In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Luanne Gutermuth. Luanne formerly serves as the Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer at Washington Gas. In addition to co-founding Good Spirit Farm Winery with her husband, Luanne Gutermuth serves as Chair of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, Luanne serves on the Washington Performing Arts and Northern Virginia Family Services board of directors.
- Luanne Gutermuth on her struggles maintaining work-life balance
- Rising through the ranks at Washington Gas and the challenge of leading shared services
- The importance of transparency in leadership
- Luanne on the difference between transparency of facts versus transparency of feelings
- Luanne Gutermuth on her priorities as Chair of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce
- Why Luanne and her husband started a winery
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Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Luanne Gutermuth. Luanne who grew up in this region got her bachelor's degree at William and Mary eventually getting her master's of business administration from the University of Maryland and spent more than 20 years.
Washington Gas eventually as the executive Vice president and Chief Administrative Officer there more recently Luanne and her husband Mike started Good Spirit Farm, which is a farm winery in Loudoun County. Luanne is also very committed to the community, Chairing the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Also being involved in Washington, performing arts, serving on the board there, the Northern Virginia family services. So she is very committed to the community. That's why I really enjoyed the conversation with Luanne finding out more, not only about her background but what drives her to give back so much to the community.
I also enjoy hearing from you. Keep your comments coming, mahantavakoli.com. There's also a microphone icon on partneringleadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow the podcast, Tuesday conversations with magnificent change makers from the greater Washington DC DMV region, and Thursday conversations with brilliant global thought leaders. Finally, when you get a chance, leave a rating and review Apple has that option toward the bottom of your feed. Spotify has more recently added the option of leaving a rating. That's on top of your feed. Those will help more people find that benefit from these conversations.
Now here's my conversation with Luanne Gutermuth.
Luanne Guttermuth. Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Thank you Mahan. It's great to be here.
I'm really excited. Luanne, having seen you both as an impactful leader at Washington gas, and most specifically the commitment you have to give back to the community as a child of this region growing up and, continuing to give back in so many different ways. I can't wait to find out more about your experience.
And the reasons behind your contribution, but first things first would love to know about your upbringing. Whereabouts you grew up, in Northern Virginia and how that impacted the kind of person you've become Luanne.
Mahan I grew up in Springfield, Virginia. currently live in Annandale, so I'm, I haven't gotten far. It was a wonderful upbringing. I had great parents. My mom's still alive, still living in Springfield in the house where we lived for most of my growing up years. my father passed, a few years ago and they were both products of the depression and world war II, from humble circumstances. My mother grew up on a small farm in Southside, Virginia. My father grew up in Portsmouth. His father by the way, was a founding member of the iron workers union. So working class backgrounds. Really strong work ethic, really humble, grateful approach to life and, the fortunate beneficiary of their love and their example.
Luanne growing up in Springfield, how has the area Springfield and Northern Virginia you live not too far away from Springfield. How has that changed since the time you grew up there?
Dramatically. Springfield was pretty homogenous as was most of Northern Virginia and my growing up years. And it's beautifully diverse now. Certainly in Springfield, certainly in Annandale, our children went to falls church high school, one of the most diverse high schools in the area.
So that's certainly strength that our region has now that it did not, when I was growing up and it's been great for our family and for our kids to grow up in that environment.
Going to William and Mary, might make sense. Why study business administration, you stayed sort of close to home. What were you intending to do with that major?
Well, I went to college planning to major in English and become a lawyer. I pivoted while I was there, towards, other opportunities and, I'll be honest, I sort of fell into business. and wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with it after graduation. I had focused on marketing, I ended up not getting a job in marketing right away, and that was a great thing because I got a job with the department of Navy and, met my future husband now, husband Mike. So it turned out very well.
So the job had extra benefits. What were you doing at department of Navy? And how did you meet Mike?
I was in the procurement function. So I was a contract intern. I started as a GS five, making $13,000 a year. And the great thing about working for the government, particularly in the procurement function is you got a lot of experience and responsibility at a pretty early stage in your career.
So I was negotiating multimillion dollar contracts with defense companies, in my early twenties.
What led you to Washington gas Luanne?
