A Conversation with Terry Leeds, Director, KC Water, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance
Radhika: Can you introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization?
Terry: I am a Christ follower, husband, father, son, and a water professional.
Radhika: Kansas City has water infrastructure issues that long pre-date your tenure – deferred maintenance, combined sewer systems, aging pipes (some even from the 1860sand 70s!) – can you talk about how you’ve been able to lead your team towards overcoming these challenges?
Terry: Yes, the biggest long-term challenge KC Water faces is deferred maintenance. Not unlike other large cities, Kansas City deferred maintenance on our water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure over a long period of time and this will be our main driver for capital improvements for the foreseeable future. But as a data-driven, customer-centric organization, KC Water will continue to make progress and improve our level of service each year.
Radhika: With 28 years of experience in the water sector, can you reflect on your path to becoming the Director of KC Water? What advice do you have for young folks who are just starting their careers?
Terry: I must admit that when I graduated from Missouri S&T in 1984, I did not have a career goal of being a Director for a large water utility. I first focused on becoming a professional engineer, working on water and wastewater projects. Almost a decade later, I took a position with my hometown utility – KC Water. Eight promotions later I became the Director for KC Water.
My first piece of advice for young water professionals is to never stop learning and growing. Work hard and take advantage of opportunities that come your way. For many people – myself included – we grow the most when we step out of our comfort zone and take on challenges outside of our current responsibilities. After seven years in my current position I still learn something new every day.
The second thing young people should know is that being a water professional is – at least in my mind – one of the most rewarding professions there is.
Terry showcasing Kansas City’s great tasting tap water at a KC Water event
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you?
Terry: First, it means having water, wastewater, and stormwater in one organization. But more importantly, it means to be a Keeper of the Water. By that I mean we should cherish water as the most important resource we have in life – we need to use it wisely and return it to the environment in an environmentally sound way.
I also think it means we need to look at water from different perspectives and help grow the understanding of just how precious water is. In Kansas City, and in a lot of the Midwest I believe, drinking water was traditionally a cheap commodity and was undervalued. This led to a lot of waste. On the wastewater and stormwater side we just focused on getting it away from us as soon as we could, not realizing the downstream impacts. As we learn more about our impacts on water, we have an obligation to do more, and can no longer think of water as a “cheap commodity.” Understanding “One Water” has changed how I look at water.
Radhika: Kansas City has been described as a big city with a small-town feel –what’s your favorite part of living in a place with both of those aspects?
Terry: Kansas City is truly a great place to live, work, and play. Being born and raised here helped shape who I am.
Radhika: Along those lines, Kansas City is also reputed to have a great restaurant scene – what’s your favorite spot to eat or favorite type of food?
Terry: Barbeque. From historic Gates and Arthur Bryant’s to newer joints such as Q39 and Joe’s, you can’t beat Kansas City BBQ. Each place has its own unique flavors of sauces and smoked meat.
Radhika: After the Royals, what’s your second favorite sports team?
Terry: Kansas City Chiefs, of course, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Radhika: What influences your leadership style?
Terry: My leadership style has been influenced by those around me and the different leaders that I have interacted with over the years. And I haven’t just learned from past bosses. From my father to my neighbor, my high school band teacher to my pastors – these are all people who have instilled in me the value that the best way to lead is to serve.
My leadership role as KC Water Director is not about me, it is about serving. It’s about serving our customers, our employees, and our city leaders. It’s about trying to do what is right, each and every day, and when I don’t succeed, I get up the next day and try again.
Terry embracing the holiday spirit at a KC Water meeting