Susan Story, president and CEO of American Water Works Company, Inc., has been leading the largest publicly-traded U.S. water and wastewater utility for more than four years, but her executive leadership experience goes back much farther. Before taking over as CEO in May 2014, Story served as chief financial officer at American Water for one year. Prior to that, she spent 31 years at Southern Company as CEO of Southern Company Services, Inc., president and CEO of Gulf Power Company, Inc. from 2003 to 2010 and executive vice president of Southern Company and Engineering and Construction Services from 2001 to 2003.
In addition to leading American Water’s team of 7,100 professionals who provide service to more than 15 million people in 46 states and Ontario, Canada, she also extends her business expertise to boardrooms. Story has serves as the independent lead director for Raymond James Financial, Inc., serves on the board of directors of Dominion Resources, Inc. and is on the board of the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute Board of Advisors.
Corporate Board Member caught up with Story to talk about balancing her responsibilities as a CEO and as a director, the keys to building a winning team, the importance of company culture, and how her leadership style has evolved over the years. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
On balancing her CEO and boardroom responsibilities
In terms of balancing, number one is, as a CEO, if you’re going to go on another board, or like me that are on two, you’re going to spend weekends and other times reviewing information, so don’t go on the board of a company just to go on a board, you better really love that company, love what they do, see it as a learning experience and find ways that the best practices cross over, because I know I’m a better director because I’m a publicly-traded company CEO.
But don’t go into this thinking, “Oh, I’ll just spend a couple of hours here.” For board members today, it is a very serious commitment of time, it is a commitment of your reputation. I would never go on a board that I thought would be a risk to my personal reputation and the reputation of my company. I don’t care how big it is, you just don’t do it. So number one is, as CEO of your own company, is this affiliation going to be good for your company and good for you and not put a risk of your reputation?
The number one thing I would tell an active CEO is you cannot in any way to go on a board and put your company at risk. I’m very fortunate that the two boards I’m on are companies where I knew the CEOs before I joined them and I trusted them. I knew that their philosophies were similar to mine. I knew that they were ethical and had high integrity.
So, as an active CEO, before you ever go on a board, know that you’re going to put a lot of time in it. Number two, do you know some of the key executives, specifically the CEO, and do they reflect your values and what you believe in? And then third is, you had better be willing to do the very best you can and make sure that whatever board you go on does not put your company or your personal reputation at risk. I think those would be the three big lessons.
Keys to building a thriving team and finding the right talent
There are different kinds of areas that converge on this that seem like they’re very different but they’re not. And first is obviously the diversity of talent. If you surround yourself with people who think like you do, who have the same background experiences, you’re not going to make it very far. And this issue of diversity, it does include demographics but it also includes people who think very differently, who are willing to challenge, to test the waters, who think kind of outside of the way you have typically thought. And I’ll give you an example at American Water.
About two years ago, we hired a new chief technology and innovation officer. His name is Radha Swaminathan. Radha personally holds six patents in artificial intelligence. And we’re a regulated utility predominantly, and yet our goal is within two-and-a-half years to have an Amazon-like experience for our customers. As a regulated utility thinking that, yes, while most regulated utilities, we have franchises and people say, “Well, your customers don’t have a choice on who they use for the water, why do you care?” It is because the regulatory construct could go away one day, and we want our customers to choose us because they love being part of our customer base.
And part of that, for us as American Water, is our water and water services. Are we safe, are we clean, are we affordable, are we reliable? And the second thing is, am I having a good customer experience with this company? And in all honesty, the third one is, does this company reflect my values and who I am as a person and the communities that I live in? And I think that’s kind of good. And if you really are going to do all three of those, you better have a breadth of talent that doesn’t look like the talent you had in the past.
We’ve just moved into new corporate headquarters in Camden, New Jersey. It is a financial distress community, and we’re part of revitalization. We’re also across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. So in terms of recruiting the new generation of talent, there are two or three things that are important. Number one is we’re very integrally tied into our community in terms of efforts in the schools, efforts in health and human services, efforts to make the community stronger.