046: From Frowns to Wows, Innovating the Water Conservation Conversation with Kathy Nguyen

Kathy Nguyen graduated from Berry College with a BA in Speech/Communications.  She studied Environmental Management at the University of Maryland. She has been with Cobb County Water System since 2001.  In 2004 she became the Water Efficiency Manager, where she developed, implemented and manages the Water Efficiency Program. In 2009 she became the Senior Project Manager for Water Resources.  She is currently the Customer Service Division Manager. She is a member of: American Water Works Association, Georgia Association of Water Professionals, Technical Coordinating Committee for Metro North Georgia Water Planning District, Department of Community Affairs WaterFirst Adjudication Team, Technical Advisory Committee for both the State-wide Water Plan and the State-wide Water Conservation Plan, Past-Chair of the Alliance for Water Efficiency Public Education and Outreach Committee, the Georgia Water Wise Council the Georgia Section of American Water Works, The Irrigation Association SWAT Promotional Working Group.

Top Takeaways:

  1. Kathy spoke about how she dramatically shifted the public buy-in of her water conservation program by shifting her mindset and approaching conservation through the prism of her customers.
  2. In this episode, we chat about that very shift and why we think it’s an important message for young professionals to hear, as well as anyone that wears their passion for what they do on their sleeve.
  3. Everyone should have a mentor that scares the crap out of them.
  4. How the adage “the way we’ve always done it” kills the culture of creativity and innovation in our organizations that retain the next gen.
  5. If you manage customer service staff, it’s your job to make sure every other manager understands the value your employees bring to the entire organization.

Show Notes:

[5:25] Alliance for Water Efficiency: Water efficiency takes a back seat in almost every other water association. It filled a void and coalesced all the experts from the other organizations.

[7:38] Cobb County Efficiency Program: Kathy gives an overview of their very diverse conservation program.

[10:25] Shift in Mindset After the lifting of a two-year drought restriction, the public didn’t continue to save water, instead they called for Kathy to be fired. Kathy got creative and shifted her messaging from conservation ethics to tying the water resource to being a fiscal resource, an economic development tool.

[13:48] “I don’t understand why the entire water system can not run like the water efficiency program.” That was a big endorsement from one of the biggest critics. Their message had resonated with the right group.

[15:07] “I would like in water if the word stakeholder was less scary than nuclear holocaust. When I say I’m going to have a stakeholder task force I may as well have said I just pushed the button.”

[15:41] “You have to find and know your customer base. It has to be more than a slogan. It has to be more than the label of your program. Every single thing you do has to tie back to that idea.”

[16:28] The Atlanta Braves moved to Cobb County. They massaged their water use/cost like a “water bank”, a water balance. “If we save this, we can do this.”

[18:20] When you eliminate divisiveness between groups by letting go the personal feelings. “You can preach to the choir, but you may be alone.”

[19:48] “We all have the person who comes to every single workshop you do. They’ve implemented everything you’ve told them to do. They’re flushing the toilet with a bucket. But they’re not your problem.”

[23:07] Value of Mentors

[26:52] “Everybody has a mentor that lets them do something scares the crap out of them. There’s no other way for them to be ready. Then just stand back like one of those trust falls.”

[27:59] Young Professionals The adage so prevalent in the water industry of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is counterproductive to the young generation that wants to look at things differently. “They come by their caution in a legitimate way but we’ve got to crack the door open a little bit and realize there is more than one way to do things.”

[32:12] “I don’t understand when we made the decision that the only people that bring value to the water industry have to have an engineering degree.”

[37:17] Customer Service…Customer Relations “If they (customer service representatives) understand they are a conduit for those customers getting access to safe drinking water and sanitation, that they’re the gatekeepers for that, and they are the ones that talk to customers about that, then that just elevates the way that they feel. As a manager, it’s my job to make sure every other manager understands the value they bring to the entire utility.”

[39:33] “We can’t leave them (customer service representatives) locked up in a cage. We got to send them out there to get personal development and pour back into them.”

[40:15] “We handle water, wastewater, and stormwater. All a customer knows is that they are calling the water system. So the person who answers the phone is expected to be an expert on every single thing that happens every single day, every crazy decision we make, every nutty policy implemented that some customer might have a problem with, is probably going to come to their phone at some point. And they have no idea when they pick up that phone.”

[44:27] Kathy’s elevator pitch for water and the value of water.


The Coaching Habit by Michael Stanier


Imagine H2O is a water technology accelerator empowering people to develop and deploy innovation to solve water challenges globally. You can be innovative about anything, from your hiring process to the way your organization deals with hexavalent chromium contamination. What matters is that you’re constantly trying to improve the way you’re doing things, and the better you are at innovation, the better you are at everything. Learn more about Imagine H2O, our accelerator and beta programs at imagineh2o.org.   

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