Seattle City Light CEO: Debra Smith


Today, we make history.  It’s the first time we’ve had an executive from the city on our show.  All of our guests before this show have been business executives. Today’s guest is Debra Smith, Seattle City Light’s CEO.  She graduated with a finance degree from Arizona State University, and kickstarted her career in the oil industry working for ConocoPhillips.  Shortly after, transitioned into commercial banking in Portland, then moved into utilities at the Eugene Water and Electric Board, then Central Lincoln PUD, before joining Seattle City Light in 2018.  Now, you’ll want to be sure to stick around until the end because Debra takes us through not only her career journey, which pivoted from oil and gas to banking to utilities management, but her personal journey that impacted her career progression.  Her challenging childhood with her parents being unhappily married, the breakups, divorces, and ultimately, the personal lessons from all of her experiences.  

In 2018, Debra was nominated by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to lead Seattle City Light, Seattle's largest department by budget, as the CEO & General Manager.  Today, Debra leads Seattle City Light, responsible for providing power to the entire city, has over 1,800 employees, and is responsible for 25% of Seattle’s entire budget as a city.

Podcast Transcript

Note:  There may be errors to this transcript (some funny, some confusing - we used an automated transcription software!)

Ash Faraj  00:04

Hey, it's Ash here. Today we make history. It's the first time we've had an executive from the city owner show that all of our guests before the show had been business executives. Today's guest is Debra Smith, Seattle City Lights CEO. She graduated with a finance degree from Arizona State University and kick started her career in the oil industry working for conocophillips. Shortly after, she transitioned into commercial banking in Portland and then moved into utilities at the Eugene water and electric board, then central Lincoln PUD before joining Seattle City Light in 2018. Now you want to be sure to stick around until the end because Debra takes us through not only her career journey, which pivoted from oil and gas to banking to utilities management, but her personal journey that impacted her career progression. Her challenging childhood with her parents being unhappily married, the breakups, the divorces, and ultimately the personal lessons from all of her experiences. So Debra grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, just north of Naperville. She remembers a very distressed household being that her parents were unhappily married. From a young age, she was driven to become independent and move far away from home. After high school, she moved to Arizona where she would pursue a bachelor's degree in finance at Arizona State University. We are joined today by Seattle City Lights, second ever woman CEO and it's 108 year existence. Debra Smith, thank you for being here. Welcome to the show.

Debra Smith  01:39

Thank you. It's great to be here as well.

Ash Faraj  01:41

I'm in a high school classroom with you, Debra, why are you in high school?

Debra Smith  01:44

Well I'm probably the slightly rebellious kid, I was pretty funny. My husband even now says the great thing about Debra is she laughs at her own jokes, so no one else has to. So that's always a good thing. And I you know, I was a little bit of a rebel, I was never in trouble. I got good grades in school, I didn't have anybody telling me you know, you can be whatever you want. You can be whoever you want, do whatever you want. I didn't have that. And so I did my best. And I could hardly wait to get out of there. I started working. I had my first job when I was I don't know, probably, you know, 13, 14 years old about the time I was in high school senior in high school, I had a full time job. So I went to school for a few hours every morning. And then I went and took my job, but I was really young. And that was the other thing. So I skipped fifth grade. So I went into sixth grade. And and people gave me a hard time. You know, I was a smart kid. But I didn't. I didn't embrace that. And so when I graduated from high school, I was 17. And I was really interested in you know, independence, and moving away from home. So I grew up my parents, my parents are both gone. So I can talk about them freely, which is nice. But my father years ago and my mother at the very start of the pandemic. And so I was raised in a pretty dysfunctional home. And we didn't really put the fun in dysfunctional at that point in our life. I'm super close to my brothers. And I think that's what happens sometimes when when your your family struggles and my parents got divorced when I was in middle school.

Ash Faraj  03:26

I'm super curious to hear how you know, your parents divorce? How do you feel like that that shaped you? And how did that? How do you remember feeling during those times when that happened?

Debra Smith  03:36

So they weren't very nice to each other. And my mom in particular, my dad kind of ignored her. And I think they were just they were doing the best they could but they were really distracted by being unhappily married. You know, and I think back in those days, people really believed for a long time that the best thing for the kids was to stay together. And, and I've been divorced. So I learned from that. And one of the things I took away was the best thing for the kids is to have parents who are engaged in their present for them, and they're in their lives, and they're showing up and they're doing the stuff parents do. And my parents were too distracted. So when I went away to college, I wanted far away from my parents and I again, I was only 17. And my dad's family all lived out in Arizona. So we you know, that was a place that we had visited. And I knew, and I thought, you know, if I go I'm living in the suburbs of Chicago, that's where I grew up. And I thought if I, if I go to Arizona State University, I will be about as far away from them as I can be. But I'll still have my family.

Ash Faraj  04:36

And I want to get into college in just a second. But looking back, you know, during your childhood, I guess up to up until high school. If there was one role model that you feel like kind of shaped your life principles that you carry with you today. Who would that be?

