In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Carla Reid, General Manager and CEO of WSSC Water. Carla Reid talks about overcoming setbacks in life, resilience in leadership, and rebranding organizational culture with a vision and strategy for a positive impact on customers and the community.
-Exposure and experience as crucial factors in figuring out your interests
-Carla Reid's thoughts on taking on challenges and creating solutions
-The why and how of self-care for leaders
-Carla Reid on her efforts to rebrand and reset the culture at WSSC
-How Carla Reid used her setbacks as a stepping stone towards achieving her goals
-Carla's vision for the future of WSSC
Also mentioned in this episode:
-Ike Leggett, County Executive of Montgomery County (2006-2018)
-Rushern Baker, County Executive of Prince George's County (2010–2018)
-The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Book by Stephen Covey
Connect with Carla Reid
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Carla Reid. Carla is the general manager and CEO of WSSC. She spent a big part of her career with WSSC before then spending 10 years at cabinet level positions serving two county executives in Montgomery county and Prince George's county before coming back to WSSC. Now as the first woman to serve in the role of general manager and CEO in the organization's hundred plus year history, I really enjoyed this conversation and I most especially enjoy the fact that Carla is truly an authentic leader. I know you will enjoy the conversation and benefit from her leadership insights too.
I also love hearing from you. firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep those emails coming. There's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. Leave voice messages for me there.
Don't forget to follow the podcast on your platform of choice. That way you will ensure to be first notified of new releases. On Tuesdays with magnificent regional greater Washington, DC DMV, Changemakers like Carla. And on Thursdays with brilliant leadership book authors whose leadership insights, I believe, can be truly transformative to our own leadership.
And finally, those of you that enjoy these episodes on Apple, leave a rating and review when you get a chance. That will help more people find and benefit from these conversations. Now here's my conversation with Carla Reid.
Carla Reid, Welcome to partnering leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Thank you Mahan. It's a pleasure to be here today. I'm so honored to be here and to share some information. I'm just ecstatic.
Carla, having gotten to know a little bit about your journey and your history over the past few years, the more I have found out, the more I have been inspired by both your upbringing and the impact that you've been having on an organization that is significant in so many different respects in our region.
So before we get to your leadership, though, I know you're a Washingtonian. How did that upbringing impact the kind of person and leader you've become, Carla?
I'm so grateful that I was brought up in Washington DC because it is just a wellspring where you can learn and grow. And I had the most wonderful parents. I think everybody says that they had the most wonderful parents. But I really appreciated my parents because they taught us so many lessons that I see very prevalent in the way I operate today.
Frequently I think back on the lessons that they told me. One of the big lessons was to be a sharer, a giver, and to serve. I saw them do it. The example that they gave me. I am number four out of six children. And so that makes me a quasi middle child. The stories they say about middle children, they are vying for attention all the time. And the way that I think I manifested that really wanting for attention, was to excel extraordinarily, to want to win, in a lot of things.
And my parents facilitated that because they wanted to expose us to many different experiences. And like I said, Washington, DC is just the perfect place to grow up in if you want to get exposed to culture, learn about museums and history and visit the monument. It's an awesome place to be. And our parents always had us somewhere learning something.
One of the biggest things that I love about my family is that of the six children, none of us do the same thing. Every single person does something different. And I think that was because my parents really encouraged us to find who we were, find what we love and to focus on that.
And so every day I'm just grateful that I had the parents that I had, who never gave me any limits. You can do anything you want to do. No limits whatsoever. Don't even think about limiting yourself. That's really how I was brought up. And I think what it's done for me, the impact that it's had on me as a leader is, a thirst to do well. A thirst to bring others along with me. And to provide as many opportunities as I possibly can to see others win because I'm so grateful for the wins that I've had in my life.
That is wonderful because the wins and opportunities that your parents gave you has impacted how you view your role as a leader.
