A conversation with Susan Moisio, Global Vice President and Water Director, Jacobs, and Renée Willette, Vice President, Programs and Strategy, US Water Alliance
Renée: Without using your professional title or organization, will you please introduce yourself?
Susan: I’m a water professional. I’m a wife and mother. I’m a passionate gardener, and I’m a person of the land.
Renée: Your water career has spanned utility operations, project management, modeling, conveyance and wet weather technical leadership, and executive management. What aspects of your career have given you the most joy over the years and the biggest growth opportunities?
Susan: Building teams brings me the most joy—I like to build teams that allow people to bring their whole self to work. I find joy when I’m able to build a team in which people trust each other. If you can build that trust, people will bring their good ideas and will support each other. One of the challenges of being a global organization is that many times I don’t get to meet the team in person, often we’re collaborating virtually. But it’s important to me that my teammates know what I stand for, so when I began in my new position at Jacobs, I held several global meetings to introduce myself to the water team and to answer their questions. You can’t be a successful leader without trust.
Renée: Your first position out of college was at Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District in the wastewater collection division. You ended up staying there for sixteen years—what were some of the most valuable lessons you learned during those early days of your career?
Susan: Building on my point about the importance of trust, that was something I learned at Cincinnati MSD. I joined as an engineer for the Wastewater Collection Division, and we were responsible for monitoring and maintaining 3,000 miles of sewer, 24 hours a day. It was my job to assess a situation and figure out what we needed to do to make the situation safe. To make people safe and to keep people safe—if we faced a challenge in our collections system, my goal was to make sure what happened would never happen again. Later in my career in Cincinnati, I undertook an executive leadership internship in city hall. I worked across all of the different city departments, and I started to learn more about a concept called New Urbanism. The concept is that as cities become more populous, they become less livable. As an engineer I want to make systems that don’t only work well, but also make people want to live in the communities they serve.
Renée: You’ve been named one of the 40 most influential leaders in the water sector by Global Water Intelligence in 2019, what areas of the water sector are you hoping to focus on in the next five years?
Susan: I’ve been thinking a lot about the water-energy nexus—my daughter lives in Texas and what happened there with the polar vortex and the power crisis really hit me. These extreme weather events are an issue across the country and around the globe, for instance Nashville had a second big flood in ten years and Taiwan has plunged into its worst drought in more than 50 years. We keep seeing the impacts of climate change, and I want to be a part of driving solutions.
Renée: In 100 years what transformational change do you anticipate seeing in the water sector?
Susan: I don’t think we’ll have to wait 100 years to see transformational change. I think we’re going to get there sooner. We’re already developing digital twins for water systems, which means we can use predicative analytics to answer the question of ‘What if I were to make this decision, how would the system be impacted?’ We can use the digital twin to run different scenarios and see what will happen. I think there’s so much opportunity for us to grow in the realm of digital water and room for us to learn from the data it provides.
Renée: You’ve been hailed as a dedicated mentor within Jacobs, can you tell us why it is important to you to serve in that role? What advice do you have for members of the next generation of One Water leaders?
Susan: I think it’s important to serve as a mentor because people mentored me—all throughout my career people gave their time and energy to help me grow. I know the importance of having a mentor, someone you can trust, someone you can go to and say, ‘I’m not sure what to do,’ someone who will help you problem-solve. My advice to the next generation is threefold. First, I think it’s important to build your network. You can start by joining a professional association and volunteering for a committee. Second, it’s important to get out of the office, you need on the ground experience. When I work on a project and actually go to look at the site, it helps me develop more effective solutions. And lastly, take calculated risks. This comes back to trust, having trust in your colleagues and in yourself. And it’s important to recognize that even if you fail, you can grow from the experience. I’ve taken risks and I’ve failed, and it’s humbling, but I lived through it and those risks opened doors for me to be where I am today.
Renée: What does “One Water” mean to you?
Susan: One Water means all water is a precious resource. It also means there are social implications to our work—we have a responsibility to build systems that impact communities positively. I remember the first time I worked on putting in a wet-weather treatment facility and the creek nearby was completely dead. Over time I was able to see the creek coming back to life. Seeing that transformation first-hand was really powerful. Our work can result in tangible, positive impacts for communities.
Renée: What have you read recently that’s influenced your leadership style? Or just rocked your boat?
Susan: I’ve been reading Radical Inclusion by Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman. One of the reasons I like this book is because it talks about how to lead teams that are global. Our Solutions and Technology Team at Jacobs has been described as a thin mesh across the world connecting people and ideas. Building connections is so important. One thing that resonated in this book is the discussion about today’s military leaders, my son is about to be commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps, and we talked about how radical inclusion related to both of our roles. I think that ‘Command and control’ is no longer an effective way to lead—we need to lead collaboratively. At the same time, for me, a leader needs to be responsible to own any mistakes, to be a problem solver and say here’s what’s wrong and here’s how we can fix it.
Renée: What is your favorite body of water?
Susan: The South Fork of the Spring River in Fulton County, Arkansas, where I grew up. I fished there, swam there, and every year I could see how it was changing. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve seen how humans have impacted the river. It is one of those places that I shared with my kids when they were growing up and it was a magical experience being able to bring them to the same place I had loved at their age.
Renée: What’s one of your favorite parts of living on your family farm in Aurora?
Susan: I love being outdoors in all seasons, seeing how things change. In the mornings I get up and walk my dog down to the creek on our property. Living in the country helps me as a water professional—being close to nature helps you understand how what you do impacts the environment. That’s something that my father taught me when I was growing up, when you own the land you are responsible for that land and how you manage it.