For Lisa Marie Harris, serving as the director of finance for the San Diego County Water Authority is far more than a job. It’s part of a calling that started in college.
As an undergrad, Harris secured a fellowship to study public policy at the University of Michigan, which confirmed her desire to pursue a career in government finance. Today, she is responsible for overseeing the Water Authority’s $2.3 billion debt portfolio, developing the agency’s bi-annual $1.5 billion operating budget, and setting the agency’s annual rates and charges.
“I consider it a noble profession,” said Harris, who led the Water Authority’s successful efforts to earn a AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s in 2016. “It’s been rewarding to know I assisted my community and protected the assets of my community.”
That approach to her job is part of the reason that Harris was selected to deliver the keynote address at the 2018 Municipal Bond Women’s Forum on October 18 in San Francisco. The organization comprises women leaders in the municipal bond industry, including public finance bankers, analysts, traders, brokers, issuers and portfolio managers. Harris is the only speaker on the agenda from the public sector.
Diverse Leadership Experience Benefits Water Authority
After earning her master’s degree in public policy at Michigan, Harris served in several leadership positions, starting as a senior economist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Then, she served as chief finance officer for the Emergency Communications Department at the City of San Francisco; assistant deputy director of the San Francisco International Airport; and executive director of the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission for the California State Treasurer’s Office.
Harris arrived in San Diego as chief deputy treasurer for San Diego County Treasurer/Tax Collector Dan McAllister to manage the county’s $5 billion investment portfolio. It was the perfect venue to showcase what Harris sees as her strengths: her readiness to accept challenging assignments, her ability to make adjustments, and her willingness to ask for help.
After seven years, Harris left for a stint in investment banking. But she continued to feel the need to serve the larger community – and when the Water Authority offered her a position as director of finance and treasurer in 2014, she eagerly accepted.
Today, she touts the same philosophy that she has for most of her career: “Strive for excellence. Don’t be mediocre. Go for the best and try to be the best.”
Civic Engagement Vital to Career Advancement
Harris attributes her success in part to civic engagement and professional contributions outside the workplace. She strongly recommends that women in financial careers pursue opportunities to develop their skills and contribute value outside of the workplace as a career-building strategy.
In addition to her participation in the Municipal Bond Women’s Forum, Harris also is a longtime member of the Government Finance Officers Association, having served on various committees, the executive board, and the nominating committee that selects the organization’s president. In addition, Harris recently completed a three-year term on the national board of Women in Public Finance, and she helped charter the San Diego chapter of this nationwide organization.
Harris explains the benefit of seeking leadership opportunities in volunteer roles: “You get to demonstrate to the world what you bring outside of work,” she said. “You can’t always receive accolades and demonstrate your skill sets at your job.”
She also advises colleagues across the financial services industry to seek help achieving a work-life balance – a topic she plans to address during her keynote address in October.
“If you want to have children, you have to set up the infrastructure in your family,” said Harris, who has been married 28 years and has two children in college. “I think I got it done,” she said, “but I couldn’t have done it without my husband.”