Debra Smith  04:47

Well, it's funny cuz this this will make you laugh. But when I was in high school, I actually my senior year in high school I was in I grew up in a town called Wheaton. So I was in the Miss Wheaton Belle pageant. I was the first runner up I didn't win. But I told you I worked full time. And so I actually worked at a cosmetics counter in a, you know, big department store, think Macy's kind of a store. It was not that but, and I and I wrapped cosmetics. And so the woman who ran that department, I still remember her name was Phyllis Lawrence. I have no idea if she's alive or where she might be, I still have a cross gold cross pen and pencil set that she gave me when I graduated from high school in 1978. She was just a lovely person. And she encouraged me and she supported me. And, you know, that was at that time where, you know, again, you're getting ready to leave. So you're separating from your parents anyway. But you're still not quite ready to do so. And so she was a great kind of surrogate person for me.

Ash Faraj  05:48

No, no, I can totally see why. You know, like after high school, you kind of felt like you just your main motivation or driver was like you just wanted to be independent. Yeah. So you left Chicago, you went, you go to Arizona, Arizona State and you study finance. Is that right? Yep. So what made you go into finance? Was it kind of a random choice, or...

Debra Smith  06:05

it was a little random? Not really, though. I mean, I've always been, I hate math, which is funny, but I like I liked business and accounting. And it made sense to me it was, I didn't see myself doing marketing. And I felt like management. Even though I was in the business. School management was too general. It's like to me at the time, I think I might think about it differently today. But at the time, I thought management is something you learn to do over time, you don't necessarily study it and then go do it. So I didn't see myself being a CPA. So I thought that being an accounting major without wanting to be a CPA and do the years of public accounting didn't seem like a great choice. So I went with finance. And I had a couple of really awesome professors early on, as I was trying to make that decision. And again, they I think about this now, but I mean, I was really young to be I graduated from college when I was 20. And still making decisions. I'm fortunate that I actually made some very good decisions at that point. Because I very easily could have not

Ash Faraj  07:07

you were really mature. 20 year old, that's for sure.

Debra Smith  07:09


Ash Faraj  07:10

So did you I guess what did you What did you do after college?

Debra Smith  07:13

Yeah, so I actually I was really, you know, back in the day, employers came to colleges and did recruiting. And so I went through that whole process and not really sure what I was doing but pretty clear. I didn't want to stay in Arizona. So it was really open to anything that came along. So I interviewed among others with Conoco Keep in mind, I back in the day I had I didn't have a car, I had a moped. And so I would drive to interviews with a suit on, you know, little suits that women wore back then on this moped. But I went to the whole process, and then and actually they hired me and I had a job when I graduated. So by the time I finished school, I'd already been hired by regulated pipelines subsidiary of Conoco. So they had a pipeline company that move the natural gas. And so I went to work for them. And most of what I'm good at today, I attribute to that one year experience at Conoco so they had was really vigorous. And they hired both engineers and accounting people or finance folks. And then they put us in opposite roles. So like I spent a summer hydrostatically testing pipeline out in Panca City, Oklahoma wearing FR clothing, and I was the project manager. And they took the engineers and they had them develop the budget. Because what they were trying to do is create people that were really flexible and could grow up in leadership at the oil company from wherever their background was. And so that was great. I mean, it caused me to be open and to learn things that I never would have otherwise. But the other thing was they had this one year management training program. And so they you were responsible for huge amounts of information. I mean, in in this case, it was everything from how does how is oil produced, you know, geologically? And how is the process by which natural gas is produced? How do pump stations work, how to refineries work, crude oil, the whole thing, everything from soup to nuts, and that you had four reviews during that first year. So you were responsible for this material. And an executive senior execs would come from Portland or come from excuse me, Houston, and they would grill you and you'd have a presentation that was maybe three to four hours of material that you were expected to present. And then they spent all their time tripping you up and seeing how well you recovered if you know A and B can you get to C and how to think on your feet and how to say I don't know when to say I don't know. But I'll find out later or I'll check that out. We were all in places like Panca city or Tulsa or Lake Charles, Louisiana and none of them you know all refinery towns and This the order with which you got your next assignment, which was to come to Houston and work for corporate was based on how quickly you fit how well you did and they ranked you. So it was intentionally competitive.

Ash Faraj  10:12

Debra quickly worked her way up at her first job out of college, eventually getting placed in their corporate headquarters in Houston, Texas. There, she would meet her future boyfriend that convinced her to quit her job and move with him to Portland, Oregon, where his family lived at Debra found a job in commercial banking in Portland. But her and her boyfriend parted ways within just one month of moving to Portland. And shortly after that a conflict at work caused Debra to move branches. And she moved to Eugene, Oregon, serving the same bank, and would spend the next three and a half years of her life in banking, eventually working her way up to becoming a loan officer.