Now, early on, you fell in love with math and science and went to Howard for civil engineering. Now, Carla, what was it in you that drew you to want to become a civil engineer?
Again, I think it was the exposure and the experiences that I received. I can remember from being a young child, being at the Smithsonian and doing some studies of Marine life on a boat. And that was when I was in elementary school. In junior high school, I was given other opportunities to work at Beltsville agricultural research center to do research on farm animals, poultry, specifically, that had certain diseases.
So it's about exposure and experience that helps people to figure out what they really like. Those were the subjects that I celled in. There were problems to be solved. And that intrigued me. I'm solving a problem. I'm doing some work that could be important to someone in the future and in the present.
And so therefore my thirst for just figuring out how to solve the problem is what drove me to it. And so what I want to do is I want to show women and underrepresented people that it can be done. If I can do it, anybody can do it. And certainly all it takes is an opportunity to try and experience it. That's what I believe in hands-on education.
One of my previous jobs was working at a UDC as a pre college engineering concepts teacher. And I got an opportunity then to expose young people to do experiments and have these experiences that hopefully change their life in the water field.
You could do just about all kinds of science, all kinds of engineering. There's so much variety to pick from. You don't have to be in a cubbyhole or a pigeon hole to be an engineer in the water sector. There's so many choices and I want people to have the opportunity to know what these choices are and then choose for yourself what you want to do. But there's so many rewards that you can get from being in this field. And I just want people to know it first of all. Just blow it out there and then people choose for themselves .
That's one of the things I absolutely love about you, Carla. Because as a father of two girls, I'm a big believer that the models that we see in our world, the stories that we see that are told, have a significant impact on what people aspire to do and become. And even to this day, whether it is for young women or served communities or people of color.
Many of the stories that are told are not stories of people that were able to have success in fields like science, the way you have, which is why it's so inspiring to see you retelling your story. So other people, young girls like mine, people of color can aspire to be just like you, by having gone through some of the same education and the steps that you went through.
Yes exactly. Just believe that you need to test what fits for you. Your whole life is an experiment in adjusting and figuring out what works and what doesn't work for you.
For me, I thought that at one point that I wanted to be a doctor. And I figured out after I was a junior at Howard University that that wasn't my path. And that's when I switched to civil engineering. I really wasn't the type of person who could deal with life and death in the moment. I didn't like blood or any of those things. It's best for me to deal with some inanimate objects that may have a life impact on people, but not directly.
That's why I went into civil engineering because in civil, you can be in transportation, you can be in geotechnical and deal with tunnels. You could be in water resources or environmental, like I am. That's what I decided I wanted to do, but I would not have known that without trying something. I think it's really important to have opportunities and choices so that you can figure out what it is that really meshes with your personality.
So you figure it out what meshed with your personality, your likes in civil engineering, and you started out at WSSC as a civil engineer.
I started out in the meter shop. You might be familiar with meters Mahan. They are the cash registers of our organization. They measure the water that people use. And from that measurement, we're able to determine how much to bill our customers. And so there was an internal audit that was done at WSSC water prior to my arrival. That audit recommended that the meter shop hire a civil engineer. I was there for a civil engineer at the meter shop who came in to put some structure around the meter program, design testing systems and evaluation systems for getting new meters. And so that's how I got in. But being that I was in a place where most of the engineers in WSSC water were not, because I was the only engineer in that department. Other engineers who were in the engineering department or in utility services looked at me funny. They're like, “You're not doing real engineering, so maybe you don't know what engineering is because I was doing real engineering, making real contributions.”
But the other bonus that I got by not working in pure engineering was I got exposed to things that those engineers didn't get exposed to. Like budgets and the personnel issues and scheduling things like that. Areas that they didn't get the experience to do. And so when it came down the line to go to apply for entry level supervisor, then the entry level mid manager, I had an edge over those other engineers who didn't have that exposure. I like to call it my differentiator.
