Nicole Willett

Waste Management’s Willett is Building Better Communities

The Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient opens up about being welcomed into a traditionally male-dominated industry with “open arms.”

The camaraderie Nicole Willett saw in her small community as a child has clearly influenced her love of helping municipalities navigate their waste and recycling challenges. As the director of public sector and public affairs in the Eastern Canada region for Waste Management, the community Willet herself fosters has won praise from friends, coworkers and competitors alike.

According to Susan Moulton, Waste Management’s corporate senior director of public sector solutions, “Nicole’s vision, strong work ethic, coaching and mentoring capabilities have enabled her to excel at Waste Management and within the waste and recycling industry. She has become a role model for young professionals and has recruited many talented individuals into the industry throughout her career.”

Proving her colleagues’ praises correct—before the interview even begins—Willett tells Waste360: “The people in the industry are what make it.”

We recently sat down with the Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, who opens up about how she was “welcomed with open arms” into this traditionally male-dominated industry and the value of mentorship programs.

Waste360: How did you enter the field 16 years ago?

Nicole Willett: I was working for Arthur Andersen, the consulting company, and I worked at Allied Waste Industries, which has since merged with Republic Services. So, I cut my teeth in the industry as a consultant trying to fix billing systems for one of their acquisitions. I was fortunate enough that the CIO at the time there hired me on. I went from IT, to customer service, to service quality, to customer experience, to public sector, to public affairs, and I kind of feel like I'm riding this amazing wave.

I fell into it. When you're a consultant, you don't get to choose where you go. I didn't know much about the industry, and now, it's the only thing I really feel like I know. And I don't know half of it. Every day, I learn something new, but it has started to feel like home here.

Waste360: How has your role in the industry changed over the years?

Nicole Willett: When I moved to Canada, I had a team of 27 reps managing customer service, and at that point, those customers were small- to medium-sized businesses. The truth is that I now do the same thing for really large municipalities. I'll sit down with the planning committee and talk about how we can plan a long-term waste solution for them to help them achieve their goals. Their goals might be to reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills, or to increase landfill diversion—every single day is different, and every municipality is different.

The difference now is I probably have the most incredible team that you could ever hope for. Truthfully, I learn more from the people on my team every day than they'll learn from me in a lifetime. They're energetic and fun. It's an interesting dynamic because one manager could be left with three bids to write—which is like writing a term paper—and at some point, we'll all fly in and help that person so they're not stuck on their own. It's like, OK, is that part of their goals? Does that help them? It doesn't, but they're part of this team that's so dynamic and they want to help each other, so they do it. It's super cool.

Waste360: Tell me about your role as a board member of the Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA).

Nicole Willett: The OWMA is an industry association that represents all of waste management throughout Ontario. Everything from the insurance companies, to the transport companies, to individual waste and recycling players. I was really lucky to be able to get on a board like that. I'm one of two females on the board and probably the youngest, if not the second youngest, on the board. At first, I think there was some apprehension, like “Who's this on the board?,” and now, they welcome a different sort of approach.

The neatest thing is to see how, when an industry sticks together to do the right things for the environment, it can actually make a difference. We were at the board table and there were some initiatives coming down from the previous government, and we were like: “This just doesn't make sense. This isn't good for the taxpayer, this isn't good for residents, this isn't good for the environment, this isn't good for the industry ...” And when we all stuck together and formed a coalition with not just our industry but other industries, we responded back to the government to say, “Hey, here are the things that would probably make better sense ...” You have to see the change and the impact that you made.

The funnier part is, at the time, I had a kindergartener, and sometimes the only time you can talk to somebody is on a Saturday afternoon, so you don't realize that they hear. His kindergarten teacher called me and said, “You know, we were doing this thing in class today about community, and most kids talked about firemen or police officers, and your son said this whole thing about how recycling is really good for the environment.”

Basically, he said what's really good for the environment is a MRF [materials recovery facility]. Evidently, there's a little brainwashing going on there. He had the whole pitch, and it was pretty funny.

Waste360: You mentioned being among the youngest and one of just two females when you joined the board—is that the industry in general and has that changed over time?

Nicole Willett: When I first started in the industry, I remember looking around the table sometimes and thinking, “OK, I'm one of 25 in the room.” And something that's been neat in the industry, and even with the Waste360 40 Under 40 awards last year, is you really see a lot of females now in the industry. And not only at an executive level. At Waste Management, our CFO is female, our new senior vice president is female and they become your role models, but it's even more remarkable to see women as route managers and drivers. There seems to be no sort of difference now, where before you could always sort of feel like, “Wow, I'm the only one here.” I used to joke, “there's actually a line now when there's a conference in the women's washroom.” But it's true!

I think the industry is really smart to understand that and to make it welcoming.