Debra Smith  10:49

The first weekend I got to Houston, I met a guy. And this is relevant because I met a guy. And, um, and then and we started dating and you know, you know, quick, fast fall in love. He also worked for Conoco, he got a new assignment and got moved to Abilene, Texas. And you know, every couple weeks I would drive which was like a seven hour drive seven or eight hours from Houston to Abilene. I may not even be remembering that right. But I go visit him. And then he had this plan. And his plan had been for a long time to move to Portland, Oregon, where his sister and her family lived. And he was very close to her. And so he said, You should just go with me. And I said, Well, you know, he'd been saving money and working up for this. And he'd been out of school for I think a year longer than me. And I am I you know, I said I can't really afford to do that. He said, I'll help you. So I quit my job. And we both quit our jobs. And I moved sight unseen to Portland, Oregon, I've never lived in the northwest, the neither of us had jobs. And we wound up both getting jobs, he wound up going into the insurance industry, I went into banking, and four months later, we split up and I lived in Portland, Oregon, where I knew absolutely no one

Ash Faraj  12:07

Wow, there's a lot to unpack here. But before I do want to, I do want to rewind for just a second, when you graduated college or you know, when you were looking for, you know, your first job, where you actually like, I don't care what opportunity I just want any opportunity or where you like...

Debra Smith  12:22

I don't think I was thinking as much as I probably could have been or should have been. But I knew that I wanted to have a flexible place where I could kind of learn and grow and not be too narrowly focused. So you know, the program that I went for at Conoco was that I knew that I was going to get I knew that the program was going to get me exposed to a lot of different things. And I think it's really ironic because I started there. And then obviously I left energy for a long time, and actually considered, you know, when I when I went to work at EWEB Well, I sometimes talk about that as being my second career. But everything that I learned even my ability to feel comfortable around very technical areas and people who are engineers and who are very technically focused. That all I gained all of that at my experience with that Conoco, which was, you know, very awesome. And then I followed it up by becoming a banker, where it was the same thing. You know, I started out as an analyst. And you know, that was when we were first we would spread financial statements, and we would do it manually. And then we built a little program on the PC to do it for us, and create consistent analysis. But I pretty quickly became a loan officer. And then I had people who were doing all kinds of different businesses, I had wood products, businesses, I had the Fifth Street Market and in Eugene, I had a whole bunch of variety. And so I got to learn about a whole bunch of different businesses, which I loved. So I've always liked learning and learning new things and getting deep, but staying high level.

Ash Faraj  13:56

That makes sense. You're kind of curious about lots of different things.

Debra Smith  13:59

I'm very curious.

Ash Faraj  13:59

That makes sense. That makes sense. Okay.

Debra Smith  14:02

That's one of the things I always tell people is stay curious.

Ash Faraj  14:05

So now I'm putting myself in your shoes. I'm in Houston working for corporate Conoco, I meet this wonderful guy, this guy, and we decide to you know, move to Portland together. And now, you know, obviously, I have no job and you had no job. How did you like go about getting into banking, like was it just like you just started...

Debra Smith  14:27

start applying for jobs? Yeah. And I went to work for a bank that it doesn't exist anymore. It was called. It was called the Oregon bank. And then it got bought by Rainier bank out of Seattle, and then ultimately got bought by Bank of America. And I was only in banking for a few years, three, three and a half years. But it was great for me because after I left the bank, I wound up working as a controller CFO for a number of years before I moved on and then even in E-Web that's how I started was as a senior staff accountant. So, I think some of those early opportunities, because I hadn't done accounting, I mean, I've taken lots of accounting, but that's where I learned how to, you know, run a set of books and do things that served me well, probably in the intermediate years, early and intermediate years of my career.

Ash Faraj  15:18

So you, you know, you work, you said, you work at this bank for three years. And then at some point, you know, you and your, you know, your ex husband, unfortunately, go through a divorce.

Debra Smith  15:29

No, we were never married, we never got, oh, let me catch up my personal life. So moved to Oregon with the sky sight, unseen breakup, after four months, I'm working at the bank. So I, you know, create my own life in in Portland, I had a situation happened with me and my boss. And how we ultimately resolve that was that I had an opportunity to move to Eugene, and the bank had an office in a commercial lending office in Eugene, again, I've been to Eugene, because the bank has an office here. And some of my accounts were actually here, but I didn't, I'd never lived here. And so got here and, and I wound up going to work for one of my accounts. Now, right In that same time, I am still single, and I and I wind up, I'm pregnant. And I'm 24. And I decide I'm going to have this baby, and now it's all good. And then ultimately, I did marry the guy, and we were married for a couple years. But we, I'm gonna, I'm gonna say some things, you're gonna probably edit most of the stuff. You can use any of this. I'm very transparent. Everybody who knows me knows there's, there's very little that I keep secret, please, please. But I've been divorced twice. And both of my ex husbands are dead. So my husband now always says to people, you know, he says, as long as I'm married to her, I'm safe. It's only I had nothing to do with their unfortunate that's either. Anyway, but my. I know. So, but it is all part of my life story, which is why I usually don't cut it completely out. Because again, I have it took me a long time to get smart about my personal life and my choices.

Ash Faraj  17:19

So after being in banking for some time, Deborah decided to go work as a controller for one of the accounts she had managed through her job. It was a software company that sold software products to doctors and dentists. She would work there for the next nine years of her career, and it's also where she met her second husband. After nine years, the software company that Debra had been working for got acquired by a larger publicly traded company. After the acquisition, Debra decided to take a break from work to spend some time with her family and explored going back to business school thing University of Oregon. She worked through her geomat applications and got accepted into the MBA program. A several months before she started school, her plans changed. She took a job at E-Web. The E-web is short for Eugene water and electric board. E web is the largest customer owned utility in Oregon and essentially provides water and electricity to the residents of Eugene, there is where she would spend the next 18 years of her career working in various roles before eventually working her way up to becoming the Assistant General Manager.

