Women Leaders in Waste: Sue Netherton of Waste Connections

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‘Servant leadership in good times is great, but in difficult times, it reminds you why this has to be the way of life.’

Traditional leadership puts the focus on the overall company or organization’s success but for companies like Waste Connections that practice servant leadership, the main objective is to serve. So, when Sue Netherton was looking for a new human resources job in 2007, she was intrigued by the company’s planned growth and took a shot at something new.

“I felt like I could grow my career and really learn a new industry and grow in HR,” said Netherton. And that’s what she did.

Thirteen years later, Netherton is the vice president of people, training and development for Waste Connections and she was named 2020 Servant Leader of the Year – which came as a total shock to Netherton as she helps plan the company’s annual awards, she said.

“The big picture, primary part of my role is basically to support the corporate leaders and leaders in the field in finding, keeping and developing great people, great employees,” said Netherton. “The other big part is trying to continue to strengthen our servant leadership culture as we continue to grow, which we’re continuing to do.”

She said her day-to-day responsibilities include working with teams in her group that handle recruiting, basic employee issues or people challenges, benefits and compensation programs, and leadership development, which is the group that helps provide servant leadership training to all leaders.

“Servant leadership has been around quite a while at Waste Connections. It was introduced before I started in 2007. What’s exciting about it, is it’s not really a program or training class anymore. It’s really been part of how we operate for so long. It’s kind of ingrained in our culture,” said Netherton.

“When you’re part of Waste Connections and you’re a leader, and even if you’re not in a formal leadership role, we expect everyone to serve. Serve your customers;serve your employees; serve your co-workers,” she said. “If you’re a leader and you take the time to form true, deep, genuine, personal relationships with your employees, like you truly know them and truly take care of them, then business results will follow.”

Netherton said they do things a little differently at Waste Connections in that they provide a lot of responsibility and accountability to their local leaders instead of trying to tell the field what to do and rolling out new programs every year.

“It’s really more – do my customers, do my leaders in the field – do they feel like they’re being served by me and my team? Are we doing what they need us to do? So that they can run their business and find and keep people and grow people,” she said.

Netherton said the success of servant leadership for them is because it’s not an HR program.

“It’s really 100 percent driven by our senior leadership team. It was started by our former CEO, Ron Mittelstaedt and now is championed by our current CEO, Worthing Jackman, who I report to. So, it’s a big part of who we are and I think it’s even clearer when you have a year like this, how important keeping servant leadership and keeping our people at the forefront of what we do and how important that is,” she said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Netherton said employees were faced with many challenges like working remote, dealing with child care, not knowing whether kids are going to be in school or not, and actual COVID – whether an employee was ill or a family member was ill.

“I think just like any other company, we’ve seen the stress and the impact on people’s mental health through all of this. So, when you have servant leadership at the core, I just can’t even tell you, there are so many examples of where our local leaders in the field have just stepped up to take care of their people. And it’s happening right now through the hurricanes. It’s really inspiring to watch, and I think it really reinforces why servant leadership, in good times it’s great, but in difficult times, it reminds you why this has to be the way of life,” said Netherton.

“This has been the quickest and slowest year of our lives for most of us, I think, but when I think about what our employees, our frontline employees have done in 2020, it’s truly phenomenal. During the most difficult months of the pandemic back in March, April, May, we had close to 99% attendance. Our employees just stepped up,” she said.

And customers noticed. Netherton said they’ve received hundreds of pictures and notes of customers reaching out to say thank you. Having the trash picked up regularly added a sense of normalcy to an otherwise uncertain time.

When it became clear that COVID wasn’t going away quickly the senior leadership team established several initiatives to help their employees. Netherton said they put in supplemental pay for all frontline workers which was even extended to the agencies who provide temporary employees. They also added new benefits so if an employee was directly impacted by COVID they were still paid without having to take any of their normal paid time off.

“We did that because we really wanted people who were sick or ill or testing or exposed to stay home and being able to still pay their bills,” said Netherton. “Then they set up an additional set of time of pay for those for anyone who needed to be off work for childcare issues, because that started to hit us in late spring and into fall. We’ve had over 2,000 employees use those various additional pay plans. I think it’s really allowed us to boost our ability to keep employees safe.”

Waste Connections has committed to spending through the end of the year more than $30 million in additional pay alone, she said.

“We decided very early that we wanted to lead in the industry,” said Netherton. “We knew our revenue was going to get hit, our results were going to be negatively impacted by the economic impact of COVID but going back to servant leadership as the core, we wanted to find every way to support our employees to be safe and take care of their families. And we keep reevaluating what we’re doing because things keep changing.”

Netherton that making the choices to put people first has paid off.

“I’m really proud of everything we’ve done to take care of our folks during a really crazy year,” she said.

Netherton is not a stranger to challenges, though. Prior to COVID, she said the most intense period of her career was working through the 2016 merger of Waste Connections and Progressive Waste.

“Putting two similarly sized organizations, both with 7,000 to 8,000 employees each, together – there’s a huge amount of HR work to do,” she said.