After we got married I had an opportunity to go back to school. So I got an MBA from the university of Maryland and upon graduating, went to work for mobile, mobile oil before Exxon mobile, and worked in finance, financial analysis for awhile. Had an opportunity to connect with graduate school colleague and went to work for ManorCare health services for number of years, focusing in strategy and, product development. And around that time we started a family. I was working in Maryland, living in Annandale and the commute just got crazy. So at some point I realized I need a 7 0 3 area code at night and during the day.
And, as luck would have it, I found out about the opportunity at Washington gas, started in their business planning area. Wasn't sure how long I would stay there. and 20 years later, I was still pleased to have really interesting work and to work with a great group of individuals.
Were there, outside pressures on you when you were choosing to, in essence, try to balance life as opposed to purely focus on, professional success.
Oh, gosh, that was a daily struggle I will say. And, I often got it wrong. Got the balance wrong. And I try to look back on my experience and give myself a little slack, I probably spent too much time worrying about work when I should have been focusing on whatever the kids were doing. and vice-versa we made it work.
We made it work because Mike was incredibly supportive, because I had a short commute, and I was able to get home quickly if I needed to, we had great childcare, so through a wonderful support system, we made it work. But that doesn't mean that internally. I didn't feel the tension, all the time.
And that's one of the things I love about you Luanne is that you're willing to be authentic with that. A lot of us constantly struggle and there isn't really a perfect answer or the right balance. We have to continue to assess what's important to us and do our best. There aren't any exact answers. we are different people with different priorities and we have to try to balance it, which is why having a supportive partner in this journey also makes a big difference.
Luanne, you also ended up doing so many different things at Washington Gas from strategic planning to organizational development. So your career ended up going all over the map. What was it that got you these different opportunities or the fact that you ended up doing so many different things in this organization.
What was a few things. first of all, I just want to acknowledge that, I was fortunate to work for leaders, Terry McCallister, former CEO, WGL tier, and Adrian Chapman, former presidents, CEO, to Washington Gas. They put a lot of emphasis on leadership development and they looked for opportunities to allow leaders to gather at different sets of skills and experiences and fill their toolkit. And so I was willing to move around. I have, broad set of interests. I really valued the different experiences and thought that it helped to make me better leader, more effective leader, because I was able to see things from various perspectives.
And you were able to do that, and also while at WGL, you had a lot of different successes. And, one of the things you were able to do Luanne was bring together, and put together an organization of shared services. What was the intention behind that? And how were you able to pull together such a diverse groups of people with different skillsets to have a shared vision for that shared services organization?
I think it was. A few things. One, having had experience in different areas, I was able to bring the perspective of someone who's seen challenges from different functional points of view. I think by the time I was dealing with that leadership challenge. I had learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. One of them was the importance of transparency. Going back to a previous experience where and one of the most difficult assignments and projects that I ever worked on. And also one of the most incredible learning opportunities was leading a team that evaluated outsourcing of many of our transactional processes, not a popular effort, if you can imagine, and necessary from a financial, sustainability from accessing technology, that, the utility would not have afforded on its own. One thing that we learned from that experience was, employees want to know, and they want to know, even if it's not great news early. So we were painfully transparent about the evaluation, we kept folks informed before, during and after.
And, while it was difficult, I think it was the most respectful approach. And so transparency is one of those, lessons that, just over and over again, it's been reinforced to me the importance of it. So moving into shared services, creating a new organization, just being very transparent as to what we're going to do, why are we going to do it? and really relying on the team to develop how we were going to do it.
Transparency is something people look for and it enables them to accept hard truths better. It doesn't necessarily make those hard truths city easier. It really helps. I was having a conversation with a thought leader and she was saying, kindness without candor is not kindness.
And I think in terms of leadership, you have to have this candor and this level of transparency and be kind with it, especially when the, changes within the organization don't have positive consequences for everyone involved. Then at times, organizations and leaders have to make tough decisions, but what people mind most is not just the decisions, it's the process and it's the lack of transparency.
So that's a great point that you share with respect to the importance of that transparency to pull these disparate groups of people together to achieve an end purpose.
Couldn't agree more, as I reflect on it, Mahan, another thing that I learned from moving into different groups was I was never going to know as much about IT or customer service as the individuals who were already in the function and just acknowledging that, and respecting their expertise, and enabling it, helping to move obstacles out of the way.
