Monthly Archives: December 2012

In the theme of the past posts, I have two stories about a young man in North Carolina 30 years ago.  He was an engineer by education, but wanted to get into management.  So he got a master‘s degree in public administration and after working for a utility for several years, got an opportunity to manage one of the many very small towns in North Carolina.  Now he, like me, was not from North Carolina, but from a northern state, so imaging the reception 30 years ago in a small eastern North Carolina.  His workforce was not educated, and the town workforce lacked any specific skills according to the mayor, although the field supervisor was a skilled equipment operator and had completed high school.  Now you can imagine the suspicion this “young whipper-snapper” had on a community that did not want all that education and did not “want to become Raleigh,” as if there was some horrible stigma attached to that fine city.  And his assignment – fix the infrastructure.

Now many utility directors reading this post will relate to this issue.  It seems that the town was losing half the water pumped out of the groundwater in the leaking pipelines and over half the water mains were 30+ year old galvanized pipes that were laid near and far to reach specific properties.  All were 2 inches and smaller which obviously did not provide fire protection.  Areas of the town were skipped.  Sewer was lacking in some areas and there were a series of stormwater issues to address.  Of course there was no money as the town’s fiscal condition was poor, so the solution was to train the crew to lay the piping needed.  So the story goes like this.  The crew had never installed push-on PVC piping and did not believe it would stay together under pressure.  They had never installed valves or other appurtenances, not manholes and pipe on grade.  Cement finishing was an issue.  So the day came to start work.

The supervisor dug the trench with a backhoe and the young man joined the crew in the field.  He was trying to instruct them on the specifics of laying pipe from the surface.  After all he was the town manager.  It was a struggle, and conditions in a trench are not the best as working space is limited.  Finally realizing the need to show the crew how the pipe pushed together and sequence of tightening bolts needed to go, he hopped into the trench.  He worked with them for days, and the crew became very effective at installing pipe in all circumstances.  Even after the young man moved to a larger town, the crews finished the pipe replacement effort.  The leadership moment?  As the supervisor noted later, the instant he hopped in the trench.  The struggle wasn’t so much not understanding as not believing.  When the young man showed the crew that what he was telling them worked, that by jumping in the trench and working with them he appreciated and understood their efforts, when he treated them with respect in demonstrating the skills the crew needed, they bought the vision.  It was easy after that and they we successful.  Lesson 1:  Show the crew what you want, and believe in them and they will be successful

The same young man later demonstrated his willingness to protect the crew from interference form outside.  So this story goes that they were installing a water main of a given street.  The mayor called and demand a water break get fixed.  Coincidently it was 20 feet from where they were working.  The town manager said no, they would continue working.  You can imagine the broohah brewing up here.  Especially when two days later another leak occurred, but the new main was nearly complete.  And the fourth day, a third leak.  Conferences with commissioners, phone calls, etc form the fanned flames.  But the crew kept working.  No demands were conveyed to them.  Keep working.  The water main was complete the following Monday, placed into service and all service connected to the new line by 5 pm.  The manager was asked to explain his decision at the Tuesday Commission meeting.  He brought in a four foot piece of service line from where the first leak occurred. It contained 22 clamps, meaning the town personnel had “fixed” the line 22 time, over 80 hours of work, in the past.  The leak actually occurred between two to the clamps and could not have been fixed.  Replacement was the only option.  Leadership moment number 2:  the crew knew they had been shielded from criticism, since the manager took all of it.  All the commissioners decided that in the future, such issues would be left to the purview of the manager.  Not that during the week of construction his life wasn’t miserable.  Lesson 2.  Sometimes leadership is difficult.


Just a short note to wish everyone a very happy holiday season!.  May your wishes and dreams come true.  May you and your’s be happy.  May 2013 be our greatest year yet!.  May we be successful in all we try to do this year!  And remember that we are defined and remembered by our friends and family.   Enjoy the all-to-short time you have together!  Be merry!  The other stuff will wait.