Debra Smith  18:27

I wind up down in Eugene and I have a baby. And I'm I'm married, and I go to work for one of my accounts. So I one of the companies that I banked was a company doesn't exist anymore called alpha healthcare and, and they sold software for dentists and doctors. And so I went to work there and I worked there nine years. And my first husband, cliff, and I we were just friends who wound up having a hat making a baby. And and we split up and we remained friends. And then I married Dave and Dave worked at alpha healthcare with me. He was a great guy. I totally loved him. He was a skydiver. But he was very, he was very much a practicing alcoholic. He had a short period of time when we got married, where he was sober. And it was a very hard, long thing to get through. And Elsa had a primary vendor and the vendor purchased alpha healthcare and the vendor doesn't exist anymore, either. They were the hardware company, but they they wound up they were a publicly traded company. So I had the opportunity as the controller to do a an acquisition. So I was being acquired by an SEC company, which was very cool. And I had a great professional experience working through that. And then I also had the opportunity to take myself out of the workforce. So I you know, I managed myself out they didn't need me in the new role. I had three little kids at that time, and I was actually pregnant with a fourth that I lost. But I thought, you know, this was a good time for me to take time off. And so I stayed home, I decided, well, maybe I will go get my MBA and I'll go to the University of Oregon. And so I, you know, and I'm at this point, I'm in my 30s. So I'm going to go to the University of Oregon. So I took my G Mads I got accepted. And I was going to start there in the fall, and, and the following fall. And then at the same time, one of my friends Who's she was a bus driver, a school bus, Mom, so we'd stand on the bus stop with our kids until the bus came and picked them all up. And she said, Yeah, she said, You know, they're hiring for a job share at E-Web,  Eugene water and electric board. And you should apply because the woman who was a senior accountant, she was having her first baby and knew she didn't want to come back full time. And I, you know, I wasn't sure what I was going to do. But my family kind of said, you know, you're probably a better mom, if you're not a stay at home mom, you know, and that's a hard thing for a woman to recognize. I'm just not, I'm a great mom. But I'm not a I'm not necessarily the nurturing parent. And I always have a need to drive and do and produce. And parenting is a long term you're producing over a very long period of time. And so I needed to balance that. And so I didn't just I didn't know for sure what I was going to do, I thought, Well, I'm not going to go back to school, until the fall. So I'll I'll apply and see if I get this job and see what happens. And so I did, and I got it. And I started there in January. And I still thought, Well, I have lots of opportunity to change direction if I choose. But I loved it. So quickly, I wound up working full time, and then ultimately wound up applying for and getting a job outside of accounting. And so then I started doing risk management, both traditional as well as power risk management. And that was kind of as like broke out, then at E-Web. And then my career started to really take off there.

Ash Faraj  22:00

At what point did you tell yourself, okay, I'm going to, I'm going to stay with us for the next however long and not going to go to MBA School, which is something that you really had wanted to do?

Debra Smith  22:10

I decided that pretty quickly because I had to when I took the job, even though it was a job share, I had to work full time for the first six months, it was just one of the requirements. And so you know, I really enjoyed it. And I saw the opportunity. And I never really agonized over that I thought I could actually, there's a lot to do here. And there's a lot of opportunities to grow. And so I did that. And so you know, when I give advice, he said, so many people in your audience are folks who are earlier in their career, you know, one of the pieces of advice I always give people is to take every lateral assignment, I took lots of lateral assignments, and I think about them now, as as when you're in your MBA, or you're in school, and you're taking a variety of classes, well, it's the same thing. Anytime I had an opportunity to go work on something for a period of time, I didn't worry about whether I was going to get more money for it. I saw it as a way to learn more about the industry and about the business that I was in and I took those and, you know, I learned what I liked. And I learned what I didn't like. And I learned it by doing. And I think that's ironic, given that we work in an industry where so many of the folks that are engaged, like you said, you're thankful that you have lights on because you know, the work that my folks do. And so many of them learn their skill in that apprenticeship world where it's hands on learning as you go versus book learning. And so it's interesting that I kind of followed a similar path. Without any kind of formal apprenticeship.

Ash Faraj  23:48

You weren't that you work for almost 18 years of your careers took off. Looking back, while you were at V. Webb, what do you feel like enabled you to essentially work your way up the ladder that maybe other people wouldn't consider wouldn't know,