Yeah, that's interesting because as a child, your parents exposed you to a lot of different things which helped you find out what you are good at and what you want to pursue. And even as a young adult, you ended up being exposed and gaining skill sets, which enabled you to continue to move on up at WSSC.
Yes. It's really all about keeping yourself fresh too. And knowing that there's always more to learn and to help you grow. Then You have to be open to new experiences. They build on each other and position you for things that you don't even know you're going to pursue in the future. You just gotta be open to do it.
You were open to it. You moved on up through the organization, which is impressive. Eventually deputy general manager, but you had a serious car accident. And so had to leave because of that initially.
That was a crazy time. First of all I became deputy general manager because I had applied to be general manager back in 2005 and I didn't get the job. And that was a really good thing. Because what happened to me after that, having that traumatic event of the car accident and everything else were all things that I needed to experience in order to be prepared for the seat that I sit in today.
So I didn't become general manager. And I had the opportunity because I had been at WSSC water at that time probably 18 years or so to really understand how the organization works. I think that the person who was the general manager at the time came from California and really didn't understand the region, didn't understand our water business and everything else. So I was really there to be like a tutor. And that's how I got to be deputy general manager.
At the time that I had the vehicle accident, I didn't know what balance was. That was one thing. Because I was out very late. Actually I stayed in the office for hours on end and didn't really know when to go home. Didn't want to go home because I was going through a divorce. And it was just a traumatic time. And I ended up having a very bad car accident. The general manager at the time actually wanted to fire me. But by that time I had 20 years of experience.
So I thought if I didn't work through how I was going to softly land and take the years of service that I had, and also position myself for the ultimate goal that I wanted to achieve, which was to be general manager, that I had to get out in a very strategic way.
And so I left the organization. Actually I was asked to leave but not fired. Thank goodness. I didn't sue the organization cause that would not have been good for positioning me to come back either.
So it was about accepting no matter what all the circumstances were around as to why I have the accident and everything else. The fact that I wasn't balanced in my personal life. And in fact, I was going through a bunch of personal problems. Just repositioning myself to get ready for the future, accept that incident for what it was and move on. And that was the best thing that I ever did. Because going through that process and having to pick yourself up after leaving a place that you really, really love, it took some work.
But fortunately I think maybe six months later after I left WSSC water, Ike Leggett became the first black county executive of Montgomery county. And he was looking to build his cabinet. And somebody told him about me and the rest is history. Because I got the opportunity to land in his cabinet being the director of permitting services.
So to me all is well, that ends well. That you can't let an obstacle or a setback leave you paralyzed and keep you from moving towards your goal.
And that was the biggest thing, is I never lost sight of what I really wanted to do, which was to be the general manager of this organization. So I ended up leading for 10 years. From 2006 to 2016. And in that time, like I said, I went to work with county executive Ike Leggett. And then after his first term, I had an opportunity to go work with county executive Rushern Baker. I left Montgomery county, took a pay decrease to do about 10 times more work in Prince George's county but it was necessary. And I didn't really understand the portfolio I was building when I was doing it. I knew what my end goal was, but I didn't know how relevant my leaving WSSC was going to be. Going into Montgomery county and then going to Prince George's county and getting into economic development.
Those experiences very well positioned me to come back to WSSC water. It made me a person uniquely qualified at the time I was competing to be general manager, CEO of this organization. And again, you have to keeping your eyes on the prize.
What a magnificent story, Carla. Not just of resilience, but of antifragility where the breakage, the setback, some of them personal, the car accident, then losing a position and an opportunity that you had been working a lifetime for. That breakage gave you the opportunity to work in Montgomery county for Ike Leggett, then prince George's county for Rushern Baker and become even better and stronger as a result.
Now, I'm sure there were times at the beginning of that period that you didn't see it as a positive, but now reflecting back on it is probably one of the most helpful parts of your career in giving you the opportunity eventually to become CEO and general manager of WSSC.
