March 4, 2020

A conversation with Yvonne Forrest, Director, Houston Water, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance

Radhika: Please introduce yourself to our readers!
Yvonne: I am a servant leader. I am privileged to work for the City of Houston and to represent a dedicated workforce of public servants.

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Radhika: As the fourth largest city in the country, Houston Water serves 4.6 million customers and employs over 1,700 staff members – can you talk about what skills are needed to support such a large team and constituency?
Yvonne: The first thing that comes to mind is the Russian proverb, “Trust but verify.” That’s a mantra for me in my work, but the reality is there’s no way one leader can be everywhere. This type of work requires leaders to multi-task, but also requires leaders to delegate to their team. And to listen. I see one of my key responsibilities as listening to the needs of my team – and then providing the tools they need to succeed and removing any obstacles they are facing.
Radhika: Last year the city developed a resilient-building strategy called “Resilient Houston” – what’s you and your team’s role in implementing this strategy? How are you the goal of promoting a healthy, equitable, and inclusive city?
Yvonne: For Houston Water, our primary purpose to is to protect public health. Right now, my team is working to take a step back and ensure that we are aligned with the strategy goals moving forward. We want to ensure we’re allocating resources with consistent criteria – and are being transparent about our work throughout the entire process.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you? 
Yvonne: Water is a precious resource. There are times of scarcity and times of overabundance, but no matter what every drop needs to be managed. Drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater have often competed for resources, but we need to be thinking about managing water holistically.

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Radhika: Your academic background is in chemical engineering and after 15 years working as an engineer in the private sector you now work as an engineer for Houston Water – what brought you to this type of work?
Yvonne: I came to water because I wanted to make an impact on a local level. I received the opportunity to come work in Houston and at the time my work to that point had been on the national scale – and I wanted to try something closer to home. I ended up falling in in love with public service.
The most rewarding part of my job is when I’m able to give space for individual employees to be heard. So many times at a large organization, people are lumped together on a big team. For me, one of the greatest joys is making connections with the people who have dedicated their lives to an often-thankless job. My teammates are incredibly dedicated professionals and largely they are invisible to the public.
Through my work in the public sector, I have met some of the most generous, giving people. Whenever anything is happening, like during the floods in Houston, I see others in this sector reaching out to ask how they can help and that has been an amazing thing for me.
Radhika: When you’re not on the job, where are you mostly likely to be found in the city? 
Yvonne: Houston has two seasons: hot and not so hot. So where I am depends on the season. When it’s too hot to be outside, I love to quilt, to read, to do things that allow me to express my creativity. When it’s not so hot, I like to spend time walking the trails that cross the city or tending my garden.

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Radhika: Houston is reputed to have one of the most diverse food scenes in the country – when people come to visit, what do you recommend they try? 
Yvonne: Well, first – if you have the time, eat everything. Houston really does have some of the best food in the country and you can have any type of cuisine you want. But, if you need to prioritize, I recommend getting authentic Tex-Mex on the East side of the city, or Houston is also known for really good BBQ.
Radhika: What have you read recently that’s influenced your leadership style? 
Yvonne: The entire Houston Public Works team recently read Roar: How to Build a Resilient Organization. The book talks lot about personal resiliency, about the strength it takes to adapt to what is around you. For me, it really drilled home the idea that your reaction to change is based in who you are as a person – and for our whole organization it’s been a big game-changer.