I think helped me when bringing together shared services. Cause once again, I was bringing together a group of senior leaders. They all knew so much more about the function than I ever would, ever did, and it was an opportunity for me to demonstrate trust to them. So in bringing together the shared services organization, it was really important beyond the transparency, to help us as a group develop trusted relationships. And we really invested time and effort and getting to know each other as a leadership team. I was able to bring in an outside facilitator and we spent time understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses.
We went through some assessments, and demonstrated the fact that, between all of us, man, we had it covered, we had strengths coming, from all different directions. And that really was the message, right? That, we were building this collective team that had so many different types of experiences and competencies that, you know, we could, sort of take the best of what folks had to offer and create an environment where we were going to improve processes.
We're going to have a high level of transparencies with our internal and external customers where we were going to make sure we were engaging employees and being transparent and good communicators with our internal and external stakeholders. So again, I think it was important to take the time to have everyone appreciate what others brought to the table. There were some folks who had known of each other in the organization had not worked with each other and providing that opportunity for those relationships to build really made a huge difference. Mahan, it really is all about relationships. And taking the time to build those first really paid dividends for us.
Such a great insight Luanne, because the approaches for some people, especially over the past couple of years with more virtual interaction, and one of the concerns that many organizations have, and I have with the organizations that I coach and guide, is if you stick just to the transactions within the roles that people hold and not spend time on the relationships, it becomes a lot harder to get people to work together, to achieve the positive end results.
So relationships, and then the transparency you mentioned with respect to those relationships have a huge impact in helping initiatives succeed within the organization Now, the final opportunity you had at Washington Gas was as the executive vice president and chief administrative officer.
Right around the time I was moving into that role, the company was acquired and we were going through actually the approval process for the acquisition and going through and helping to lead an integration process requires a lot of transparency again. It also requires as I think about it, it requires a lot of vulnerability as well. And it may, maybe I'll put some more words around this to make it make sense. I think it struck me unfortunately later in my career than ideal that vulnerability is a strength. So I think a lot of us are raised with, you know, put the best foot forward, stiff upper lip, things are good, just move forward and I think when you're going through a difficult set of circumstances where there's a lot of unknown, if you focus too much on putting a good face on it even with good intention, you're trying to, you know, keep motivation up. It doesn't acknowledge what people are really going through. And so, at one point had a realization.
It's okay for me to let folks know that this is tough and that I feel that this is tough, because it gave them more permission to keep it real. And again, that's something I wish I had accessed earlier in my career as a leader of vulnerability is really powerful.
What a beautiful insight Luann and one that is so relevant. Just yesterday, I was having a conversation with a CEO of an organization where he feels a lot of pressure. For the profitability of the organization and many of the things that are happening. And he said, you know what, Mahan, I need to put on a good face and smile and say, things are great and things are going to be great and we're going to do well, and so on and so forth. And part of what I had to tell him is that that's exactly the opposite of what people need and wants. And there is something called the pratfall effect where we actually tend to like competent people more when they are willing to be vulnerable and when they have flaws. So I asked people, Luanne about, when president Kennedy was at peak of his popularity.
First guess that people have is after he was assassinated. Second guess that they have is right after he was elected. And actually the fact of it is it was right after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Absolute disaster. When he was willing to take responsibility for it and showed a sense of vulnerability that helped people relate much better to him.
And there are lots of studies around pratfall effect, but I think the point your mentioning is so relevant all throughout leadership, most especially now when people don't want You to put on rose colored glasses and keep saying everything's okay, I'm perfect. I've got it all handled. They want that vulnerability and that authenticity and that transparency, which helps them feel that at least, they can trust you and you're not just telling them what you think they want to hear.
I had focused a lot before on transparency of fact, but not transparency of feeling. That was the difference. So it was being transparent, both with the facts and also how I was feeling about it and pairing the two together that really became most helpful. And I think most beneficial to others I worked with.
That is such a great point for all of us to keep in mind. And I love the way you described it. Not just transparency of facts, but transparency of feelings, and many of us have a hard time being transparent with those feelings. But our teams need that from us. Now while you were at, Washington Gas and even post Washington Gas, you have a very strong commitment to engage with the community and to give back to the community. And even currently you serve on the board of Washington performing arts society, Northern Virginia family services, we will talk a little later about the Northern Virginia chamber.