Debra Smith  24:01

give credit to, again, people that I worked with, who took an interest in my career who helped me. And so you know, there were folks along the way where I said, like, at one point, there was a guy, Ken Visen, who's a true friend and a great person, and he was working on Telecom. And I said, I'd like to work on that with you. And, and he said, Great. And so I wound up doing work in you know, I had a full time body of work, but I was able to free up some of my time. I mean, I work with my boss to do that. And I think at that point in time, I was the purchasing manager of the web, which was a job I didn't like. And so I knew that this is not a job I love and I need to find a way to move out of this area and I really was interested in the telecom work that Ken was doing. And so I I found a way to be able to put some time to that. And he taught me a ton and then he decided after About a year of working with me that he was done with that and wanted to move on and do something different. And so I became the telecommunications development manager. So there is a lot of it where people are kind and gracious, and were helpful to me, I will give myself a bit of credit and say, I am a fast learner. And so, and I don't know that it's because I'm, like, smarter than people. I think it goes back to what you said earlier, as I'm curious. And so when I'm in a situation, and I have an opportunity to learn something new from someone, I tend to go after it. And I want to get what I can out of that situation. And what I think is true is that people like to talk about their work. So if you're curious, and you create the space for it, you can find really amazing people to share their knowledge with you. Because if they love what they're doing, that's what they want to do. And there's a lot of people just like me out there now, you know, I'm 60. Now, so I'm at the point in my career, I'm all about who can I help develop and bring along, but there were people who did that for me when I was younger. earlier in my career,

Ash Faraj  26:10

yeah, yeah, no, it's, it's almost like a part of human nature. Like, it's like, it's just inside of us to want to help each other. And that's how we've like,

Debra Smith  26:17

think of us too. So like, I grew up, I grew up, I just told you, I'm 60. And I don't know how you will, how old you are, but I'm gonna guess you're younger. Yeah, so but I grew up in the era where your mom told you that if you want the boys to like you, you need to ask them questions about themselves. I mean, that was a one sided deal. But that's literally the era I grew up in. And so I think that was kind of natural. And then when I was at E-Web, I wound up developing relationship with the general manager, and he kind of took me under his wings. And he created opportunities for me, he created places and roles for me where I could grow and grow into being a senior leader. And he saw me as a development candidate for his job, and I didn't get the job. And that's one of the that's one of the lessons that I have learned over my career is that sometimes being the internal candidate, or the development candidate isn't what's best, because sometimes the body, the board, the governing body, whoever that might be, they may have decided that it's time for a change. And both of the utilities that I've gone to work for since then, there were internal and external candidates. And in both cases, the governing body had decided that they wanted a change agent. And so they wanted someone from outside, you know, I was devastated that I didn't get the job. But I realized that the board, Randy had been the general manager for 19 years, and they didn't want more Randy. They wanted, they wanted something different. And I represented Randy.

Ash Faraj  27:51

Okay, that makes a lot of sense. They wanted to change and extension of him. So yeah, that makes sense...

Debra Smith  27:56

felt really personal to me at the time, but now, having been the outside person twice, and understanding what you can bring to a place, I mean, I think there's great value, and I'm a huge believer in developing people inside. And you know, both when I left central Lincoln and when I retire from Seattle, I believe it is a big part of my job to make sure that there are at least a couple development candidates who can apply for or compete for that job. But at the end of the day, I have no idea what you know what the board

Ash Faraj  28:28

is, you know, eventually you. You moved on, and you went to Central Lincoln PUD in 2013. And what what made you What made you decide to move on?

Debra Smith  28:39

I didn't get the job in 2010. And the the man who got the job, Roger gray, who's a dear friend of mine, he runs pndc today, which is the power supply provider, they contract with Bonneville on behalf of their members and, and then provide any other additional resources. But anyway, Roger came up from California, and he got the job. And I think to his credit, he, he was very good to me. I, you know, I was very disappointed not to get the job and the organization, I had a fair amount of support internally. So that was a disappointment for lots of us. And I think, you know, he, the board had said, you need more operational experience, which I didn't have. And I'm not an engineer, and Roger was and so he created opportunities for me to develop in that way. And he actually put me in charge of all of operations. So the last year or so that I was there, I had water Ops, electric Ops, everything so that if I chose to leave I could. And, and I didn't really think I wanted to leave. I mean, I really didn't think I wanted to leave, but I knew that I was kind of pissy and resentful. And even though he was a good friend of mine, I didn't make it easy for him a lot. And our styles were really different. So we used to joke about the fact that and this is still true. Roger, like big bold Pinot Noir. And I like a Chardonnay. We both like wine. But we do not like the same line, I decided I needed to set up a choice point I needed to be able to choose to stay at e-web in this role that wasn't what I had hoped for. And so I look, you know, central Lincoln happened to be hiring a general manager. And I thought, well, I'll just apply for that. And then we'll see what happens. But what I expected to happen was that if I did get the offer that I would choose to stay in, you know, in one of the things that you know, that that the questions that you provided was, you know, what was the moment of greatest joy or whatever in my career. And I think it was that moment when my husband was out of town. And he was he used to travel, we all used to travel, but he, he traveled for a living. And he did a lot of international travel for a long time. So he was out of country and not in a place where I could talk to him in a in a predictable way. So I went from my last interview in central Lincoln, and it went well, and I'm driving home that night. And you know, I don't have Dale to talk to so I talked to him a couple of my good friends. And then ultimately, I had emailed Roger and Roger wrote me back a very, very thoughtful response that night. And it had like 10 points, but a couple of them, I still remember and one of them was Debbie, you took care of Randy for all those years. And now you've taken care of me, do you really want to spend the rest of your career taking care of some man? And I said, Wow, it was very sweet. And then the other thing he said to me was, if you get an offer, and you don't take it, you never get to criticize me again for what I do. And so I still remember that. And the next day, I'm at work, and I get a call from the recruiter, and they offered me the job. And I surprised the I mean, I was so surprised at myself because I instantly said yes. In fact, I said yes. so quickly that I didn't do a very good job negotiating for myself. And I had to fix that after the first year. But, and that was the moment because it was I think, for me, that was a moment when I realized that I do get to choose who I am in, in this world. And I you know, I it was so hard to leave you up. You know, I just was probably in inappropriately attached to this notion of me working there. And the minute I chose otherwise, it was great. I mean, it was very freeing.

