WASTECON 2020: Waste Management Provides Insight into Leading During Disruptive Times

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The Solid Waste Association of North America‚Äôs (SWANA) largest event, WASTECON, began on Tuesday, Jan. 26 in a virtual format. 

Like the majority of other events that were scheduled to take place in-person in 2020, WASTECON moved online. The event's theme, "Embracing Disruption," fit into the uncertainty that surrounded the solid waste and recycling industry throughout last year.

"You know when we selected the theme for WASTECON 2020, Embracing Disruption, we had no idea what last year was going to bring," said David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO of SWANA. "We didn't know the United States in Canada would go through the worst public health crisis and the sharpest economic decline since the Great Depression. At the same time. The combination of those two crises have disrupted business plans, force changes to operations and regulations and policies and introduced substantial uncertainty into your operations and activities."

During a keynote session titled, "Leading in Disruptive Times," Biderman discussed how Waste Management pivoted its business operations as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. John Morris, WM's executive vice president and chief operating officer, provided insight. 

David Biderman: Was there a moment last year when you realize that whatever the business plan was that waste management put together for 2020 needed to be tossed out the window?

John Morris: I would tell you that, you know, there was a lot of information flying at all of us in the beginning. And we were trying to weave our way through that discern what was fact and what was fiction and what was the right - what were the right data points or the right sources. But I think to your question, we were sitting together as a senior team, in one of the conference rooms. And it was the day that we made the decision to say, anyone who's not a frontline worker that wasn't absolutely necessary to be in the business, that we were going to send them home. I remember going home that night, and really thinking about what just happened and what was happening,  and it happened so quickly. But that was probably the moment for me where all this information was coming at us. And that day, we made a decision as a senior team, that that's the route we were going to go and that's probably the moment when I said, "Wow, this is really good. This is taking a different this taking a turn in a different direction, one we didn't anticipate."

Biderman: Can you describe how the pandemic has disrupted the business and forced the company to make changes?

Morris: I would tell you, you've heard us all talk about people first. And I think that's where I saw it changing immediately was how's it gonna affect our people. We're in the people business. We always talk about that you can have trucks and heavy equipment and forklifts and all that, but people are what make this industry run. What I thought about in the early early days was how's it gonna affect our people? And then it was, how do we keep our people safe and still be able to let them service our customers, and then how did it affect our customers? So, once we figured out a strategy on how we were going to get our people to keep them working, or frontline folks, it was really about trying to understand how to help our customers because so many customers, their businesses changed overnight. As we sit here today, there's a lot of them that still have certainly not returned, although we've made some progress. So I think in the early days, it was really what's it going to do to our people first; how does that affect our ability to operate? How do we then move to operating safely with a different set of protocols? And then we pivoted to how do we take care of our customers, and that was kind of the way I thought about it. But in terms of the disruption, I think our first our first thought was around our people, right? Without our people, we can't operate the business can't take care of our customers.

Biderman: As we've gone from 2020 to 2021, have there been any things that have been implemented recently, that focus on the people that focus at Waste Management on making sure that people are staying safe and healthy during the pandemic?

Morris: We had to recreate business processes overnight. There's always changes coming in within the company, within the industry. But I will tell you that everything that happened COVID certainly accelerated that at a pace I don't think anybody anticipated. So, a lot of our business processes changed overnight. Our tech team or digital team did a great job of making tools available so we could take literally thousands of people in a matter of days and take them and put them in a remote work environment, making sure that we could do that efficiently. We could still run the business. We could still service our customers. I mean, there were a lot of things that were happening going at a really rapid pace and those in those early days, but I would tell you it just again reminded me how resilient of a company we are because you know folks put their head down and really did a phenomenal job of just making sure that we kept the train on the track so to speak.

Biderman: What trends accelerated over the past year and into the future?

Morris: The first thing that really changed is as businesses shut down and folks went to remote work environments per minute, primarily working from home, you saw volume shifts substantially from different lines of business - a lot of them into the residential waste and recycling business. So, whether it was the private sector or the public sector, everybody had had to react to that and react to it really quickly. And I think that was the first big change. And when I think about our municipal customers, who provide their own municipal partners, or provide their own services, that was probably the biggest learning for them was, you know, this shift came literally overnight. And do we have the ability to continue to operate and service all of our customers? I think the other thing that clearly accelerated through that,  I know what did for us, is we had a lot of things on our technology docket, from operating efficiencies to customer differentiation. When you're faced with what we were all faced with, it was really an opportunity for us to not only continue that, but look to accelerate that because the interactions with our customers were changing literally overnight, and the expectations of our customers in that environment were changing. So, I think we made some short-term decisions based on what we were facing at the time. And a lot of those around how we are going to interact with our customers transact with our customers, how technology is going to play a role in that are the things we're continuing to accelerate through right now.

Biderman: How does Waste Management intend to communicate with the customers about the new this perhaps new reality of perhaps elevated residential waste and perhaps somewhat less commercial waste?

Morris: I am optimistic that we're going to see some improvement from on a commercial and consequently the industrial side of the house, if you will, on residential. I think we've all learned a lesson that there's probably some, you know, the workforce of the future is going to look different.  And if the pandemic did anything, it accelerated a lot of that. So, I do think you are going to see an element of that workforce stay remote. And for all the reasons, I think from a job attraction standpoint, having some flexibility to work at your house or other remote areas is going to make some of these jobs much more attractive than they maybe were in the past. I think overall, when you look at real estate needs and whatnot, you're going to see a shift in that right, not just what our company onto for our employees. But I think folks are going to take a different look at commercial real estate as one example of how they approach it.

Biderman: What are the leadership qualities that are necessary to be successful in this much more dynamic environment? What are the skill sets that you need to be successful?

Morris: The first thing I had to really wrap my head around is there's a lot of information out there. I think my job, our leadership team's job is, first and foremost, to keep our folks safe. We needed to also focus on controlling what we could control, right? There was a lot of things through this whole mess that has been outside all of our collective control, and spending my time worrying about that didn't seem to really be beneficial. I know everybody's wired differently. So, it was about protecting our people. Let's look at what we can control. It's very easy to panic through these situations, and everybody had their moment. But for me, I felt like, not just for me, but for the entire leadership team at all levels of the company was how do you remain calm, right? Because when folks are nervous, and there's a lot of unknowns, they generally look to the leadership to see how you react. And while all of us, I'm sure, myself included, had questions at times about, you know, what was going to happen? I think, as a leader, it's how do you keep your head above the fray a little bit? Try not to get wrapped up in some of the noise, and try and look out over that to see hey, what's around the corner for us? And how do I chart a path for the organization where we can take them forward? So, remaining calm for me was something. I tried to stay focused. We all had our moments behind closed doors, trust me. But that was it is internal. In order to be a leader, you've got to show people a path and it was a lot of uncertainty, not a lot of clarity. And to the extent we could provide a little bit of that, I think it helped to suit some of the things that were otherwise really, really challenging. 


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