So what was it that got you so committed to being engaged in giving back to the committee?
A couple of things come to mind. First, it's the example of my parents who were very community minded. I mean, they were the kind of people that, built the kind of community where you wanted to raise your family. They were parents who were, you know, selling Hotdogs and hot chocolate at the football games.
They were involved in church group and in Girl Scouts and basketball leagues. They really gave back, not just in the activities involving their kids, but otherwise. Also I had the great fortune of working for a company where community service is just part of the DNA. So at Washington Gas, that is definitely true.
And had the opportunity through that, through being a leader at Washington Gas to connect with great organizations like, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, like Washington Performing Arts. fortunately I've been able to continue my connection, my involvement with the organizations beyond my retirement from Washington Gas, and really, I've just, I'm hooked being involved in organizations that really are focused on the issues that raised us all up.
And we need even more of that now than ever before. Whether it is the arts have been impacted severely over the past couple of years. The services that door, the Virginia family services provides to the community need is greater than there's ever been before. So we really need leadership and support in those areas.
You also are currently serving as chair of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and what are you hoping Northern Virginia Chamber will be able to do with respect to the regional community?
The business community is at its best when it is all about community. And I'm really pleased really honored to be associated with the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, because it truly is a community organization. There are the businesses that are involved, the leaders who are involved are really there because they value the role that business plays and creating a quality of life and quality of experience in our region.
We've just gone through a strategic planning process. The Chamber's focused on three pillars moving forward. One is regional leadership, making sure that we are at the table and contributing to conversations to solve regional issues, whether it's transportation workforce, otherwise.
Workforce is the second strategic pillar for the chamber. Just rolled out a workforce index, partnership with the Northern Virginia Community College, or will be on an annual basis gathering information, demonstrating where we're making progress and where we're not in terms of matching talent to existing positions. And then finally, diversity equity and inclusion. If our business community is not focused on that right now, will quickly become irrelevant. we have got to be part of the solutions in that area and, I'm very pleased that the chamber has a fantastic board of advisors for diversity equity, inclusion, real thought leaders who are coming together and helping us shape programs that will help our members, to truly reflect best practices in this area.
Luanne. I think those are great priorities. One of the questions I typically have in my mind is that, for as long as I've been involved in this business community and regional business community. There have been conversations around the need for greater regional cooperation. Back from the mid 1990s, AOL led potomac conference, part sponsored by Greater Washington board of trade, bringing everyone together to talk about regional issues workforce and connecting people with opportunities was a huge issue and retraining people was a huge issue. And diversity and inclusion has been one of those things that has been repeatedly talked about by organizations and everyone in the community. And this is for 25 years that I've been involved actively in the regional community and business community.
These are worthy priorities. What do you believe has to happen now and what will Northern Virginia Chamber and the other organizations do to make these a reality? So when we're talking 25 years from now, we have made substantial progress in these areas rather than still talking about the same priority.
Great question. there are other issues that we're talking about in 25 years. I think it's really realizing that we all need to put on our region on that. And that it's easy to, talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. It's easy to talk about regional leadership. It's different to put resources.
It's different to establish plans with accountability. And, you know, I feel like at least from the Chamber's perspective, that's what we're doing. We're really allocating time and resource, it's more than a check the box. There's a set of plans and accountability and we're not going to solve it by ourselves.
The other thing that I think is important and we'll make a difference is the emphasis on partnerships and the emphasis on working with whether it's academic institutions or other business associations and member organizations. It's gotta be partnerships that really make the difference.
Through those partnerships and through this tracking, I've no doubt that you will be able to make a difference there. Now as a fun aside, you represented a large organization and large employer for many years in this region, Washington Gas in much of your community activities, including at the chamber.
Now you and Mike are starting a farm winery, Good Spirit farm winery. What is that about and why did you decide to start a winery Luanne?
Yeah, it's crazy. Actually it's something that we thought about for decades and it was just dream. Mike took some classes at both Mason and Virginia tech, great resources in around the business of making wine, a wine making itself. We kept dabbling with the idea. We go look at wineries.
We both retired from our large organization careers within the past couple of years. And you know, we're not getting any younger, so it's now or never. And we have taken the leap. We have a property in round hill, Virginia. It's beautiful. I look forward to your visiting us when we're open.