Ash Faraj  32:30

In 2013, Deborah was offered to take on the CEO role at Central Lincoln pod, another community owned electric utility in Newport, Oregon, the Newport is a small town in the Oregon coast about 100 miles northwest of Eugene, Deborah would now be responsible for almost 40,000 people who rely on this utility. And she did not disappoint. Under her leadership, the utility achieved its highest ever customer service rating. And just a little over five years later, in 2018, Debra was nominated by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkin to lead Seattle City Light as the CEO and general manager. And today Seattle City Light has over 1800 employees and is responsible for a $1.6 billion budget, which is almost 25% of Seattle's entire budget as a city. You know, you're at Central PUD Lincoln , and under your leadership, central Lincoln achieved its highest ever customer satisfaction ratings. And when I was reading that, I was like, wow, that must have been like looking back. What do you feel like the reason for that is and that must have been a, it's been a good feeling, like knowing that must be a good feeling.

Debra Smith  33:40

You know, I think just like I mentioned about aewa, the central lekan board was interested in moving forward potentially in a different way. But there was nothing broken, I got to come in there and kind of say, Okay, what are the things that I can bring to this organization, because it's not like I have to fix a bunch of stuff. And so a lot of what I did was come in and make it more relational. You know, I'm very, very relational. And so a lot of it was coming in and trying to deepen the relationships with customers, listen more or find new ways of doing things. Yeah, one of the surprising things was that we did get our highest ever customer service scores. And we did so after I closed, what three or four locations. So we started really working on how do we close these offices, so that and create a way for customers to interact with us digitally, or even through you know, other means, and we had we had bank setup, who could take payments, etc. So how can we do that? Close the locations but the board was very clear that their support for me doing that was contingent on us finding new ways to connect with our community. So we did and actually, I worked with a woman named Chris Chandler, and she was just crazy for electric vehicles and was very much an early adopter of electric vehicles. And so we she came up with a strategy and we started doing all these parades. And we were doing like 910 parades a year in all these small towns, and we, our employees would come out and we bring a line truck. And we play music about, you know, electrification, you know, electric Avenue, really old songs, blasting off the back of the line shock with little kids walking and throwing candy out of people. And we did them in all these communities. And it really worked, people felt cared for. And they, even though there wasn't an office there, there was a face on the utility. And in some ways, it was a better face, because it was varied. And you know, you had all kinds of different people that will come and participate in this, we just tried to find ways to be there and to be part of the community without having to have physical offices there. And I think the community really felt listened to.

Ash Faraj  35:56

So if the community feels listened to and they feel like they have, it's like a human being interacting with them, not just some entity, you feel like that obviously helps a lot. Because this is like not just for utility. This applies for anybody, in general...

Debra Smith  36:08

for anybody. And you know, we want, especially if you're ever if you're ever in a contentious situation, right? We know this as people, if I know you, and I and you're human to me, and I love and respect your humaneness. When we disagree, I'm going to be able to hang in there a lot longer. And so it's creating that sense of relationship with people that you're not in a one on one relationship with, but they know that you're here to listen

Ash Faraj  36:37

2018 you were nominated by Mayor Durkin to lead Seattle City Light. You know, obviously there was from what I read, there was $21 million dollars in unpaid bills, 20,000 overdue accounts, bad customer service reputation of Seattle City Light. But it must have been a bittersweet moment because, you know, like, obviously, people felt really strongly about your leadership, you will think you want unanimous unanimously, nine, you know, nine to zero vote. But on the other hand, you had an inherited this like big mess. Do you remember the first day like, Do you remember how you felt?

Debra Smith  37:10

I felt excited and honored. And when I was in the interview process, I would say one of the things that people talk to me the most about, which was totally fair, was how do you scale? So you've been doing great work at the small utility? How are you going to scale that? For instance, I when I was at Central Lincoln, and I'd gotten this idea from someone, I did a similar thing at will from someone early in my career. So at Central Lincoln, I sent everyone a handwritten birthday card on their birthday with a Starbucks gift card. But it was 125 employees, I could do that. You know, it was doable. You know, how do you engage with employees that you'll never know whose names I'll never know. You know, I mean, I probably know three or 400 employees names at this point. And that's not bad for two and a half years in

Ash Faraj  37:59

1800 employees.

