I AM TOPEKA: Michel' Cole, Westar Energey
By SHALYN MURPHY Photos by JD MELTON
The Boy Scout’s No. 1 rule is an unexpected mantra for Westar Energy’s vice president of corporate communications and public affairs, but Michel’ Cole is anything but predictable. For Michel’s Grandpa Joe, an avid hunter and fisherman, cleaning up the campground meant being a good camper and a responsible steward of nature’s bounty.
For Michel’, cleaning up a campground means passionately improving corporate culture, developing and inspiring future leaders through mentorship, and full-heartedly serving the community that helped her grow. Her campground is her employer, the organizations she has supported through volunteer and leadership efforts, and the entire city of Topeka.
A self-proclaimed “Topeka girl,” the Highland Crest native has put her skills to work at many Topeka institutions over the years, including Westar Energy, Security Benefit Corporation, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and the Kansas Press Association. Additionally, Michel’ has given her time and energy to countless organizations by serving on numerous boards and committees, and through volunteering. Michel’ is on the board for the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and has recently served on the advisory boards for Kansas Book Festival, Topeka Collegiate, KTWU Public Television and the Washburn University Leadership Institute.
Michel’ credits her long history of community service to the example she saw in her mentors after graduating from Washburn University in 1986.
"I was lucky to be surrounded by role models who reached out and showed me what it looked like to do well at your career, to serve your community and to enjoy your family,” Michel’ said. “They were so generous with their time and advice, and I soaked up everything I could.”
Community service is a worthwhile pursuit, but it can be difficult to balance as a full-time professional without the support of your employer. Luckily, Westar Energy understands the value of employees serving their community. Westar’s philosophy of community service includes monetary donations to Kansas nonprofits, a reward-match program that encourages employees to give their time to a local organization by volunteering or board service, and the Westar Energy Green Team, a volunteer driven educational and environmental preservation group that works to retain Kansas’ natural resources.
“I’ve been fortunate that every company I’ve worked at has understood the importance of being good civic leaders,” Michel’ said. “When we encourage our team to get involved and serve, we all benefit. It makes our community better and their community bigger.”
Not only is serving your community a benefit for current employees but Michel’ also predicts that this will become increasingly important to Topeka businesses in the coming years as potential employees are looking for organizations that are doing good in their community. Michel’ says that businesses will have to be good corporate stewards to be an attractive employer, especially to millennials.
Though it can be challenging for smaller organizations to release staff to volunteer service and passion projects, Michel’ encourages businesses of every size to give it a try. Start by asking employees for their ideas of how community service could become part of the organization’s greater mission.
“When you have an employee who is involved in the community, dedicated to a project that excites them, they become a better employee,” Michel’ said. “They gain leadership skills. Employers who encourage their staff to serve the community will get back tenfold what they give.”
Over the last few years, Michel’ has noticed positive changes in Topeka’s business community.
“There’s a shift in attitude,” Michel’ said. “There are so many young professionals and rising leaders who are really eager to collaborate and achieve more together. Thirty-five years ago, there were a handful of business leaders who could make things happen in Topeka. Today there’s a much broader pool of leaders actively improving our community and they bring a whole new perspective of what can be accomplished.”
One of the accomplishments that Michel' is most proud of is the opportunity she has had to mentor colleagues and co-workers over the years. Her maternal instinct and no nonsense straight talk have earned her the nickname of “Mama Cole.”
“I have been so humbled by my experience as a mentor,” Michel’ said. “Nothing gives me greater joy than seeing my former teammates go beyond their wildest dreams.”
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