Leadership Part 3

One of the themes in the prior two posts on leadership was that leaders are defined by a vision, the people who follow the leader and the ability to market the vision.  We often fail on the marketing end, especially in dealing with water and sewer infrastructure issues.  We know the infrastructure is in poor condition and that billions, perhaps trillions are needed to upgrade the system to serve our needs.  But pipes are hidden and parks are far more glamorous, so guess what gets funded?  At least until a failure occurs.

I teach an elected officials class for water/wastewater issues.  The all acknowledge that a failure o f the utility system is a huge issue and the electorate and elected officials are often looking for “the cause” or someone who is responsible.  In other words, someone to fire.  It is every utility director’s nightmare, and a nightmare for many elected officials as well.  Yet a 4 hour outage in a year is a 99.96% success rate.  My students would be raising hell with the dean and president if I failed them for only 99.96% correct answers.  And rightly so.  Why are utilities any different?  Public health sure, but the systems can fail, and the condition that many are in warrants far more attention to potential to fail unless we can market to the public the need to invest.  Yet how many city managers, elected officials and finance director acknowledge any accountability for failures?  The investigation into the Walkerton Ontario failure indicated that the employees who falsified records, the governing body, the water advisory body and other officials all the way to the province had culpability in the failure of the system that made half the town sick and killed a number of residents.  Utility folks need to market the need to protect public health better, to make the public understand.

Marketing is a difficult skill set.  I can tell you sales in not one of my skills.  Common among engineers who tend to be more technical in nature, letting the data guide us.  Even so, we have successes.  Think about the City of Los Angeles.  The only reason large numbers of people can live in LA is the aqueducts that were started back in 1900s by William Mulholland under the guidance of Mayor Fred Eaton.  The vision was to grow LA but the limitation was water supplies.  The aqueducts sparked water wars (think Chinatown, the movie), and developed through the 1930s.  Hetch Hetchy, over 100 miles east, was established as San Francisco’s water supply back in 1913 as well.  The reservoir system continues to supply San Francisco today.  Denver Water acquired and/or constructed reservoirs and tunnels to the west side of the Rockies for water supplies prior to 1940, realizing that sustained growth in the Denver area was not available east of the Rockies. .  Pinellas County and Orange County California started projects to reuse treated wastewater for irrigation of private yards, and aquifer recharge in the 1970s to sustain their supplies.  Sustainability of water supplies, management of water sources including wastewater and stormwater as a part of an integrated program and sustaining the financial and infrastructure condition of the utility are the long-term priorities.  We need to find those visionary projects and people today.

So here’s the assignment.  Let’s find where those leaders are today, and identify what makes them a leader.

Among the many things I do is work with college seniors as they get ready to graduate and hit the job market.  The changes you use in many of these students over that last year in school is often significant, and in some cases remarkable.  Different students grow differently and the potential starts to appear.  Some gain confidence in their skills and begin to grow into the profession.  Some of these students are likely to make good leaders in the field in the future.  But trying to guess which ones and why it is often a challenge.  However I want them all to have some concept of what leadership is all about.  For many of them, they will end up in the water/wastewater/stormwater field.  They are going to have to deal with tough issues like rebuilding deteriorating infrastructure, sea level rise, climate changes, stressed water supplies, energy demands and a more demanding electorate.  They will recommend increasing water and wastewater fees.  But will they have the skills to encourage decision-makers to move forward with the needs of the system.  You see, that’s where leadership comes into play.  Often it is little things that set things into motion.  Our engineers go into the world with a technical skills et, that ability to learn to solve problems with solutions.  We try to encourage them to be creative.  An assigned reading is “The Cult of the Mouse” by Henry Caroselli, who urges creativity above profits in the workplace.  Mr. Caroselli is right in that it is creativity that allows us to come up with innovative solutions, the ones that change how we live.  It is also where the patents and economic opportunities exist.  America rose to greatness in the 20th century in large part because of automobiles – we figured that out and it made some many things possible.  Computers became common place in the latter part of the century.  We use the technology for both in the water/wastewater/stormwater industry.  In fact they have made us so much more efficient that costs have not climbed as fast as they might have, which is why cable tv is normally more expensive than your water bill.  Which one do you need to live?  My hope is that today’s students figure out energy solutions that will carry us forward as a world leader in the 21st century.  Those alternative energy options, greater efficiency of current technology.  Each will allow the utility industry to improve it’s efficiency further.  The City of Dania Beach built the world’s first LEED Gold water plant.  That took a little vision on the part of the utility director Dominic Orlando.  And a cooperative team of consultants and students.  When we give these projects to young people we can be surprised because they often don’t know that “that’s not the way we do it.”  Well that’s exactly what Mr. Caroselli said.