Debra Smith  38:00

Yeah. And so it is, you know, it is much different to how do you engage my leadership is really all based on, I talk, I use this word to people all the time, I love on my employees. And I think I think we have a group we call them people, leaders. And at City Light, you're a people leader, if you supervise anyone. So you know, and I believe one that employees all have a right to a supervisor who cares about them, you know, and cares about their career and is willing to help Shepherd them a bit. And I say it doesn't, it doesn't mean that you have to want to go out to dinner with each other. But it means that you care about them professionally. And you care about them personally, and and you love on them as best you can. Because I can't love on everybody. So I have to have my people, you know, committing to a style of leadership that is relational. And not all of us are that relational. So it's a challenging thing, because I also talked to people about the need to be an authentic leader. If you're not able to be the leader that you feel, you know, solid in, then you won't be as successful. I remember back when they were, you know, I had boys and when they were 16, 17 years old, they're a lot bigger than me. And they weren't doing anything simply because I told them to, I had to create a compelling reason for them to you know, want to follow. And and so that was leadership. Leadership is usually about making it meaningful to the other person. You know, it's not about me. So if I was going to be your new leader, let's imagine that I would have to spend time understanding what you needed what you wanted, and it would not be a one size fits all. So my relationship with you might be very different from my relationship with someone else. But I'd be loving on both of you and supporting you both as best I could. But it has to be what's real for me and it has to be what's real for you. Those are hard things to scale.

Ash Faraj  39:59

It's not even Like you're leading now, but you're developing leaders like you have to actually develop leaders.

Debra Smith  40:06

And and it's about influence versus dictation.

Ash Faraj  40:11

Seattle city's budget. Like you have to get mentioned this already, but it's a little more than 6 billion in Seattle City Lights budget is almost 1.5 billion. So that's about 25% almost a quarter of the entire city's budget. Do you have to ask like, Do you ever feel like extreme pressure and like, I guess how do you deal with that pressure? Like I I try to imagine myself in your shoes and I'm like, Oh my god, I would be like stressing out constantly. How do you deal with that?

Debra Smith  40:32

I have a lot going right now. So like, I don't know when this will ultimately play right? Your your viewers, or your audience. This afternoon? The City Council's voting on my raid strategy right now. So I'm like, you know, so yes, I've got like right now I'm finishing up the strategic plan. You know, you commented earlier about the size of my receivables well, Ash there over 30 million now because of COVID. So I have huge numbers of customers who can't afford to pay their bill I think it's something like one in six customers can't pay their bill right now. Um, you know, I'm, I'm we're trying to right size, the utility because in order to manage affordable affordability, it's critical right now as people stand back up economically. So we're actually trying to intentionally shrink ourselves a bit. But I also have a labor contract. It's up for renewal. Again, my strategic so yes, I feel sometimes. Let's see, that's a good point. Like, I try and stay focused on it. Let's say I've got five major pieces that I that I'm trying to move forward right now the chances that I'm going to get all five of them to move the way I want them is probably less than I'd like to think. So I try and stay focused on the on the success, you know, so that I will I like, I think this afternoon will go okay, but between the time when it does, and when the time when I end my day at five, something else could go very bad.

Ash Faraj  42:03

So I studied chemical engineering in college.

Debra Smith  42:05

Oh, really?

Ash Faraj  42:06

Yeah. And right out of college, I was like, or like while I was in college, like oh my god, all I want is an oil job with Phillips 66. Or with tesoro, that's all I want. Like, that's my dream is to get an oil job, I want to be a process engineer, you know, I didn't end up getting an internship with oil, I ended up getting an internship with water management and sales. And then and then I went on to work in the construction industry in Seattle. So anyway, I just thought that was cool. Oil is like one of my that was like my dream. And then I realized later I was like, I actually I love, there's other things that I really love.

Debra Smith  42:36

So I was telling my kids, I mean, that's another really important reason why. So when I started in this industry, I was think I was 35. So as my kids were going through college, it's like, well, I don't know what I want to do. And I'm like, and what I've always said is you don't need to know what you're going to do and in your life, because a lot of that's going to be revealed to you, you just need to know how you're going to support yourself for the next five years or something. So you can do that, you know, the roads gonna take you in different places. And if you're open to it, it's exciting. One of the things I'm good at, is I'm good at like picking a spot. And that I tell you, I do use the skill a lot in Seattle, because there's a lot of things I can't control. So I'm good at saying this is where I'm trying to head. And this is going to be a good place eyes on the horizon. And I get there a whole bunch of different ways. And so I try not to get overly set on one path to where I'm going. And I've always told my kids have Plan A and plan B, you got to always have a plan a plan B. And sometimes you need Plan C, but if there's no plan B, you should probably stop and think that through. And so we do that at work. Now you know what's Plan B? Okay? Because otherwise you get so sad, then you set yourself up, essentially to fail.

Ash Faraj  44:02

Something I look for when I decide to hire someone is...

Debra Smith  44:06

a values alignment with the organization, I'm actually gonna give you two values alignment with the organization. So this was this is a primary takeaway for your audience that most people who are unhappy in their jobs are unhappy because there is a conflict between their personal values in the organization and my personal values. And back, do you remember me saying the one job I went up I didn't like I was the purchasing manager. And a guy was the organizational development guy at e-web took me through a an exercise to discover my personal values. And I've read on that multiple times over the years, but my personal values are fun family faith, friends and hard work. They don't I couldn't get to all apps. But the point is, is so you know, again, if you if you think about the family, friends, fun, I'm relational. So I need to be in a job where there's room for that. I work hard and I do Have faith in people and myself in a higher power. So, you know, you have to have a general alignment between your personal values and the organization you're working for, or you'll be unhappy. I prefer to work with people who enjoy life and have fun,

Ash Faraj  45:18

the most important quality in a leader is...

