With a background in political science and international policy, and 35 years in the not-for-profit sector, Scott Grayson is uniquely positioned to be a catalyst for change. The CEO of the American Association of Public Works (APWA) now helps North American organisations better manage their infrastructure assets.
It’s a challenge he’s always found rewarding, starting with his time as councillor and chair of the Housing Authority for the City of Golden Valley, a ring suburb of Minneapolis.
“Whether it’s installing a bicycle path, replacing water mains underneath the street or creating open space, there’s great excitement when you approve a plan and see people constructing infrastructure,” says Scott, reflecting on his time at council. “It was always a pleasure to walk around the city in which I lived and say, ‘Oh yeah, I played a role in that, we studied, approved and funded that’.”
As CEO of APWA, as well as an Executive Director of the Canadian Public Works Association (CPWA), Scott presides over 30,000 members and 63 chapters throughout the US and Canada. His job involves a mix of national and international advocacy, education, credentialling and lobbying. It’s a job requiring flexibility and expansiveness – qualities he partly attributes to his upbringing in New York City’s borough of Manhattan. He says it was both “cosmopolitan and international”, and inspired him to complete an MA in International Policy specialising in Latin American and Caribbean studies.
Grayson took on the reins of the APWA in 2016 after nearly 20 years as Associate Managing Director of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc (IEEE). He immediately set about putting in place systems that would ensure the organisation’s continued success.
“When I started at APWA, it was strong, financially sound and I would say to my staff ‘we’re doing a really great job, we’re bringing in appropriate amounts of revenue, but it’s almost by accident’,” says Scott. “So we aligned everything we work on with a strategic plan – even our performance reviews.”
That first strategic plan was implemented in 2017, and the organisation has now signed a second strategic plan in February 2020, also incorporating another of Scott’s personal directives – better cohesion of APWA’s departments. “The APWA’s different departments, whether they be education, finance or advocacy, were working in silos. I’ve worked hard over the years to get them speaking about what’s happening in each department and how they can help one another by following the strategic plan.”
Scott’s organisational changes have equipped the APWA to make big inroads into tackling what he considers to be the No.1 problem in the global and US infrastructure industries today – ageing infrastructure. To fix the problem he advocates more federal funding but would like to see a system in place in the US where those funds are subject to municipal councils having asset management plans in place.
“In the US, local governments should have asset management plans to show how the money will be used to not only build but also maintain their infrastructure over its life,” he says.
To that end, Scott advocates more US organisations and municipal councils adopting asset management plans. “If you ask most small- to mid-sized municipal councils in the US if they have asset management plans, they don’t. We have a long way to come in the United States to realise the value of asset management. We’re working hard just as a starting point at educating everyone that asset management is important.”
To make more readily available the value of APWA training and certifications in asset management, Scott has sought to increase APWA membership. To get around the problem of public work directors from large cities not seeing value in local APWA chapters, he’s created a Large Cities Public Works Directors Forum for cities with populations of 500,000 or more. “As a result of this group, big cities public works directors participate in our trade shows and interact with hundreds of our industry members,” he explains.
Gathering information is key to Scott’s personal management strategy. He often asks his staff to, “think about the things that you don’t know that you don’t know”.
It’s an ethos that proved crucial when COVID-19 forced him to cancel a number of large association trade shows – the largest of which usually sees between 5,000 and 8,000 attendees with 9,300 square metres of exhibit space. Reallocating meetings online, he also asked staff to be enterprising and find new solutions to problems. “My motto has always been, don’t sweat the small stuff and create a priority around what’s really important and what you have control over,” he says.
Scott’s dedication to the organisation hasn’t gone unnoticed by APWA staff, whose nomination led him to receive the 2020 Distinguished Association Executive Award from the Kansas City Society of Association Executives (KCSAE). He says the award is a “real career highlight”.
Outside work, Scott likes being active. He counts downhill skiing, running, cycling and hiking, as well as listening to an eclectic mix of music, as personal interests. As for inspirations, he says he’s inspired by the people around him, including his wife and children that help ground him and enrich his experiences.
“My wife is a marriage and family therapist and she talks a lot about work-life balance,” says Scott. “Throughout my career it’s been really easy to be heavily weighted on work and she reminds me when my work/life is out of balance.
“My three kids have really taught me a lot about life and work. I just value the input from that generation so much, they know a lot more than I do about certain topics, so I love embracing their knowledge.”
It’s through this lens that Scott’s work will help produce a new generation of highly effective asset managers.