Yes, exactly Mahan. And frequently, when I talk to groups today, I tell them this story. I tell them about how when I came back to WSSC water, ahead of all kinds of opposition to coming back, people brought up that story and I'm just owning it. It's something that happened as part of my story.
And it's about exactly what you said. It's resiliency and moving on. And one of the things I say when I talk to people is I tell them sometimes, and there's a point in your life where you have to perform CPR on yourself. And that C is having the confidence that you are prepared to do whatever it is you need to do. And the P is that you gotta be persistent if at first you don't succeed. And if one solution doesn't work, you try something else. And then R is what we've been talking about, being resilient, having the resilience. And so CPR, do it to yourself when you need to do it to yourself. And that's the best self care that I think a leader can give to him or herself.
It is. And a lot of leaders have had a tough time through the pandemic. And one of the things that is important to keep in mind is that CPR that you just mentioned. We need to be able to take care of ourselves first, before we can take care of others.
Now, you did get this opportunity in 2015 and you were selected as the general manager and a CEO, the first woman in the organization's hundred plus year history.
Yes. To hear you say it, I know that's the truth and that is the reality but it's still, it just sounds funny for me to hear that it took a hundred years to have a woman to lead this organization. I'm glad that I am having the opportunity to pave the way for other women.
It would break my heart if I'm the first woman, but the last woman to run this organization. That cannot happen. I am trying to position a lot of people to be prepared to take over when I leave. Half of my senior leadership team are women. And I also hired the first female general counsel since I've been here.
I'm doing all that I can to pass the baton in a way, to prepare people. If they don't lead this organization to lead a similarly suited organization, that would make me feel like every single sacrifice, every obstacle that I've encountered is absolutely worth it. I feel like that already.
What is magnificent, Carla, is that first of all, you have broken a glass ceiling that once broken I think it makes it easier for other people. Secondarily though, you are reaching back and giving a hand up to others and changing the system so the system can recognize women that deserve it in the organization. So sometimes we don't recognize that ourselves as leaders. If we break a ceiling, we need to then look back and change the systems and structures in order to enable more people to come and follow in our footsteps.
Now you've done a lot of great things, including your senior team at WSSC. You've also focused a lot of effort on rebranding and resetting the culture of the organization. Why rebranding and resetting the culture? And what have you done in order to do that?
Being that I've had the extensive experience that I had inside the organization, and stepping outside, when I was outside of the organization, I saw how WSSC water was perceived by others. But one of the first things I did just before coming is I had a transition team and we dissected where the organization was.
One of the things that I realized very quickly was that yes, WSSC water is a very technically sound organization, has sector accolades in terms of accomplishments, and has never, in the hundred year history of our organization, had a water quality violation. So, technically sound organization.
But what we're, I felt there was a gap was what we did in terms of people issues. I felt like that was a big gap, a blind spot per se. What I wanted to do was be deliberate about looking at strategy innovation and partnerships. And how could we elevate those things as well as build up our own H2O people to be advocates for the organization, develop them and make them feel like they can aspire to whatever next thing they want in their career. That was really my strategy. It was to focus on people's issues, to elevate that and not do an either or not be technically sound or people savvy. But both. That it takes both to rule the world and to become a world-class organization.
WSSC water can be as good as our reputation says we are. Never have water quality violations, et cetera, et cetera. But if we're not seen as part of the fabric of the organization, if all we're seen as, this is an environmental organization then that limits what we really are. And I wanted to bring visibility to what all WSSC water is. We have our infrastructures buried so people forget about pipes. You see all the other infrastructure bridges and roads. You can always see them. But you don't see the pipe. So you don't really think about us and what we do. You just want to turn it on and make sure you have it. And in this pandemic, you want to make sure you have it so you can defend against COVID.
I wanted us to be more than those things. I wanted us to be deliberate about focusing on policies that frame who we are and what we do more than just the environment. We're public safety, you need us to put out a fire. We're public health, you need us to fight disease and to stay alive. And we're part of the economic development strategy. There's no development that happens that doesn't require water.
