| AWWA Water Champion – Paula MacIlwaine, AWWA Deputy CEO
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AWWA Water Champion – Paula MacIlwaine, AWWA Deputy CEO

Paula MacIlwaine, AWWA’s Deputy CEO since 2004, is retiring in early July after nearly 39 years with the Association. Her secret to success? “When you appreciate staff, are curious about your work and are helpful, you can learn a lot.” Watch a video with her and AWWA CEO David LaFrance.

AWWA Water Champion Paula MacIlwaineAs a native Oklahoman, what brought you to Colorado? My parents were transferred by Mobil Oil in 1974 during an oil and gas industry boom. After studying psychology at the University of Northern Colorado, I joined AWWA as a temporary employee while I looked for a position in human resources and never left! I never imagined staying at one company for so long, but the people and work have always kept me interested and engaged. 

What was your early experience at AWWA? After working temporarily in publishing, customer service, and human resources, I was offered a full-time human resources/facilities position. At the time, AWWA had about 70 staff and 35,000 members. At first, I didn’t quite understand the full scope of AWWA, including the concepts of nonprofits, standards, the board, sections, councils, and all the committed volunteers. 

How did your AWWA career progress? After five years as the human resources/facilities manager, I accepted the newly-created position of section services manager serving as a liaison between the Association and sections. For several years we focused on enhancing the relationship, then shifted internal staff to create a Section Services Department. Our goal was to increase communication and build stronger ties with sections, which were primarily staffed by volunteers. We supported sections’ growth to hire staff, create trainings and offer local services and support. 

Next, I was asked to oversee the areas of Convention, Education, Customer Service and Section Services (CESS). After five years, I was asked to consider applying for the position of deputy executive director (now called deputy CEO). Interviewing for a new position is a firm reminder that there are still things to learn, in what we do and how to manage a bigger group.
To what do you attribute your success? My biggest fan and contributor to my success was my mother. For several years she was a working single parent to three young children. She pursued her education, became a vice-president of an oil company in the 1970s, and earned a doctorate degree at age 69. I try to model my life after her example. 

When I joined AWWA I was surrounded by intense Type A personalities. I was more focused on the journey. As a participative leader, I found that volunteers and staff appreciate someone who is interested, efficient and resourceful, and who could connect the right people and provide follow-up. 

What are some of your most memorable experiences at AWWA? Four memories stand out:

  • When I started as the first section services staff person and broadened the effort to an entire department. 
  • When I won the Archie Becher Award, a staff award named after a former treasurer who was tragically killed. I knew Archie and have always been proud to have received this award. 
  • Being named deputy executive director. This position has provided an opportunity for me to grow professionally, meet with amazing people, work on projects never imagined, and connect with giants in the water community. 
  • Our expansion into India through AWWAIndia Association. It has been inspirational and motivational to meet water professionals in India who have the same passion and concern for public health as our North American water professionals.

Who are some leaders you’ve learned from? I have attended more than 60 board meetings and 55 regional meetings and met with hundreds of partners. There are volunteers you click with, not because of an exceptional amount of time together but just an ease of working together or an instant rapport or topic of mutual interest. There have been section leaders such as Susan Uyesugi, Tage Flint, Dixie Fanning, Glenda Dunn, Jon Eaton, Chuck VanDerKolk, Pam Moss, Kevin Bergschneider, Christopher Jarrett, Colin Chung, and many others who impressed me with their commitment to AWWA. 

As I’ve spent more time working with board members, I’ve been constantly reminded of how AWWA brings together people who might not otherwise connect but share like passions. All the presidential officers I’ve worked with have devoted their time unselfishly to AWWA and are wonderful ambassadors for the Association, our staff and the water community. Plus, these water leaders bring their talents, heart and a little bit of fun mixed in.  

Key colleagues you’ve worked with? There are 150 dedicated staff working behind-the-scenes to ensure the sustainability and relevance of AWWA. Early in my career I watched and observed Jack Hoffbuhr, Jack Mannion, Lorraine DeBoer and Lynn Laskey. They each took the time to explain the board, staff, nonprofit management and working with staff and volunteers. I also built my knowledge on what I learned from AWWA colleagues Mark Grace, Gary Sullivan, Nancy Sullivan, Jim Ginley, Jane Johnson, Liz Haigh, Cynthia Lane, Teri Blacketor, Kerri Mort, and Tom Curtis.

I’d also like to recognize those who currently report to me as Deputy CEO: April DeBaker, director of conferences and events; Barb Martin, director of engineering & technical services; John Fedor, director of publishing; Ron McDonald, director of human resources; Rebecca Wheeler, senior manager of international programs; and Heather Santos, executive assistant-governance. I also claim Angie Miller (she really reports to David!). They are a pleasure to work with and I marvel at their knowledge and capabilities. I also appreciate the knowledge and friendship of Susan Franceschi, Tracy Mehan and our newer CFO, Tim Dunbar.

Finally, I want to acknowledge David LaFrance. He and I connected early on and that has not wavered. His leadership is impactful, and I am grateful I have been the deputy under his leadership. We have shared many discussions that have altered my way of thinking and broadened my knowledge. I will always treasure this time. 

What’s next for you? My husband of 30 years, Dunnigan, and I may travel, but I am looking forward to the smaller things, such as coffee in the morning on the deck, puttering around with gardening, taking time to call friends, clean out all the accumulated stuff at our house… Our oldest son, Ian, lives in Arkansas and recently married Grace. Our younger son, Graeme, graduates from college this month and is an emergency medical technician. 

I have been working for 50 years and it is time to relax, hang out at home, and then see if there is something more interesting than being retired.