So we look for leadership.  Creativity, innovation and the “Can-do” mentality are part of leadership, but not all.  There is that ability to set a vision, like Mr. Orlando did in Dania.  There is the ability to convince decision-makers of the wisdom of an idea, as opposed to doing like we always did to make the shareholder happy as Mr. Caroselli noted.   Selling innovation is often the hard part because that’s were the costs are.  But there is more.  Often the selling of a good idea is difficult.  You can be ridicules by the status quo.  Many ideas are just lost in the shuffle because they never receive a voice.

Leadership is often not understood at the time it is occurring.  Ok, maybe we figured this out when Lincoln was President, but if you read accounts of his Presidency, the early years are marked with indecision and backtracking before he got it right.  Most of that is forgotten in lieu of the ultimate results.  Many of the issues we face today need real leadership to create a long-term solution.  The “fiscal cliff” issue is a prime example, as it the long-term need for solutions for social security, Medicare and medical costs in general.  The need to fix the infrastructure that made our economy strong should be among those priorities also.  Remember, we don’t remember the councilman, mayor, legislator. manager, director or President who did not raise taxes or water bills.  They do remember those who solved problems

What exactly is leadership?  How is defined?  How do we find leaders?  What are the skills required to be a leader?  These are tough questions, and the answers are often and murky as the Colorado or Mississippi Rivers in springtime.  If picking leaders was easy, all organizations would be successful.  But they are not.  If leadership skills were easily defined, there would be a lot more schools trying to teach leadership , and they would create generations of leaders.  But they don’t.  It is so much easier to see leadership after the fact, not beforehand, and that is the challenge.  This about our elected officials.  Let’s start with the President and Congress.  We elect these people to lead us.  Periodically we pick one who leads us, often no so much.  No offense intended here, but can we really say that Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, or Warren Harding were great leaders/  They rank in US News’s worst 10 presidents of all time.  And our perception is generally the same (assuming you know enough US history to know these characters).   Was it their fault?  Hard to tell.  Circumstances were not in their favor, but what did they do to lead the nation from the difficulties?

Ulysses Grant and Zachary Taylor were great leaders on the battlefield, but they were failures as President.  Why? Different skill sets.  Their best skills were not transferrable to the Presidency.  Interestingly, Lincoln’s forays into combat in 1841, were utterly unsuccessful, he was demoted from Captain to private.  HE took this failure as an opportunity to learn and study, and then find talent to implement the plan (although it could be argued he dallied far to long with various generals in the Army of the Potomac, before promoting Grant). But we see Lincoln very differently than those noted above in part because they were able to lead us through difficult times.  History treats FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Kennedy similarly.  But how did we pick these leaders in those times?  And how to we find ones for today?

Defining leadership appears o be better defined by identifying what is not leadership.  Scott Adams’ Dilbert comic strip has a book entities “Don’t step in the Leadership.”  The entire comic is focused on the silliness of managers trying to “lead” their charges.  Apparently Mr. Adams has many years worth of stories to tell.  Our reality is similar to Dilbert’s:  we see many examples of people who are not leaders.  Leadership and being the utility director, CEO, mayor, commissioner or any position “in charge” of an organization are often not related.  That is why if you ask, you can find out from the employees who are the “go to” people, the ones they rely on and follow.  Those are the true leaders.  They often outlast the leadership, especially is the positional leadership does not tap into their skill set.

