A New Approach to Water and Wastewater Work

Empower employees and give them autonomy to actively solve problems.

A New Approach to Water and Wastewater Work

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Entrepreneurs are generally viewed as innovators, problem-solvers and groundbreakers, imbued with a passion and drive that many employees — buried under emails, memos, meetings and bureaucracy — can only dream of achieving.

But what if entrepreneurship was a possibility and you could go about your job with the vigor and enthusiasm of someone running their own startup business? Or if you’re a manager, what if you could motivate your team to act like mini entrepreneurs?

Well, you can — and you should, advises Bree Langemo, the director of entrepreneurship and an assistant professor of law and entrepreneurship at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Employees with an entrepreneurial mindset disdain the narrow parameters of their job descriptions. Instead of waiting for a manager or supervisor to tell them what to do and how to do it, they’re always on the lookout for opportunities to improve and contribute to their organizations, she says.

“Being entrepreneurial isn’t about starting a business,” explains Langemo, the former president of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, a global consulting firm that provides entrepreneurial training and education for organizations. “It’s more of a way of thinking and acting. Entrepreneurial people find ways to create value, whether they’re working in an organization or in government or academia.

“The core belief behind the entrepreneurial mindset is that it’s the employee’s responsibility to align their interests, skills and abilities to solve problems for other people in order to create value. That could be colleagues, customers or other stakeholders in an organization.”

The bottom line: Entrepreneurial-minded employees look at the big picture and don’t accept the status quo. They fight against the mind-numbing notion that things are always done a certain way simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done, she says.

Freedom to innovate

As an example, Langemo cites Rob Vigil, an employee in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, solid-waste department, who started thinking about his job differently after getting coached by the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative. Instead of concentrating on his described job duties, he decided to take ownership of his job and start running his department like it was his own small business, Langemo says.

Empowered by his new mindset, Vigil redesigned the department’s trash and recycling pickup program, a move that saved the city a significant amount of money annually. He also got promoted.

More than 500 Albuquerque city employees from 22 different departments received the same training as Vigil did. As a result, they no longer wait for permission to solve the problems they encounter on the front lines of their jobs.

Of course, that underscores an essential part of fostering an entrepreneurial mindset: Managers within organizations must create a culture that empowers employees and gives them the autonomy to actively solve problems within their roles. So if employees come to managers with workplace complaints, managers should encourage them to find solutions.

Moreover, Langemo says public agencies such as water and sewer utilities — which have a reputation for being staid and static places to work — are actually a good place to practice entrepreneurialism.

“Public employees tend to be more connected to their agency’s mission than private employees, so there’s a great opportunity to leverage that connection and passion. They’re public servants who care about the end results of their contributions to society.”

Reduce turnover

Langemo points out that entrepreneurial-minded employees don’t have to always hit a home run when it comes to developing product innovations or better processes and procedures. Instead, being an entrepreneur “happens in small ways all the time, whenever an employee recognizes an opportunity to improve,” she explains.

It could be something as small as noticing that the forms used in a human resources process are duplicative and it would be much more efficient to fill them out digitally and eliminate redundancies, Langemo says.

Moreover, giving employees the freedom to act like entrepreneurs increases engagement and reduces the tendency to feel confined and helpless in their roles. As such, it can reduce turnover, too, she says.

“Organizations that don’t encourage an entrepreneurial mindset won’t attract top talent or land entrepreneurial employees,” she points out. “If they have to navigate around an organization that doesn’t allow them to excel, they’ll leave.”

This is especially true for millennials, who desire job autonomy, are values-driven and want to feel connected to larger causes.

Easy to learn

This may all sound a bit intimidating, but it’s not. In fact, most people naturally gravitate toward and would prefer to work as entrepreneurs, Langemo says.

“As humans, we want to feel useful and leverage and stretch our skills and talents. And if organizations don’t capitalize on that, their employees become disengaged and complacent … and the organization loses out on what it could potentially become.

“Most people welcome entrepreneurship. It’s quite personal to them. And it’s not hard to learn. … It’s just a matter of opening a door to a new way of thinking that inspires and engages people. Initially, it requires self-awareness and understanding. And the next step is for employees to apply it and take action.”

And start minding their own businesses, in a manner of speaking. 

Resources for organizations interested in developing employees with entrepreneurial mindsets include the Entrepreneurial Performance Labs at www.eplabs.co and the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative at www.elimindset.com.


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