And so I wanted to elevate those issues. And I think in doing so it helped to shift and have us in those aspects that really make us a world-class organization. And one that is multifaceted. We're not just this, not just made up of engineers and geeks. We are real people serving real people and helping to elevate the communities we serve because we're here serving our customers.
And those are really important elements that the WSSC provides to the entire community. Therefore you spent a lot of effort and time, both with respect to the branding of it. And with respect to the people and the perception. Now, you were making a great progress with all of those things. When the March, 2020 we all got hit with a pandemic. And when you talk about frontline workers, water to everyone is as essential as you can get. How were you able to handle the COVID pandemic and continuing operations with all of the lockdowns and everything else that was happening in the community?
I did a couple of things that I wasn't really sure how they were going to help when I did it. But it really uniquely positioned us to deal with this pandemic in a way that I think we would have been very successful.
Number one, I realized coming into the organization that I needed to have someone who was expert in dealing with emergencies. So in 2016, I sought out to find an emergency manager. I didn't know we can handle the granddaddy of them all of emergencies. One that has lasted longer than any other emergency we've ever been in. So that was one thing. Three or four years ago, hiring someone who would eventually help us to go through the incident in the command process that kept us on top of what was going on with the CDC and what we should do to protect ourselves.
The second thing that I did was I made sure that every single WSSC water employee had a laptop at least two or three years before we got into this situation. So when March 2020 hit, and I said, “Go home. I sent you home with the tools you needed to continue to operate.” I didn't have to scramble to buy laptops and set people up. That was already in place. Sometimes you don't know why you're doing certain things, it makes sense so you just do it. And those were two of the things that prepared us to actually be able to go through this extended duration of dealing with the pandemic.
Then we set up the incident command structure so that we could figure out what personal protective equipment we needed and everything else. What functions did we have to do in-person and what things did we have to do? And the thing is that we really pivoted quickly with the cabinet structure, allowed us to make these decisions really quickly and to make sure that we kept our employees safe, our customers safe as well.
And some really extremely proud of how we've responded and how we are going from this point to creating a now normal. Because every time we get to a situation it's a now normal situation. It's not a new normal. It was like, what did we have to deal with now in order to deal with the situation that we're in.
I'm very happy with our progress. And as vaccines have come and we've been seeing more of our staff be vaccinated we're going into the demobilization stage. And so how we come out of this and transition into whatever the next stage of our existence is going to be is just as critical as how we ramped up to get into dealing with the pandemic.
In many respects Carla, I think the transition into a hybrid environment is going to be even harder than the transition some organizations faced in going into a primarily virtual environment. Having both of those. Now, I also know that you've been committed for years to smart meters but that's something that was dealt a setback in November, 2020.
Actually since the 1990s I've wanted to have smart meters here at WSSC water. When I came back, I saw that the project had finally made it to our capital improvement budget. I was extremely happy about that. So we kicked off the project and had done a lot of preliminary work. And in November 2020, our commissioner's decided to indefinitely delay this project and it was actually removed from our capital improvement budget.
And for me it is somewhat of a setback, but to me, every setback is a temporary setback. So nothing permanent. I am going to continue to push forward and make sure that our board is quite aware of the number of problems that we're unable to solve because we have not moved into that technology yet. And I'm a big proponent.
The only reason why I exist is to solve problems I think. Besides being a leader, that's what leaders do, they solve problems if there's an issue, what is the solution for it. A solution finder, a solution provider. That's what I want to be.
There are so many things that we could have our customers be able to tell how much they're using, control that in their homes, understand why they sometimes have high bills and detect a leak. Because our bills are now issued on a quarterly basis. So when you get a quarterly bill from us and you get a bill in the mail for your cable, and they're the same thing, you don't automatically do the math in your head and say, “Hey, I got a three month bill from WSSC water. This is divided by three and compares it to my cable bill.”
