Anna Reeves, Strategy and Stakeholder Coordinator at Coliban Water joins us this month as our guest blogger. Anna attended the WSAA Chairs and MD Symposium and Members Meeting as part of her WSAA Young Utility Leaders role. Here are her takeaways.
Buckling up my belt on the plane, I had the same thought for the millionth time "Am I going to understand anything these industry leaders are talking about? And how am I going to then write about it and sound half knowledgeable?”
Hi, I’m Anna Reeves and I work at Coliban Water in Bendigo, Victoria as a Strategy and Stakeholder Coordinator. I have been in the industry for almost 4 years and I still have a lot to learn!
A few months ago I took the plunge and applied for a young utility leadership opportunity with WSAA even though it was way out of my comfort zone. A cup of tea at my desk is as far as I like to roam - living my introvert life to the full. I comforted myself in knowing the worst that would happen would be a gentle email back saying "thanks, but no thanks”. A few weeks later, I got call from Jaimie Hicks, WSAA’s Business Development Manager saying - "We loved your application. You made us laugh, you’re in!"
Well, that was unexpected. What now? Oh, just an invitation to go the WSAA MD and Chairs Symposium and Members Meeting in Sydney in August.
Crikey, that escalated quickly. Oh, I forgot to mention, I was asked to stand up at the end of the two days and provide a reflection on event. Public speaking. Gulp.
I sat down at the table for the day ready with my notepad prepared to take lots of notes and Google lots of theories and words. Gearing myself up to network during the breaks, what would I say? Jaimie noticed my nerves and advised "Just be yourself, you’ll be fine."
After my initial panic had subsided, I was sucked into the keynote presentations and discussions that were happening around me.
Trust, affordability and thinking global
WSAA’s Executive Director Adam Lovell and Pat McCafferty, Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water and WSAA Chair kicked off a big day covering trust, affordability, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and collaboration.
Trust in institutions is dropping and companies are realising a big trust deficit, yet water corporations are bucking the trend. While trust in the water industry is not falling now, that doesn’t mean we won’t be at risk. The old adage rings true, trust is hard to earn, yet easy to lose. So what can we do to ensure our customers and communities feel they can rely on us?
Affordability of living is a key issue for our customers. In 2017, surveys found that 1 in 2 Australians are spending their entire monthly income. So as an industry we need to prioritise customer centricity, juggle affordability of our services whilst at the same time shoring up our practices and systems resilience for future generations. Some big challenges ahead!
Whilst facing these challenges of trust and affordability in our regions, the water industry is also looking globally. Our commitment to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals will see us pushing ourselves outside of our region collaborating as an industry to solve world issues like lack of clean water and access to sanitation.
I wondered whether our customers are seeing all that we’re doing? As an industry we are doing great work to be good corporate citizens. We don’t do this because we have to, we do it because we want to. I think that’s inspirational.
The power of listening
Next we heard from George Hawkins, former CEO and General Manager of DC Water. George caught our attention when he began by explaining his first few days at the organisation then known as the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC WASA) in 2009.
It began with a storm (literally) and sewer flooding everywhere. The excrement had hit the rotating cooling device. But this was not unusual for DC WASA, and George quickly learned that he needed to change things around DC WASA for good
Their customers disliked them, and DC WASA hid from them. They didn’t know who their customers were and then there was the EPA who thought DC WASA was out to pollute the environment like some kind of super villain.
Many of DC WASA staff had great ideas and skills but either weren’t given the resources to act or were caught up spending their time dealing with inefficient systems and ageing infrastructure.
George knew DC WASA needed a big change and this meant looking to both customers and to staff. They needed to stop hiding and be seen, and they needed to build pride in being seen for what they were doing.
The key here was that staff needed to feel the change was FOR them and not TO them. The best way forward was to listen. George spent a lot of time listening. George became curious George. Often an underestimated tactic, but it paid off.
Many of the solutions and successes came from George’s staff. DC WASA became DC Water. And they built a booming social media presence, innovative programs (sometimes leading world practices), staff pride in the brand and their jobs, environmentally sustainable programs and great customer engagement.
My take away? Good leaders listen. Great leaders listen and then act on what they’ve heard.
Summed up so shortly, it doesn’t give the reflection of all the fascinating conversations everyone was having, but the snippets I heard excited me. It is a cool industry to be in at the moment. It left me pondering on a line that George Hawkins shared with us when talking about the transformation of DC Water - “Creativity is inbuilt. Don’t be scared to use it”.