As the president and CEO of American Water – the largest publically traded water/wastewater utility in the country - Susan Story has risen up the ranks to lead a team of 6,700 at a company that provides water to more than 15 million people in 47 states and Ontario, Canada.
Story was the featured speaker at the Athena Women’s Leadership Symposium at the TD Convention Center. She spoke about “How Women Leaders Build Successful Companies and Communities.”
GSA Business Report had the opportunity to sit down with Story and talk about her experience and water quality across the country.
GSA: You are the CEO of a large public utility. So, give us your background. How did you get to where you are today?
Story: With an engineering undergraduate degree and an MBA, I worked 31 years for a large southeastern electric utility, moving up in the ranks from a nuclear power plant engineer to being the president and CEO of two of Southern Company’s subsidiaries. Almost four years ago, I was recruited to American Water as CFO, a position I served in for a year before becoming CEO in May 2014.
GSA: How about the challenges of being a woman in what could be conceived as a male-dominated industry? What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Story: Things have changed significantly for women since I began working in my professional career in 1982. The utility industry is predominantly male, especially given the prevalence of front line, physical jobs which are traditionally male. However, the number of women leaders in this industry is increasing significantly. You can find female representation in every part of our company from frontline to supervisor to scientist to CEO. And that goes beyond male and female; there is more diversity across the board, which makes our company stronger.
There were challenges, especially early in my career. I found that the most important things I did to overcome obstacles is to first, not let yourself be defined by others; second, be the very best I could and can be and go above and beyond (and at times that meant being better at my job than others I was working with even to be considered just as good); and third—always take the high road. In the situations where I believe I was not treated fairly, I did not “stoop” to their level—I took the high road and always committed to giving and being my best and treating others with respect, including those who did not give me the same respect. People noticed. And I came out on top.
GSA: What advice do you give to women either looking to start a company or women rising through the ranks to be in leadership positions in companies? How can they be successful?
Story: First and foremost, be good at what you do. Competence in your job and the ability to deliver results with integrity is always the foundation and baseline for moving up. Second, understand what your principles and values are around the type of leader you want to be.
I have read and studied hundreds of books and thousands of leadership articles, and a recent book written by Gary Burnison, the CEO of Korn Ferry, probably defines what I strive my leadership style to be better than any other book or article that I have read. It is a simple small book, “The Leadership Journey: How to Master the Four Critical Areas of Being a Great Leader.”
Basically, it discusses the need to first, be able to objectively know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses; second, how to embody and radiate the purpose of your organization and communicate clearly why the folks you lead can be proud to be part of your organization’s journey; third, what I call servant leadership and what is basically understanding that it isn’t about you, it’s about the people that you lead and knowing their hopes, dreams and developing them to their fullest potential; and last, having the skills to be both strategic and when needed, tactical and knowing how fast you can move your organization forward to the future. This includes the instinct of knowing what you must keep from your company’s history and past that made you successful and culturally strong, but also--and more importantly--what you must let go of to be successful in the future.
GSA: Let’s talk water. There are still rumblings over the water situation in Flint, Mich., but tell us about your knowledge of the water quality in South Carolina and, in particular, the Upstate.
Story: American Water is the largest water and wastewater utility in the U.S., serving about 4% of the population with regulated operations in 16 states. Our market-based businesses serve 12 military installations and more than 40 states. We do not, unfortunately, have regulated utilities in South Carolina. However, in regards to the water situation across the U.S., we have three main areas of focus: water supply, water infrastructure and water quality. The first relates to whether we have enough water supply where we need it. South Carolina is not in the situation that California, Texas and parts of other states are in regards to drought conditions and having sufficient ground water or surface water. Water infrastructure is a different situation. In the U.S., by 2020, 44% of all water infrastructure will be classified as poor, very poor or beyond life, and the estimate by the American Society of Civil Engineers is that we will need almost $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years to upgrade it. We lose 25% of all treated water—or 200 billion gallons—every year in the U.S. through old pipes. This is widespread throughout the country.
And as to water quality, the challenges continue to grow. There are over 50 million chemicals that are registered today, with a new chemical forming or being developed every 2.6 seconds. There are over 1,400 microbes (bacteria, viruses, protozoa) known that can affect drinking water. The EPA regulates about 90 of all of these, and it is physically, economically and technically impossible to monitor for them all. So we in the water industry must identify the most likely threats and find ways to address these issues before there is another Flint, which is a tragedy we must all learn from.