Celebrating women in leadership

When Kelley Dearing Smith started with Louisville Water in 1999 as a Communications Specialist, she only planned to stay a few years. Now twenty-two years later, the former television news director is the company’s first Communications and Marketing Vice President and a passionate advocate for all things Louisville Water.

“I drank the water!” she jokes, when talking about her unexpected tenure in the utilities industry.

As part of the Executive Leadership Team (ELT), Dearing Smith executes the strategies that make Louisville Water one of the best water utilities in the United States. She shares her successes, challenges, and advice for female leaders as we celebrate Women’s History Month.

What challenges do you face, working in leadership in the utility industry? As a female VP, do you feel that you bring a unique perspective to the leadership team at Louisville Water?

Our business is a male-dominated industry. I’ve seen stats that say 1 in 5 people who work in water is a woman. When I got the VP role, a friend in the industry told me I’d broken the glass ceiling – communications and a female VP – at a water utility. The perspective I bring to our ELT is a “connect-the-dots” approach: as someone is talking about an engineering project, a water quality initiative or an employee opportunity, the wheels in my heard start turning and I can see a story. I help my team take a complex, technical project and make it relevant for employees and customers. I put myself in our customers shoes – what’s in it for them? I’m a collaborator a heart, but sometimes I’m the outside voice – pushing us to constantly listen and communicate. 

Did you have a female mentor who helped you grow and develop in this industry?

The person who hired me, Barbara Crow, gave me the opportunity to grow my career, and I’m so thankful for her leadership and friendship. Susan Lehmann, a former VP here at Louisville Water, listened to me as I worked to advance my role and my own leadership style. Soon after I started, I met Peggy Noe Stevens, a bourbon ambassador and one of the best at personal branding. Finally, I have my go-to peers in the water industry – strong, female leaders across the United States. 

In your tenure, how have you seen leadership roles and culture evolve at Louisville Water? 

Louisville Water is a great place to work and has always had a family-like culture; it’s allowed me to be a mom, a wife and have a career. When I started in 1999, I was surprised at how many employees were already talking about the “date.” That day on the calendar when they’d have their time in and could retire. That culture has changed somewhat, and the addition of Millennials and soon Gen Z will help our company move to address the issues that matter to these generations – technology will change the customer experience! From a leadership perspective, we’ve added VP positions not only for communications but also IT and Human Resources. We’re growing from being more than a science and engineering leadership team to a group that’s holistically focused on the customer experience. 

Have you noticed any hiring or advancement practices change within your tenure? Are there any changes you would like to see? 

The growth of my department is one example of change. Communications touches every aspect of Louisville Water, and I’m proud that our Board and leadership recognize the value of the strategy. When I started in 1999, there were three of us in the department; today, we’re a team of nearly 20 full-time, part-time, seasonal and contract employees. That ability to build a team is a change in our culture and so is how we work. 

What is something people might find surprising about your job? 

I dive into data! Communications is a strategic profession. It’s more than writing copy, sharing a story, or designing a piece. There’s a method to the words, why you’re launching a plan, or how you design a piece. I use consumer research, industry trends, and now, lots of daily analytics to decide how to deliver Louisville Water’s story. 

How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance? What challenges have you faced as both a leader and a mother? 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still trying to find that ideal work/life balance. But, I’m only successful at both when I make “me” a priority. Self-care is so important! I always knew that I wanted to be both a working professional and a mom, so as I’ve navigated through my career, I’ve made sure my daughters (Katie and Kortney) continue to see me show up in both roles. I balanced being the PTA mom or the lacrosse or cross country volunteer with coordinating the public meeting or a media event. My girls have grown up around Louisville Water – their schools were pilot sites for our curriculum, and both have helped with events. It helps that I have a strong partner, Doug, who supports me. Now, I’m watching my daughters become strong and confident young women, and it’s so rewarding. 

How can women thrive in the utility industry?

Be confident and curious!