By Judy Clabes
Cheryl Norton is celebrating her second year in a city she never expected to be with a job she never expected to have.
That, she says, is not so unusual for successful women, as the path to the top is not so prescriptive.
Cheryl Norton (Photo by Judy Clabes)
In January 2011, Norton became the first woman president in the history of Kentucky American Water. She succeeded Nick Rowe who had led Kentucky American Water, based in Lexington, since 2004.
She manages the largest investor-owned water utility in the state and is directly responsible for 140 employees – and water and/or wastewater services to half a million customers.
Speaking of customers – it’s clear her priories start there. Her beginnings with the company started in a lab responsible for safe drinking water.
“I love my job every day,” she says. “I’m having fun.”
It’s also clear there aren’t many “I’s” in her vocabulary. Her favorite word is “we,” and “teamwork” is her favorite management principle.
Norton came to Lexington from Illinois American Water where she was vice president of operations for three years. But she has spent most of her working years with the company, having her first job as a research technician in the national lab in 1988 while she was earning her B.S. degree in biology and her masters in environmental studies at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. She became the lab’s director, responsible for chemical compliance testing which confirmed all drinking water provided by American Water met or exceeded state and federal standards.
Having grown up as the youngest of three children on a small family farm in Missouri, she learned early on the value of hard work and team play.
“When I became director of the lab – my first management job – I had to learn quickly,” she said. “I wasn’t a chemist. I had to depend on experts and be dependent on a team.”
But she understood the responsibilities of being in charge and learned she “couldn’t be afraid to make changes.”
When she moved to operations she “also didn’t know a lot.” But she continued her “team focus. Building an open group, not being afraid to say ‘I’m not the expert,’ encouraging openness and transparency, building trust and asking the right questions.”
“The key to being successful is having the right team to back you,”she says. “My hope is that every member of our team can be promoted.”
She believes her own promotions came because of her collaborative management style, her coaching skills and her attitude.
“If there were things at work making me unhappy, then I needed to be part of the solution,”she says. “The company has been great, giving me options and showing me choices.”
Yet being in the utilities industry was a “challenging environment.”
When she became part of American Water, the business was so male-dominated there was no women’s restroom at one of the company’streatment plants.
A colleague described her as “having an incredible work ethic, self-sufficiency, strong leadership and a humble demeanor.”
After nearly two years in Lexington, she has found a “more diverse community than I expected.”
Learning what’s important here, she’s a UK basketball fan.
And she’s fully entrenched otherwise in her community, understanding her “external role” as head of the company.
She and her family, husband, Bill – for now, a stay-at-home dad who’s remodeling the master bath, and daughter Emily – who’s on the softball team at Dunbar High School, have settled in nicely. They take full advantage of the adventure of discovery.
In a nutshell, her smartly learned advice for women aspiring to the next promotion:
Not all that is planned evolves;
Have goals but be flexible;
Gain skills along the way;
Choose your attitude;
Work hard – and want it;
Find balance with work and family.
For an “accidental executive,” Cheryl Norton has figured out the landscape very well, following every reasonable opportunity with her good common sense and sharp instincts fully engaged.