We hope to open in 2022. Good spirit, by the way, is the English translation of guttermuth. It reflects our family name and it is more than a name. We're really hoping to be good neighbors, to be part of the community, to give back to be a place where people can gather nonprofits, et cetera.
We can connect people to causes as well as providing a space to enjoy the outdoors, enjoy, a great glass of wine and enjoy fellowship with others.
But it does also represent you. Good spirit Luanne. So it's great to see the connection. it's the translation of the name, it's the name of the winery, and it represents you and all the interactions that I've had with you over the years. Now, Luanne, if you were to reflect back and give advice to a younger Luanne and younger professionals that want to be as impactful as you've been throughout your leadership career, what advice would you give them?
Well, the first thing I would say is. And this hit me years ago when we first did an employee satisfaction survey, a climate survey, and Washington Gas. The senior leaders were surprised by the results that leaders weren't as well-regarded as expected. And when we dug into the results, what I found was the following that it's hard to expect employees to trust leaders that they don't know, and that they don't know if the leaders trust them. And so I would emphasize that again, it is all about relationships. Over time I learned that small talk is not just sort of time wasted. small talk is really part of one's job as a leader. Taking time to establish those points of connection, help employees feel better about being at work, right? every interaction with an employee is an opportunity to impact employee engagement. So make sure it's a positive impact. You don't have to do it all yourself. I worked with one leader, he was ahead of me to reading at Washington Gas and I started calling him the Maestro because Bruce could identify the strengths of all the people that worked for him.
And he pulled that aspect out of them. So there was one guy who was really good at technology. And so he assigned him that, you know, the tough technology stuff, another guy that was really good motivator. So he would have him speak in the union employee meetings to get them all pumped up about safe practices.
There was another guy who was really good at difficult customer interactions, so he would pull him in there. And so, I learned from Bruce that, you don't have to do it all yourself. What you need to do is identify the strengths of others and give them the opportunity to use those strengths.
Another thing that I wish I had listened to my father about, right. He, at one point I was a real warrior growing up and have gotten a little bit better about that. at one point he said, Luanne, 90% of the things I worried about never happened. And it is really true. I believed him. It's so true. Stop worrying.
Right? relax a little bit. that certainly would be a piece of advice. I would, provide my younger self, enjoy the now. Enjoy the now. And maybe the other thing. And I think you've heard me say this is, magic happens outside one's comfort zone. So, whether it's going into a function, that you, haven't grown up in, whether it's taking a tough assignment, whether it's pivoting and doing something crazy, like opening a farm winery, that stuff outside one's comfort zone is really where the magic happens.
And that magic is caused for growth and learning and joy in life, which is a big part of what keeps us energized. And I know has kept you energized over the years,Luanne. So are there any leadership practices or resources that you typically find yourself recommending to leaders that want to become more impactful, better leaders.
There's a lot of value in peer coaching. so accessing group of peers and not necessarily all at the same level or the same point in one's career, not the same age group, but accessing different leaders, hearing their stories, getting encouragement from them, I think is a wonderful practice. And so I'll put in a plug for organizations like Leadership Greater Washington, like Lead Virginia. they do provide that opportunity to establish a wonderful set of peer relationships. Or you can be vulnerable where you can ask questions where you can kind of just let it hang out and get some great, great insights from others. So that's one, think taking time to be quiet, whether it's walking, I'm not great at meditation, I'm really trying to be, I think that helps, and doing something that's a real creative outlet. so whether it's, you know, reading, fiction, whether it's, you know, music, something that's completely, completely separate and different from your day-to-day work life, I think spending time doing that is just something that refreshes your soul..
And, it's really, if you think about it as a leader, it's not what you do. That's as important as who you are. And if you don't allow yourself the opportunity to refresh, to enjoy, those things that really bring you joy, you're not going to be the leader that inspires others.
Oh, I love that Luanne. It's not what you do. It's who you are, which is why I am so thrilled that we got a chance to share some of who you are with the Partnering Leadership Community, because it's not all you've done and you have done a lot. But who you have been all throughout and who you continue to be.
That is something that I celebrate, which is why I cherish this conversation. Thank you so much Luanne
Mahan, Thank you. It's been a joy to spend time with you.