People often desire to be the boss and to lead the organization but many never actually lead just like failed Presidents.  Some may think they are in charge, but if you lead no one, you are not a leader regardless of your title.  A leader is defined by those who follow him/her.  Leaders require no coercion to get people to follow through on their vision.  But a vision is needed.  It may not be a popular vision, and it may not be easy, but your followers must buy into it and be active in pursuing it.  One problem with today’s version of leadership in politics is the fear of tough decisions, or making part of the electorate unhappy.  CEOS often follow the corporate need to make money every quarter, at the expense of the long-term.  How many companies have failed to keep up with technology, upgrade facilities (at a cost), or alter their products to maintain market share?  It took years for the Big Three automakers to figure out that people did not want gas guzzling cars as gas prices increased, at the cost of market share, growth and profits.  The examples are endless.

So what to we look for with potential leaders?  That’s the question.  We want a vision.  We want skills and knowledge about that vision.  We want competency.  People skills.  The ability to take responsibility for the failures, and to share in success with those that supported the effort.  To bring value to the organization.  So next post let’s look at some examples.  In the meantime, post some thoughts on what you think leaders should look like.

One of the ongoing discussions at all levels of government is the lack of funding for many programs as a result of economic difficulties in 2008.  Economic difficulties are nothing new.  We had economic downturns in late 1970s/early 1980s, 1991-1992, 1999-2000, and 2008-2009 as examples, and we have often incurred the same issues.  Unfortunately it appears to the general public that we make many of the same mistakes over and over.  From a federal level we hear the argument about the need for tax cuts to spur spending in the private sector, while Keynesian economists who suggest greater expenditures by government to pull us out of economic difficulty.  Both arguments have their points, but how opposites can solve the same problem is difficult for the public to see.  Perhaps a little understanding of the economic sector and analogies to our personal lives and the water industry would help us.

From the perspective of an ongoing growing economy, the goal would be to have the consistently increased gross product, growing at a reasonable rate, just as it seems reasonable for our salaries to rise at or above inflation rates and our ability to “bank” water for those growth spurts are common pursuits.  From a national perspective, you know you are doing well when your economy grows just over the rate of population growth.  When it grows a lot faster, economists worry about overheating.  These high growth rates have occurred as recently as 1996-1999 and 2002-2007, but are often associated with economic “bubbles” which means that a specific sector seems to be growing really faster, creating a demand for investments that further drive up the perceived value.  The benefit to utilities and governments for these growth spurts was that revenues generally grew faster than the costs.


Of course bubbles are speculative, and at some point investors realize the value is not there and stop investing.  The sector collapses wreaking havoc on the economy, resulting in the economy not growing at a rate exceeding the population growth.  In these cases, the revenues to fund those services people expect, grow slower than population or may even decline as they did in 2008-2009.  Government has not been able to deal with these changes well, but from a personal perspective, these ups and downs are common in peoples’ lives, and we try to deal with them by putting money away in the proverbial “savings for a rainy day.”  Businesses have historically tried to do this as well and utilities try to secure water sources for the same reasons.  However, many governments have not, and it is worth trying to understand why not, the impact it has today and how to resolve the issue going forward.

Two things appear to drive the issue, and they are related to the two schools of thoughts on economics.  First there is a tendency to spend at the level of your revenues.  People, companies and governments all do this.  So in good times, our expenses often rise to match revenues, partly for catch-up purposes, but partly simply because there is more disposable income.  When revenues greatly exceed expenditures, there can be a tendency by utilities and governments to reduce their revenues by cutting rates reducing taxes and the proverbial thought that “people can better manage money than government.” We saw this in 2001 after the federal government finally balanced the budget and started creating surpluses (that could have been used to pay off some of the accumulated debt, but that’s an entirely different story).  Many states saw the same phenomenon (Florida is an excellent example).  However this thought process is akin to a person who goes to his or her boss and asks them to reduce their salary because they are accumulating too much money.  No person ever does this.  Instead we bank that money for the “rainy” day.   So does it make sense for government to cut their revenues in the surplus times?

Consider that down times follow surplus times.  If revenues are reduced during times of plenty, there is no savings for that “rainy” day.  As a result the current path leads to a tendency to suggest cuts in expenses in down times, but this actually exacerbates the economic problem.  Income decreases and because demand is down, prices fall (basic supply and demand).  As expenses decrease, the economy contracts, which means even more people are affected – it can be a vicious circle.  Economic disruption creates a negative impact on government revenues, sometimes disproportionately.  So by reducing revenues in the surplus times, actually compounds the impact of economic downturns, by eliminating the potential for expenditures from savings, requiring spending from borrowing.

