Establish Your Utility's Core Values

Creating a shared vision requires communication followed by action.

Establish Your Utility's Core Values

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After nearly two decades of working in the municipal water and wastewater industry, Joone Lopez knows full well that job seekers generally don’t view utilities as great and exciting places to work, especially compared to private-sector companies that typically pay more and enjoy more dynamic and progressive reputations.

But as the general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District, based in Laguna Hills, California, Lopez is debunking those industry stereotypes in a big way.

As evidence, consider that the Orange County Register has named the utility, located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, among the best medium-sized places to work in Orange County. For four years in a row (2016-19) including a No. 1 ranking in 2018. And while competing against dozens of private-sector companies in the newspaper’s annual Top Workplaces survey, now in its 14th year.

“We were the first public-sector organization to receive a No. 1 ranking (in the Top Workplaces survey) and we’re very proud about that designation,” Lopez says.

In addition, in 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said MNWD was among the top eight wastewater utilities nationwide in terms of employee development. And it’s also been the recipient of many other awards for innovation and operational efficiency.

Kindness and accountability

The secret sauce here is a workplace culture that’s based on the so-called HERO model of values: honesty, effort, respect and one team, says Lopez, a former police officer.

“Our culture is about each other and is based on kindness coupled with accountability,” she explains. “We are supportive of one another. Our core values drive how we think and work.

“We also believe we’re not just in the utility business — we’re in the people business.

“We understand that what we do impacts people’s lives, so with great honor, pride and dedication, we work together to see how we can better help people.”

Lopez agrees that it’s more critical than ever for utilities to create great workplace cultures. “Going forward, it’s imperative that we compete better with other sectors,” she says. “A great workplace culture is not only needed to attract the best and brightest minds, but also to develop the kinds of innovations that help us better serve the public.

“Some national statistics in our industry indicate our pipeline of talent is declining,” she continues. “But you get peoples’ attention if you create a workplace environment that’s healthy and safe as well as exciting and dynamic. We just need to do a better job of telling our story.”

Room for improvement

The workplace culture wasn’t always so great at the utility, which serves more than 170,000 customers in a 37-square-mile area that includes the cities of Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano. The district also is responsible for 540 miles of wastewater pipelines and 19 lift stations.

“Morale was low and it was an unhealthy place to work. We weren’t out there as a part of the community,” says Lopez, who left law enforcement in 2002 to pursue a career in the water industry, then became MNWD’s general manager in 2012. “So when I arrived, I worked with the staff and the board of directors to create a different environment, a place where people can come to work and know they’re respected and don’t have to walk on eggshells, look over their shoulders or worry about bad behavior and harassment.”

Her blueprint for building a great culture came from evaluating her own bad experiences at previous jobs and developing a plan to avoid those pitfalls.

“It deflates you as an employee when you feel you aren’t treated as well as other people or you don’t trust leadership or you don’t feel motivated,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to ever feel like I did.”

Setting expectations

One of Lopez’s first moves was establishing a monthly all-hands meeting where she set out, in very specific and certain terms, her expectations of employees in regard to honesty, effort and respect.

“You have to set the tone at the top,” she emphasizes.

Then she incentivized employees to adopt those values by only promoting those who follow them.

Furthermore, Lopez consistently and repeatedly encouraged employees to try new ideas and innovations without fear of retribution for failures. “We allow people to try new ideas that can help us get better,” she says. “If the ideas don’t work, it’s on me. If they succeed, the employees get the credit.

“This helps them be more creative and imaginative,” she adds. “I always tell new employees to imagine the organization of their dreams, then come and help me build it.”

Collaboration and innovation

As an example of how a great culture fosters innovation, Lopez cites how a casual conversation with an employee eventually spurred MNWD to establish a nonprofit group called the California Data Collaborative in 2015. That, in turn, led to a partnership with Netflix, whose data scientists worked with the district to create a custom data-analytics software program that saved the district $20 million.

At the time, California was in the midst of a record drought that prompted the district to look at how to better conserve water. But it was hard to determine what actions would be the most impactful because the district’s 73 million or so customer-related data points weren’t standardized or centralized.

“That made it difficult to develop policies that would achieve the end result we wanted,” she says.

But the VDV data experts helped the district organize and standardize all that data in computer coding. That then enabled academic institutions and analysts at Netflix to examine water-usage patterns and other data, using predictive modeling tools the district could never afford to develop, Lopez explains.

At that point, the district was planning to build a $20 million recycled-water storage facility in order to ensure it could meet peak customer demands for water.

“But their predictive modeling tools showed how we could manage when that water was used by working closely with our recycled-water customers,” she explains. “So we didn’t have to build that additional infrastructure.”

Enforcement matters

Of course, there’s a counterpoint to all this: Employees who don’t respect the core values must suffer consequences. “In short, they’re not here very long,” Lopez says. “Sometimes you have to discipline people all the way to termination, which usually doesn’t feel very good. But you absolutely have to hold people accountable or you erode your standards.

“After people saw that I was serious about enforcing our core values, they became believers,” she adds. “You make a big statement and then continue to talk about it and communicate it and follow it up with action.”

Part of that communication component is spending time with employees. She says she periodically puts on work boots and goes out in the field to work.

“I want to know what employees feel, smell and touch,” she explains. “I also want them to know I value the work they do, which develops a personal connection. And that turns into trust, which is the most important thing for someone in my position.

“If people trust you, they’ll go above and beyond,” she concludes. “When you allow people to dream and build friendships and networks, both internally and externally, amazing things can happen.” 


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