Leading utility transformation means listening – to customers and to workers on the front lines.

What qualities must utility leaders have to guide transformation of their organizations? One of them is willingness to listen to team members in the field, says Susan Story, president and CEO of American Water.

“People on the front lines know more about this business than anybody else,” she said. “When they tell us something is broken, we had better listen to them and do something about it.”

Story made her remarks during a panel discussion Monday at WEFTEC, “The Impact of Leadership: Culture, Communication and Community in Great Water Cities." Moderated by David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the panel included members from public utilities, government and the private sector.

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Panelist Lars Schroeder, CEO of Aarhus Water Ltd., serving the municipality of Aarhus in Denmark, said utility leaders must stress the value of water. His organization is a world leader among utilities in the quest for net zero energy. He said it’s important to let team members and customers know “where we are going and why we are going there. We have to take risks, and we have to make things happen. We always emphasize that tap water is better than bottled water, and also much cheaper.”

Tony Parrot, newly appointed executive director of Louisville Water, said leaders must preach that water is “more valuable than cable TV and more valuable than cellphones. We need to tell this story ourselves. The news media are not going to tell it for us.” He emphasized actions utilities take today that will benefit people 20 to 50 years on: “Utilities of the future sow the seeds. We are making decisions for the next generation.”

Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Board of California, noted a change in attitude in the population toward acceptance of measures like indirect and direct potable reuse of wastewater. Millennials, she said, are not put off by “toilet to tap” imagery because they have grown up seeing what technology makes possible.

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Story noted that three things are essential to the transformation of utilities: an intelligent water grid, energy efficiency, and water recycling and reclamation. She noted that the United States loses 2.5 million gallons of drinking water every year – about a quarter of the amount taken in from ground and surfaces sources and treated.

Story concluded, “What we do matters more than almost anything anybody else is doing. If you can’t get excited about that, you shouldn’t be in this business.”

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