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.