Our bills, I say very confidently, are more reasonable than any other utility bill that people pay. But it's hard for our customers to really realize that because they are paying every 90 days. And that to me is something that we really need to meet every time we have a problem.
I don't know if you remember the river road incident, where we had a huge water main break that made national news. There are helicopters, rescues and all that. The solution for that was that we started installing acoustic fiber optics in all of our large transmission nays. They were made out of prestressed concrete cylinder pipes so we were able to detect when we're going to have a break, because there are wires inside of that pipe that ping off when there's about to be a break. That's a solution to a problem to a buoy river road .
This is not a river road issue with the smart meters, but it's close to it. Because we spend so much money on doing everything at all the work arounds to deal with this. And it doesn't build customer confidence when they have issue or a question about their bills and we can't quickly answer it. It takes some manual problem solving to really show them what happened. Whereas if we had smart meters, the answers would be more obvious to them and certainly more obvious to us so that we could explain it to our customers.
I don't know if it sounds like a little thing to you, but it's a huge thing to me and it really eats at me because I know that is going to make such a difference to our customers and really to our employees.
First of all, our meter readers who do this work, it's the highest turnover position. It's the highest frequency of workers' compensation issues we have with this group. And then just the amount of resources we put in to try to answer billing questions and problems, and it's just, it sucks up a lot of resources.
It can have a significant impact, whether it is on WSSC or on the customers that WSSC is serving and their own understanding of their usage. As many of us want to be more mindful of the environmental factors that go into it. So it empowers not only the employees and organization, but also the customers.
And having seen your leadership journey and your leadership impact, I've no doubt that this is one of those things that with this setback, you're going to redouble efforts to make sure that these smart meters are rolled out eventually to WSSC customers.
Now, you've had a magnificent leadership journey. When you're asked for any leadership resources that you rely on that have helped you become a more effective leader. What typically comes to mind?
The first thing that comes to mind is a book I read in 1989. Thereabouts, circa 1989, which was Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that has been a book that I have read and re-read over and over again. And mindful to practice many of those principles every day. Three of them really stick out in my head that I know I do every day.
One is begin with the end in mind. That whole accident situation I had to think about what did I really want? Anytime I do anything I'm thinking about where I really want to be. Where am I trying to go? So begin with the end in mind. Think win-win. I think that we would not waste as much energy in this world today if we were all working to make sure that we create solutions that help everyone to advance and move forward together. And don't be married to my idea or your idea, but let's think of what is the idea that ultimately it's going to work for all of us.
And then first things first. Our priorities. That's one of the other habits that I think about every day and practice every day. So that's I think the biggest thing that has stuck with me in terms of a resource. And actually I made that training, the seven habits training available to every single H2O person in WSSC water. Because one of the things I thought about when I came back to WSSC waters, what if we were all operating in a highly effective manner in operating in those habits. What would our organization look like?
And then that CPR advice I talked about earlier. Having the confidence, the persistence and the resilience, I think that are just guiding principles to helping us to be successful.
And then sharing with other leaders, what our experiences are, what their experiences are and keeping networks going. I think it helps us to continue to learn and grow. And as we're living, we ought to be always growing. We've got to continue to sharpen that saw and make sure that we are doing the best we can to operate in our optimal states.
And that's another one of the things having gotten to know you a little bit, Carla, I can say you truly embrace a growth mindset, which is constantly looking to learn and grow yourself. And that sets a great example for the people that you lead also. So I really appreciate you taking this time to share some of your leadership journey and your leadership lessons with the Partnering Leadership community. Thank you so much, Carla Reid.
Thank you Mahan. I've really had a great time talking with you today. And I love your Partnering Leadership podcast. They are enlightening. And I just personally enjoy them. So I want to thank you for providing this forum for us to talk and learn from other leaders.
Thank you, Carla.