Susan Story (chief executive of American Water) in “The Corner Office”

StoryAdam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Susan Story, chief executive of American Water, the utility company. She observes, “I’ve never gone into a job and looked at the job description and just said, ‘This is what I need to do.’ It’s about doing the job but also looking around for what’s not getting done that would bring value.”

To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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What are some early lessons you learned from your parents?

I grew up in rural Alabama. We didn’t have a lot of money. When I was really young, my mom and dad both worked in a cotton mill. Then my dad was a wastewater plant operator for nine years, and then he became a pipe fitter.

I learned from them that every person deserves respect, regardless of who they are or what they do. And no matter how bad things get, it’s about working hard and taking personal responsibility, because nobody owes you anything.

Those two things have had a huge impact on my life — no whining, no griping, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you react to it.

Were you in leadership roles early on?

I always wanted to be in the middle of everything. I was the senior class president in high school, and even though I had to work my way through college, I was still very involved in extracurricular activities and was president of different groups. I always loved being around people and getting stuff done.

What about early work experience after college? Lessons from those days?

When I graduated in 1981, I was a female engineer. I had really good grades, so I ended up with 17 job offers from all over the country. One thing I’ve done from the start is that I’ve never gone into a job and looked at the job description and just said, “This is what I need to do.” It’s about doing the job but also looking around for what’s not getting done that would bring value. When I would raise my hand, it was appreciated.

Another big lesson I learned early on is the importance of communication skills. Engineers aren’t universally known for having strong communication skills, but I loved English. I found that it’s one thing to know things and have ideas, and it’s another thing to be able to communicate them.

This was reinforced by a former C.E.O. of the Southern Company, Allen Franklin, who said, “The smartest people make things simple.” If you really want to win people’s hearts in complex organizations, you have to know how to communicate it in a way that people understand.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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