they thought they had more than many,” she said. “It was always about opening and extending your home. My grandparents were that way, and that is what we do.
“I cant even begin to tell you how unselfish [my parents] were, and they didn’t realize it,” she said. “They were raising children that they didn’t give birth to, but they helped them learn to see what love looked like.”
“My sisters would tell you to this day that the lessons they learned from my parents have helped guide them to be great parents and better human beings,” she added.
Littlejohn went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts from SUNY Stony Brook and her Master of Business Administration from Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management.
“When I think about influences, I’m always going to start with family first,” she said. “I have three other men in my life that inspire me to get up and give my best every day. I have two sons and a husband that really keep me lifted to do the work that I do.”
Being in the utility business, when Mother Nature rears her head in the form of emergencies, Littlejohn is there to respond. She was away from home for several months during the power restoration initiative following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“My family loves and supports me through each of those moments,” she said.
Littlejohn said she has been fortunate to work with business leaders who have served as powerful inspirations to her.
“There have been so many people who are part of my own personal board of directors,” she said.
Prominent on that list is the late Leon Modeste, long-time president and CEO of the Onondaga County Urban League in Syracuse. Littlejohn worked for the Urban League for several years in the early 1990s.
Another major influence has been SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley.
“She understands the art of collaboration and in order to get things done, you need to bring a full group of people around the table and count on your talents to deliver. She has done that exceptionally well,” Littlejohn said.
“I feel very fortunate to be at the table now in this moment. For me, it is important and impactful.”
She said numerous leaders have drawn her admiration, and she takes pieces from each to create her own style.
“I’m not bashful about asking for advice. You have to ask for advice, and ask people to pull your coattails and hold you accountable.”
‘Power behind the switch’
“What I mean about the power behind the switch is what the men and women who work here every single day do to help improve the lives of every last person, home and business in this region,” she said. “And they do it quietly.”
Littlejohn said if there is an emergency or weather-related issue, National Grid is “running to it to really be there for our customers.
“Our objective is to keep the lights on and heat going, because we owe it to our customers,” she said. “The power of the switch is what makes me come in every single day.”
In 2017, a National Grid team spent eight months in Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico helping to restore power.
“That was tough for our folks. They worked around the clock to make sure when they left the island, areas that they were responsible for were 100% restored,” she said.
Littlejohn commended the mutual aid that utilities across the country provide to each other during times of great need.
“For 25 years, I’ve gotten a chance to see the power behind the switch,” she said.
“It’s listening, coordination, communication and more importantly, doing what you say you’re going to do,” she said.
While Littlejohn oversees her team of 53 in Syracuse, she is responsible for more than 4 million customers and stakeholders in a matrix-based company that has synergies across the entire state.
Center of activity
Littlejohn has been heavily involved in CenterState CEO, serving as a member of its executive committee and board of directors and, most recently as first vice chairwoman.
“CenterState CEO is a tremendous organization that is really moving and shaping lots of important things in Central New York, both from an economic development and inclusion perspective,” she said.
Littlejohn sees her new role as an opportunity to leverage her 35-year plus career history to help an organization, region and community grow stronger.
“From a career perspective, it’s a nice culmination of the last three decades and it’s just a wonderful way to utilize my previous experience to do good,” she said.
“I certainly think being part of a global organization and to have the responsibility for National Grid’s New York state jurisdiction from a customer, business development, stakeholder and public affairs perspective really puts me in a good space to utilize my experience here in a global-based company,” she said.
Littlejohn said the utility industry, much like Central New York, is in a significant transformation.
“CenterState CEO and the region can benefit from some of the lessons we’ve learned to help in the transformation that we see right here in Central New York,” she said. “It’s just utilizing that collective experience.”
Littlejohn said one of her biggest skill sets is the art of collaboration and being a convener.
“I am a firm believer that we all know what the answers are. The question is how do we bring folks around a table to make good and thoughtful decisions about strategy and what we need to do going forward,” she said.
‘Eve of transformation’
Littlejohn will act as chairwoman and facilitator for the executive committee as well as CenterState CEO’s board of directors, which is made up of some of the largest critical key stakeholders in the region.
“I also get a chance to work alongside good folks like Robert Simpson [president of CenterState CEO] and the wonderful team at CenterState to figure out how I can support them to drive objectives,” she said.
Littlejohn said the region is “on the eve of transformation,” as evidenced by initiatives such as the city’s Syracuse Surge, a development plan for the south end of downtown that is encompassing more than $200 million in public and private investment.
Growth and development continues as the region finds its niches, whether it involves the emerging unmanned aerial systems industry or traditional strongholds in the education and health care sectors.
She said transformative issues also involve the rebuild of the I-81 viaduct into a community grid design.
“One of the most stunning and large issues that we still have to grapple with as a region involves economic inclusion and how poverty levels here in the region must and need to shift if we want to sustain and grow to really come into our full capabilities as a region,” she added.
Whether it’s rampant poverty in the city of Syracuse or rural poverty plaguing rural areas of CNY, “we’ve got to deal with it,” she said.
“I feel there no greater time than to step up and be part of the change,” she said.
Being at ‘the table’
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Littlejohn, meaning that if you are not represented at the decision-making table, you are in a financially vulnerable position, you get left out or, worse yet, you are on the menu.
“We are in the moment of creating seats at the table, and if we don’t, things that will stay on the menu aren’t good,” she said. “So what we need to do as a region is begin to change that.”
The key is creating a path to allow everyone to have a voice.
Littlejohn said there are many initiatives that are addressing key regional issues.
“I feel very fortunate to be at the table now in this moment. For me, it is important and impactful,” she added.
Littlejohn said in terms of poverty, the mission is to not create vulnerabilities within the community and in homes.
“You got to peel the layer of the onion back around poverty and discover what causes it and what do we need to do to shift and change it, and what are its ramifications,” she said.
On the educational front, Littlejohn said it is imperative to continue to partner with the Syracuse City School District, the fifth-largest district in the state, to help students thrive and be successful.
“I believe that is a responsibility and is directly tied to what happens later on in the students’ lives,” she noted. “If we can create great educational opportunities and experience, that’s fantastic.”
On the housing front, Littlejohn said residents need to have access to sustainable housing.
“When talking about a green economy, I think that some of our most vulnerable in our region deserve solar roofs just like anyone else who can pay for it,” she said.
In terms of jobs, “people don’t wake up saying, ‘I don’t want good and meaningful employment.’ Contrary to what some might think, people don’t do that. That’s not what they want,” she said.
She said it is vital to create jobs that will continue to provide a livable and sustainable wage so that everyone can actively play a part in the growth and vitality of the region.
“Education, housing, employment and then just a good environment — that creates a good recipe for a strong region,” she said.
“You have to be passionate and care about the region, and I live here, so I am proud to be part of an organization that is at the forefront of helping with some of these huge transformative efforts,” she said.
The city of Syracuse resident is on the board of trustees for Onondaga Community College.
She is also on the Pathfinder Bank board of directors, the Upstate New York and Regional Advisory Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and The Business Council of New York State.
“I’ve been blessed and honored to sit on many boards around this region, and I’m proud to have served,” she said.
Her husband David works for Fiat Chrysler, and the couple has two sons. Cameron is a substitute teacher in the Syracuse City School District while Jared works in the finance industry in Baltimore, Maryland.
Littlejohn said she is a “foodie,” and takes advantage during her frequent travels to enjoy foods from different cultures.
She also refers to herself as a “frustrated artist” who formerly designed jewelry.
“I have not done that in many years, but one of these days I think I’ll get back into it,” she said.