Debra Smith  45:21

I think it's caring about the people that you're responsible for. I think leadership is a many people think of leadership as an opportunity or a path to a higher paycheck. And it is both. I mean, I think those are true, but I also think people leave from wherever they are. And I think leadership is a responsibility, and it has to be taken seriously. And it's mostly about the other person, it's not about you.

Ash Faraj  45:46

something I've struggled with as a leader has been...

Debra Smith  45:49

well, so I believe that our greatest strengths are also our weaknesses, there's usually alignment. So for me, you know, I'm pretty intense. So a lot of the fun thing is, is that I have to balance my intensity with with humor and light. But I can be very quick to form an opinion. And I'm, you know, I make a lot of decisions. And so over time, I've learned to be able to make a decision with whatever information is in front of me, that's okay for me, but it's not always okay. For other people, there's people who need more time to process, they need more information. And if I'm not careful, I shut them down. And then I miss the value that they bring. And so I am constantly reminding myself to be quiet and be still. And listen,

Ash Faraj  46:35

something I do to make sure I feel positive and stay productive is...

Debra Smith  46:39

I exercise I eat well, I sleep enough, and I make sure that I scheduled time with my family. And I will I gotta tell you this ash, I feel so incredibly fortunate because after the last year, I'm proud to say that despite having been divorced twice, I am one of those people who my marriage has gotten much, much stronger with a year of quarantine and, and togetherness, which has been hugely, I mean, I don't know how I would have managed the last year without my partner.

Ash Faraj  47:08

If I were to go back and talk to my younger self in my mid 20s, I would tell myself...

Debra Smith  47:13

okay, so two things. One is you're smart and more powerful than you think. Because again, that was the growing up with the parents who were distracted, who didn't have the emotional energy to tell us that and then go back to school. What I always wanted was to go to Stanford and get my MBA there. So I would say go apply to Stanford and go get your MBA,

Ash Faraj  47:31

one setback or failure in my early 20s, I will never forget is okay...

Debra Smith  47:37

well remember when I was talking about how I got how I got to Portland, with the boyfriend. And so. So I was 22. Four months later, we break up. And I was all alone. And I can still remember I'm in the house that we're renting in Lake Oswego, me and this guy who's no longer my boyfriend, and I'm talking to my dad, you know, I'm trying to figure out what I'm gonna do you know, and he says, this is a paraphrase. He says, Well, I never actually expected you to work for a living. I just wanted to make sure that if you found yourself in a divorce someday that you would be able to take care of yourself and support yourself. And I'm like this woman who has spent years of my life trying to get my dad's attention and make him proud of me and all of those things. And suddenly, I realized that his view of mine view of me is so very different than I ever thought and but the good news is, is that so that was really hard. And I still remember the fact that I can remember exactly where I was when he said that to me. But once I let go of that, as is usually the case, my relationship with him, you know, immediately improved because I stopped projecting on to him what I thought he was thinking about me, I realized he had very low expectations for

Ash Faraj  48:58

the sweetest moment I felt in my entire career was when...

Debra Smith  49:02

when I accepted the job at Central Lincoln and decided that I was going to go Be brave, that felt brave to me.

Ash Faraj  49:08

looking forward, if I could be remembered for just one thing, it would be...

Debra Smith  49:12

that I was kind. I talk a lot about kindness and that I am. kindness and niceness are not the same to me. I don't think of myself as being nice. I don't try and protect people by not speaking truth. But instead I try and speak truth with kindness even though sometimes that means the things I say might be hard to hear so think about even ponder that a bit. But I think a lot of times we conflate the two and I don't think they're the same.

Ash Faraj  49:40

Yeah, I thought nice and kind of the same, but But...

Debra Smith  49:42

no, I don't think they are. If I'm focused on being nice. I often won't say something that somebody needs to hear and and you know, I don't think it's kind to not deliver especially professionally. I mean, in our personal lives do I still do I feel the need to correct people now but part of my job is A leader is to tell people when and how they need to do something better different. And that probably doesn't always feel nice to them. But if I deliver it kindly, they can hear it. And then I also want to say that my kids and my grandson always knew that I had their back and then I made a difference in people's lives and that's probably for me why I have chosen public power and I'm proud to have been a public employee for for all these years.

Ash Faraj  50:26

If I were stranded on an island and I had access to one meal it would be...

Debra Smith  50:30

I'm gluten free, but I'm going to go with a gluten free Chicago style deep dish pizza with lots of cheese and veggies.

Ash Faraj  50:37

Hold on Giordano's. Quick, quick rating and review on Apple podcasts. It means the world to us that you listened and it would mean so much to us. If you just left left us a quick rating and review. Thank you so much for listening in. Thank you for your support. We hope you join us again for the next episode. Take care

Want to be a guest on our podcast?