A Conversation with Carla Reid, GM/CEO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (MD), and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance
Radhika: Please introduce yourself without using your professional title or organization. Who are you at your essence?
Carla: I am a people person. I’m a great judge of talent. I like to teach, I like to inspire, and I like to give. I enjoy seeing people exceeding their own expectations. I’m a coach and a cheerleader, and I love to win—there is nothing I can’t do when I’m determined. I believe there is opportunity for everyone to achieve success.
Radhika: People have been asking me for years if I knew you, so I was excited to finally meet you last year—to see this dynamic woman of color in such an important leadership role. What do you think needs to happen to pave the way for more diverse candidates in the water sector?
Carla: As a sector, we need to start introducing people early to opportunities in water. I don’t mean just in middle school or high school—I’m talking about even before that. If children have the capacity to know what a doctor is, what a teacher is, then they have the same capacity to know what a water professional is.
And I want to ensure we increase underrepresented communities in our sector. At WSSC, in the next three to five years, 40 percent of our employees will be eligible to retire. Without enough people to carry out our mission, our customers will be in trouble. We need partnerships with schools to replenish the workforce, but we also need to acknowledge and recognize the talent of those who are already working for us.
And when we do have individuals in the water sector that represent different forms of diversity, we need to support them. It’s important to do regular check-ins to make sure we understand what their interests are. When we don’t know what people are thinking—and if we don’t take the time to ask—we may inadvertently lose them to another job opportunity when we could have retained them.
Radhika: What does “One Water” mean to you?
Carla: To me it means there is no new water, and I emphasize that a lot in my work. When we learn about water, we learn about stormwater, drinking water, source water and beyond, but those distinctions don’t really matter. We have a sector that has separated itself into these silos, but the One Water movement brings us together. We need to focus on One Water to manage water in a holistic way, to create integrative plans, and to provide solutions to our water challenges.
Carla listens to contest winners describe the tools they invented at WSSC’s first annual Innovation Day
Radhika: Engineers are often known as technical experts but not as the most natural communicators. You are a civil engineer, and you are also a passionate and compelling speaker. How did you find that voice and what advice do you have for talking about complex issues in a way that’s relevant?
Carla: I learned the hard way. Early in my career I was advocating for my staff, and I realized my concerns weren’t resonating with Human Resources. I was not communicating effectively, and I realized you only become effective when people are moved to action by your message. I went back to school for a master’s degree in human resources management so I could better represent myself and my future employees. My advice is to really connect with what you are trying to convey and to understand how to help your audience connect with it too. It reminds me of one of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Radhika: What have you read recently that’s influenced your leadership style? Or just rocked your boat as a professional or in your personal world?
Carla: The book I just referenced, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is ingrained in how I operate and how I show up in my leadership. I also recently revisited Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. It looks at the difference between effort and results, and how we need to be mindful that only results are going to move us forward. It’s an important message for the water sector. I want us to focus more on results, so we can demonstrate our effectiveness and so people can understand the true value of our nation’s water system.
Right now, I’m reading Attitude of Excellence: Get the Best From Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization. That one is about mindset – understanding what you must do to go from putting in a good effort to getting good results. It’s about not settling for anything other than the best—and about telling yourself you have the capacity to achieve it.
Radhika: What was your most recent triumph?
Carla: In February, I received the honor of Black History Hero from the Maryland Washington Minority Contract Association (MWMCA). When I reflect on how I’ve conceptualized black history, thinking of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., I never thought that I would ever be called a Black History Hero. It touched me in a deep way and made me very proud to be in the water sector.
Radhika: If you were on your soapbox, what would you say?
Carla: Innovation and advocacy are two ways that we can advance the water sector much more quickly.
It goes back to what I said about results, we need to move faster with respect to innovation. Water utilities can be laggards, and I see faster movement in other sectors within the utility space. I don’t want to be reckless—I think we need to take risks that are calculated. We need to take risks that don’t endanger our primary mission of providing safe, clean water, but also get us to try more new things in every aspect of our work.
But what we’re doing well—and need to continue to do—is advocating for the resources to ensure we have the reliable infrastructure needed to deliver safe, clean water. We see bridges and roads every day, but our water infrastructure is very out of sight and out of mind. People take our water infrastructure for granted all the time –so we need to keep making the sector more visible.
Carla advocating for policies that improve water infrastructure and affordability