At the federal level, we hear the tax cuts versus more spending argument, but neither addresses what individuals have long known – we need to bank surpluses, not ask for pay cuts or extensively borrow in lean times.  The concept of Keynesians is that government should make up the difference between the private and public sector spending to maintain the level of spending in the total economy, but Keynes did not say that is should all come from borrowing.  There is an implicit assumption that some of this should come from savings, just like it does for individuals.  Heavy borrowing can complicate future revenues by increasing future revenues needs, the other side of the argument.  Trying to make up for revenue shortfalls increasing rates and fees when the funds of people and corporations are limited, compounds their problem.  The economy may grow to make up for those cuts, but that is a speculative argument.  The results of austerity is evident in Spain, Greece, Italy and Ireland where their economies continue to contract, not improve.  That solution clearly does not work.  That’s like asking for a pay cut and reducing your expenses significantly – you don’t live better and those depending on you  don’t either. Cutting revenues while increasing expenses creates the worst of both worlds and makes future concerns even more of a problem.  The federal conundrum is, well, a conundrum.  Not sure what the solutions are there, but there are no easy choices and few of us have much control of input.

But locally ourselves and our utility systems, are completely under our control.  A modification to the paradigm of economic needs or our utilities for the future of our system is needed.  We should rethink our economic vision for the next cycle to mimic what many people attempt to do.  We need to figure out what our revenues need to be, and plan long-term for maintaining a given revenue flow.  There will be up and down times, but we can plan for these.  We should create policies that denote that revenues in excess of expenditures should be banked for that “rainy day.”  We should control the urge to expand expenses in the good times.  We should then use those banked revenues for the future.  Then when the next economic downturn hits, we have banked revenues that can be used to maintain the level of service to our customers.  We should have a policy on this as well.   The benefit to utilities is that the investment in lean times often comes at a reduced cost (demand is down so prices fall), while providing an economic stimulus locally (more jobs).  The City of Dania Beach’s nanofiltration plant had this benefit – 70 cents on the dollar costs, plus a grant.  100 jobs created.  Policies on generating surpluses and spending them in lean times on projects like this would seem to make things easier for everyone in the future, but to follow such a trek requires leadership, policies, and self control within the organization.

The question is where is that leadership coming from to make these decisions and to resist political expediency?

I am currently at the Florida Section of AWWA’s annual conference.  One of the discussion items has been the need to increase the number of people attending the conference (and conferences in general), and in particular, the number of young people attending.  Most of the people attending conferences are older management personnel, who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience.  However budget constraints is a constant issue that limits attendance by younger personnel.  This lack of expenses ties with the lack of understanding of the benefits that these get togethers can have.

Conferences mimic civilization.  The reason should be obvious.  As civilization has growth, the advancements in our technology, means and methods have occurred in cities where many people can gather in one place, meet, discuss issues, and arrive at solutions based on others experience, something that cannot be done in rural areas.   Conferences are intended to achieve a similar goal as – bring people with common interests and problems together to discus their issues and find new ideas to improve service delivery.  As a result, there are three basic things that happen at these conferences:  talking to vendors who have products that might help the utility or meet certain needs, sitting in on technical sessions, and talking with other utility and engineering personnel that about common problems.  All have great potential for ideas to help utilities.  A good discussion can yield a solution or idea that can solve an ongoing issue.  How others approach the problem may shed light on how your utility can accomplish this.  What we need to do is make officials in charge of budgets understand that the savings of just one good idea can easily exceed the cost of attendance.

Unfortunately the germination and growth of these ideas is rarely conveyed to the officials who have control of the budget or attributed to attendance at conferences.  Conveying this data is a form of marketing the benefits of learning new things that we often miss.  Same issue with civil engineers who do not do a good job conveying to the public what they accomplish (and I am one).  Most civil engineering projects are simply taken for granted, especially water and sewer projects.  We need to do a better job of marketing these benefits.  The movement of the industry forward relies on it.

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