When you give a project to a civil engineer, it’s designed well. When you give something to Swarna Arza, the vice president of project management and general manager of operations at FuelCell Energy, you’ll get well-planned, efficient, long-lasting, and a piece of her heart and soul with it.
“I was raised by a very strong woman and relentless mother who kept reminding me that anything you touch, you should think about leaving your legacy on it by making it its best version in comparison to when you found it,” Arza says. “So, anything I create or anything I do, I look at it from the perspective of whether this process is required, effective, and will outlast the originator.”
Arza is a civil engineer by trade with a master’s degree in construction management from Concordia University in Montreal. Before coming to FuelCell in 2021, she worked for Eversource, New England’s largest energy delivery system, as well as consulting companies where she developed a reputation as a trusted leader who delivers results in the most efficient manner.
She proved her credibility in her first management job following graduate school as lead project control specialist at New York City School Construction Authority. She was tasked with oversight of numerous projects and faced some uncooperative colleagues. Her first presentation at a board meeting was nerve wracking since she had bad news to share about a construction site. “The board room was filled with senior executives and presenters up to its capacity of 25 people and I was the only female in that room,” she says.
“I bring a very honest and authentic approach to the table. The way I carry myself with clarity and transparency in everything I say is what makes me stand out.”
However, she came prepared to handle the executives’ pushback and that meeting became a turning point in her job. “I did get their attention and then I was able to turn things around when they all took me seriously,” she says. “From that meeting to the next one and various others that followed, that team moved from being unaware of the status to executing a plan with my help.”
People listen to Arza because she means what she says, and she has the professional knowhow to back up her words. “I bring a very honest and authentic approach to the table,” Arza affirms. “The way I carry myself with clarity and transparency in everything I say is what makes me stand out.”
Arza not only makes a difference in the quality of the job she performs, but she is also considerate of the work environment as well. For example, she successfully petitioned the inclusion of a mother’s room at a jobsite. She struggled with being a working mom following the birth of her first child and realized that her workplace didn’t have a private room to pump and save breast milk.
“It is something that I believed in and fought for,” she says, explaining that once she convinced leadership, she solicited donations to transform a conference room into a mother’s room. “I didn’t really get to use it, but I definitely left it for someone else who could use it after me,” she says.
Years later, Eversource hired Arza to build a project management department, where she’s had the opportunity to collaborate with strategic consultants from PFES, premier provider of program management and project controls services in the utility sector.
The gas industry was fast-growing and continues to accelerate; when Arza joined four years ago, the company had secured $250 to $300 in capital investments and they’re soon reaching $1 billion, according to Arza. “In order to scale up we need an organization that brings all the departments together and breaks the silos,” she says.
“My word matters. What I say matters, what I commit to matters to me.”
But unbeknownst to her, when she was hired, she faced a test of her professional abilities. She was asked to review the state of the gas business and provide a PM playbook to capture how project management would be integrated into the existing structure while providing leadership and support scalability all in just three months.
For comparison, another division at Eversource hired a consultant firm and took nine months to complete a similar deliverable. She gathered industry benchmarks and metrics, conducted hours of workshops with department leaders, and worked late into the night to deliver on her first commitment.
Arza even refused an extension from her boss, who quickly recognized that this tight deadline was not practical given the struggles in coordinating with colleagues during the last quarter. But Arza persisted because “that’s the commitment I made,” she explains. “I was willing to work around the clock to make it happen.”
In the end, the director completed the playbook on time and her boss learned something very important about her: “My word matters,” she says. “What I say matters, what I commit to matters to me. So, when I told them I was going to do my best in making this happen in this calendar year, I meant every single word of it.”
Arza credits numerous mentors for building her professional success. She recalls one from a former consulting job who piled challenges on her. “He realized I had a ton of potential and he continuously gave me opportunities,” she says. “He trusted me and had more confidence in me than I had in myself. Everything he challenged me with only made me more confident in myself when it all came to fruition.”
Now as an executive at FuelCell, she looks for similar potential in her team members. “I want to be that mentor I had, where I can see the potential in someone and provide the opportunity for them to shine.”