“One of the many parts my team had tried to answer the question of, how are we going to infuse this Waste Connections culture that had been developed over so many years? And how are we going to get that culture into the former Progressive Team and all their locations? And how are we going to get servant leadership to take hold with all these new leaders we had on board and all these new employees. It’s a huge lift to convince a whole organization that we want you to lead differently. We don’t necessarily need you to pick up the trash differently, but we want you to lead differently in terms of how your treat your employees,” said Netherton.

In order to do that, Netherton said her team went on road trips to all the Progressive locations and trained all the leadership on Waste Connections culture and servant leadership and what it means.

“It was a huge task to integrate the two companies, but I feel like it’s super rewarding to see the results,” she said.

In her 25-year HR career, Netherton has worked for just two companies that happen to be in male dominated industries – steel and waste management. And in that time, she said she’s seen more women join the industry and be promoted to different positions including senior level roles, including herself.

Now with more women in the organization, Netherton said a grassroots women’s network formed at Waste Connections and has grown to include more than 360 women.

“We’re constantly learning about the industry and learning from each other, supporting each other. I see a really strong future for women in the waste industry,” she said.

“From a diversity standpoint, out in the field, we’re doing a lot more to be a good partner locally, in our communities,” she said. “We’re a little bit different in that we don’t have the Waste Connections name in every community. Many of the companies we’ve bought over the years had a great reputation and a great name so, we might not have Waste Connections’ trucks [in that community]. We need to build our brand locally so some of our managers are out there doing really cool things with local organizations, rather than just giving donations, maybe in communities that need it, their helping look at how do we get kids from school into waste jobs working with these community organizations.”

This approach is a win all around, she said, because they can potentially get more employees, build a diverse candidate pool and it builds the brand within the community and helps the community.

“I’m pretty excited about seeing that change, where instead of, and there’s nothing wrong with posting jobs on diversity boards, but I feel like working at the local level, is going to give us a stronger, long term ability to grow our diversity,” said Netherton.

One way Waste Connections shows its appreciation and thanks to its employees is through their awards which is held annually and organized by Netherton and her team. To Netherton’s shock, she was named the 2020 Corporate Servant Leader of the Year.

“Worthing, my boss, he enlisted my team, and he was very sneaky about it. He hid it from me until the day that it was announced so I was really, really completely surprised because I should know who’s getting an award, it’s part of my job” she laughed. “I was just really stunned. It’s such an honor. You know, really, the field is where all the hard work gets done. At corporate, you know, we’re there to support so getting the award for me, it means my peers and my team see me as someone who cares and someone who serves.”

“I am always wishing that I could be a better leader, but it was a real affirmation that what I’ve been working on and what I’ve been doing has been recognized. So, it was a big deal. Getting a servant leader of the year award at Waste Connections is a big deal. But it’s really a reflection – I have this amazing team who works so hard during the entire year. The HR team probably worked as hard this year as they ever have had to take care of our folks. So, it’s really a reflection of the work they’ve done,” said Netherton.

In addition to increasing the industry’s overall diversity, Netherton said technology is and will continue to shape the future of the industry.

“It’s a big part of the work that’s going on at Waste Connections. How we interact with customers, the customer experience, moving that to be much more digital. It’s changing a lot of how we work in HR as well. We’re revamping how people can reach us when they’re interested in working for us,” she said.

They’ve also launched their first social platform so employees can stay better connected.

“It’s not hard to stay in touch in the 5,000 people that have a company email address but the other 13,000 that are out working on a truck or working in a piece of equipment or recycling, like how do you keep them connected to what’s going on in their local site? And what’s going on with the company? So, social media is truly the answer to that and we’re just getting some of that off the ground,” said Netherton.

“So, I think that’s important and safety advancements on trucks. You know, there’s nothing – all of this is great, but it doesn’t matter if an employee gets hurt or killed on the job. So, I’ve been able to listen to our operations folks talk about the safety advancements on the truck that are very technology driven. Frankly, I think it’s going to make the industry so much safer and save lives. There’s really nothing more important than that so that’s what I think is going to help shape our future.”

And for anyone interested in a career switch or are just finishing school, Netherton said HR is a great career path for anyone. She said HR can sometimes have a reputation of being the ‘bad guy’ but that’s not how they operate at Waste Connections.

“There is so much variety in the field from being in recruiting to being in training to benefits. It’s never boring and there’s always something new to do and learn so I think HR is a great career path for anyone and I don’t know how much schools really sell it. When I first learned about HR, I thought maybe it was kind of the soft side of business but it’s not. If you’re doing it right, I think it’s like a business partnership,” she said. “It’s really important to understand the impact the people side of things have on the business.”

Netherton said to also research companies to see what they stand for and what do they believe – what are their values?

“If I was giving advice, as best you can, if you’re coming out of school or starting a career in HR, is to really understand how HR works at the organization and what the leadership teams really believe. Are they championing the efforts around servant leadership and taking care of people or do they expect HR to go over there and put servant leadership in. If that’s the case, it’s not going to work, it has to come from the leadership team,” said Netherton.

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