Sophie McGuinness, WSAA Young Utility Member and Operations Controller at Watercare in Auckland, joined us at our February Members Meeting. She took the opportunity to ask some of our water industry leaders for advice on leading during a crisis. Here are her thoughts.

When we met in February at the WSAA Member’s Meeting in Melbourne, it was a humid Tuesday after the first sprinkling of rain had come along to douse the dry lands of Victoria. The meeting had an obvious theme, the bushfires, flooding and drought were front and centre as Australia was dealt a terrible hand. The climate outlook was grim – higher day time and night time temperatures, lower rainfall averages, and lower average soil moisture was the perfect recipe for increased intense bushfires in the future with a higher intensity. Dr Robert Pipunic of the Bureau of Meteorology spoke to this with a powerful message of the changing climate. Neil Brennan from Seqwater, Fiona Smith from WaterNSW, and John Day of North East Water spoke of their experiences as leaders of essential utility providers while the fires raged on.

I left Melbourne wondering what it would be like to lead in a crisis, with the pressure of thousands of residents needing clean water and sanitation services and the looming extreme circumstances bearing down on cities large and small. I reached out to a few leaders amongst the WSAA Members for some sage advice for young utility leaders and was pleasantly surprised to get a wealth of knowledge.

Charmaine Quick, Managing Director of Goulburn-Murray Water spoke highly of Shane Fitzsimmons of the NSW Rural Fire Service, who is said to be ‘calm, empathetic, direct but respectful’. As for young leaders, calmness in a storm may seem impossible but working with the facts could be a saviour when making decisions. Charmaine noted to “be direct and respectful when passing on information and recommendations” as there is a lot of quickly-changing information to absorb in uncertain times.

Neil Brennan, CEO of Seqwater, noted that it is ‘paramount to understand yourself as a leader’ when in times of crisis. “People will look to you for leadership, stability, and calmness in a crisis” he says, which can be the most difficult factor when running an essential utility service, so it is of utmost importance to know your own strengths and weaknesses. Leadership is about ensuring those around you are supported and have the resources they need, “so that people can depend on the stability you bring in a crisis”. Importantly, we must also make sure to keep out of their way – “they know what to do”.

Fiona Smith, Executive Manager of WaterNSW, advised that young leaders should reach out as “the water industry is great at sharing knowledge and help”. She noted that while the circumstances may be extreme, “there are lots of people who work in this industry that have seen and managed some really unique circumstances, and they are always willing to help out with practical advice”. We can support each other both inside and outside our respective utilities, as the challenges we face are largely the same.

All three echoed similar thoughts, that we should all keep calm, help each other, and look after ourselves. The past few weeks have seen a surge of change of a different note, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe. We are moving towards a new way-of-working which is online and flexible. The advice given during extreme circumstances of bushfire, drought, and flooding earlier in the year certainly applies with the same weight as leaders seek to keep moving forward despite huge uncertainty. Neil Brennan added an important tool he uses in a crisis: Relieve, Ease, Safeguard, Guarantee, and Ensure. With some smart, factual decision-making backed by empathy and calm, we as the water utility industry can tackle any test and I’m hopeful that young utility leaders can step up to this new challenge.

24 Mar 2020

Sophie McGuinness

Sophie McGuinness

Environmental Scientist