I can tell you that I always felt welcome to the table, and I never felt like, “Oh you're a girl.” In this industry, I've been welcomed with open arms. It's nice to see other females in the industry, too.

Waste360: Can you talk about mentorship a little bit?

Nicole Willett: I've been really blessed. Waste Management had this program called Colloquium. They picked about 12 of us out of the organization from all different functions and levels, and they not only took us through learning something different—for example, I was able to learn hazardous waste as a business—but they also partnered us with mentors. I was fortunate because I had a mentor assigned to me five years ago. We were just at WasteExpo and we had dinner together. He's given me remarkable advice. It's gone from being, “Hey, this is advice as your mentor” to “This is advice that you're not only going to use when leading your team but also now at the board table ...”

The neat part is that the mentors I've had in my career aren't just mentors that were assigned for five months and are no longer in touch. Those mentors are people I still have dinner with and have even left my organization. We still keep in touch.

I had the opportunity last year to mentor three people. My proudest moment was probably when one of the people I was mentoring had a fear of public speaking. A terrible fear of public speaking. So, I started working with her in September, and she had to present a presentation in June. I told her, “I don't care what happens, I promise I'll be in that room.” I was supposed to be in Houston, and I went to our senior human resources rep and was like, “Listen, I'll be at this meeting, but I have to fly back on a redeye. I promised her I would be there.” I flew there and got there in time, and she did the presentation and nailed it. It wasn't me telling her she did a good job, it was everyone else telling her she did a good job. It was like when my kid walked for the first time. When something like that happens, you feel like you're giving back just a little bit.

Even when I joined the OWMA board, one of our competitors, Mike Watts, called me and kind of walked me through it: “You're walking into a board that's been together for 10 years. There are people who know each other inside and outside the office.” There were times he would guide me along. He'd say to me, "Hey, Nicole, you did a good job of contributing but not overcontributing ..." and he's our competitor and he's vested in trying to make me better.

As you come across people in your career who take that extra five minutes for you, you end up paying that back tenfold. Mike Watts mentored me, so now there's someone at his organization and I'm like, “you know what, I'm giving it back, and I'm going to try and mentor her.”

Waste360: Is it getting easier to balance environmental needs with the demands of municipalities and businesses?

Nicole Willett: It's interesting. Let's take recycling as an example. I think everyone wants to put something in the recycling bin and wish with a magic wand that it becomes recycled or it becomes reused. What we're discovering now as an industry is that not only does it need to be environmentally sustainable, it needs to be economically sustainable—you need both "E's" to actually make a program work. There are some remarkable technologies out there, but some of them are so expensive. Everyone in the world would love to drive a Bentley, but the truth is that sometimes we drive a Ford because that's economically and environmentally positive.

It's changing a little bit, especially on the recycling side, to find a balance. A great example is Styrofoam. It is recyclable, but you can't find an outlet to recycle it because it isn't economically viable. So, it's finding that sweet spot of how do we protect our natural resources, but at the same time, everyone can't afford a Bentley to make that happen.

Waste360: How did your time with your grandparents in Yukon, Pa., influence your life and career?

Nicole Willett: I grew up with a single mom, and my grandparents were in Yukon. It was a coal town. It was environmentally challenged because of the toxic waste dump. What you started to realize was that really, at the end of the day, they want what everyone else does: for their kids to be happy, healthy and successful.

I just took my kids to Yukon. It's really kind of an economically deprived town, especially when I was there with my grandparents. The one thing I found was the sense of community that came from that was remarkable. My grandfather would grow tomatoes and take them over to the neighbor who grew zucchinis and they would trade. There became this sort of community around Yukon that, when I took my kids there, they didn't understand it. I was like, “We're going to bingo on Tuesday night,” and they're looking at me like, “Mom we don't like bingo.”

“But bingo was the highlight of the summer, guys!” And it was.

Watching that community come together to work together made me realize the importance of relationships and the importance of being a good neighbor. Not just, “Hey, here's an apple pie, but, hey, I'm going to make sure I'm not doing anything in my backyard that's going to affect you in your backyard.” They really did have a sense of camaraderie.

Waste360: How do you think those experiences affect your work now?

Nicole Willett: My grandfather used to say: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” So, if I tell my customers we can do it, we're going to do it, and we're going to do it the right way. If I say that we're going to do it, I mean it, and if a problem comes up that we can't for whatever reason, I call them and let them know. Sometimes telling people bad news directly is better than them hearing it or seeing it for themselves.

Waste360: Any last thoughts?

Nicole Willett: The other important part is being a mom. At the end of the day, I do it for those two kids because I hope someday I have grandkids. I look at the industry and think, "This sounds so cliché and it kills me," but everyone in the industry is going to be responsible for the environment my grandkids are going to grow up in. It's one of those things where I feel there's an obligation in the industry to make sure we leave this place in a better place than we found it.

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