Best of 2017: Wisdom About the Human Side of the Industry

Here’s a look back at some of the insights shared in Municipal Sewer & Water magazine over the past year concerning not all the infrastructure utilities maintain, but the actual people who work in those organizations

Oftentimes the underground infrastructure your utility takes care of dominates the conversation. But behind that effort are people. That’s why a regular feature in Municipal Sewer & Water magazine every month is The Human Side — a focus on some aspect of the human element of the industry, whether it’s how to better manage employees or how to incorporate more diverse perspectives into your utility’s problem solving.

As 2017 comes to a close, we take a look back on some of the words of wisdom shared in The Human Side over the past year.

On achieving personal development within your organization:

“It’s easy for employees to assume that human resources will take care of training and development for you. But the training and development that many organizations provide today centers mostly on compliance — knowing the rules and regulations in their industries. So it’s on you to own your own personal development because you can’t be sure that your manager or your employer is going to do that for you. You need to recognize that and carve out some goals for yourself on an annual basis. We all have dreams for our careers, and to make them come true, you have to make yourself a priority and ensure your skills stay current.”

On bringing more women into leadership positions within a utility:

“Research performed by Carnegie Mellon University shows that diverse teams are more innovative and smarter than nondiverse teams. That’s not because adding women to the mix raises the teams’ IQ. It’s because when people different from you challenge your assumptions, it forces you to more clearly articulate your point of view. While that may sound easy, it’s not. It’s actually really hard. It’s more challenging to manage a diverse team because it’s more disruptive than how you might operate normally, due to the more divergent opinions and the unease that people experience when working with people different than them. But once you get over that, you can be so much more effective.”

On encouraging a culture of candor in which all team members feel comfortable voicing questions and concerns:

“One manager put $5 in a jar every time one of his reports pushed back on a new idea. He then used the money to fund a once-a-month pizza party. Another manager would put an index card on every chair in a room where she was announcing a new initiative. On the card was written, ‘My biggest concern about this project’s success is _______.’ When she’d finish the presentation, she’d ask employees to anonymously fill in the blank and drop the card in a bag as they left the room. In the end, changing an organization’s culture can be a lot like turning around an aircraft carrier: It takes time. And it’s the little things that matter. It takes a lot of role modeling by managers. It’s the small things you do at the granular level that change the paradigms. For example, during team meetings, managers can pick a rotating devil’s advocate that is responsible for raising tough questions. It might sound silly, but when you do things like that, it starts to shift the culture. You take away the fear factor and pressure for people who don’t want to push back because, for that one person, it’s their assigned job.”

On bolstering employee recruitment through your current employees:

“It’s important to create a culture that’s so dynamic that employees can’t wait to invite people they know to apply for jobs. Just as people wouldn’t recommend a lousy restaurant, they certainly won’t encourage someone they know to apply for a job at a place where they themselves don’t like to work. Senior leaders should understand that if they’re asking employees to refer job candidates, they better be sure that they’ve created a culture that employees want to promote. You’re asking employees to be an extension of your brand — communicate why others should want to work there. Organizations can help in that area by making it easy for employees to share reasons why their organization rocks. Let employees write blog posts on social media platforms, encourage them to write positive reviews on websites like Glassdoor, or even let them create video testimonials that they can share on social media.”

On the early training period for new employees:

“Extreme onboarding — epitomized by high-tech companies like Google — is trendy these days. From weeklong scavenger hunts aimed at networking and learning company culture to participating in silly skits and contests or playing specially developed onboarding video games, industry leaders are making the process more of a celebration than a boring administrative task. Google’s process reportedly gets employees up to speed 25 percent faster. And those who think that what Google does can’t possibly apply to conservative industries like sewer and water utilities, do so at their own peril. Google is one of the most valuable companies in the world, and if you want to perform like the best, you have to act like the best. The bottom line is that ill-conceived onboarding can be as dull as going to homeroom every day in high school. No one looks forward to that. So instead, make onboarding a memorable event. Try holding a strategic, weeklong scavenger hunt, or do something as simple as taking new employees out for a beer. Then ask probing questions to find out if they’re producing the desired results.”

On working under different management types:

“Then there’s the Wishful Thinker who wants you to boil the ocean — by end of day tomorrow, please. (Or, at the very least, clean 3,000 feet of sewer line in one day.) Dealing with this brand of manager requires doing some due diligence about the mission impossible with which you’ve been tasked. That means collecting data showing that the project the boss unrealistically believes is a slam dunk will actually take a lot more time, resources and money than imagined. The Wishful Thinker might not suffer from a personality defect. It may be more of a case where the further up the food chain you go, the more removed you get from the day-to-day work, which distorts assumptions about things. In the end, it’s how you express things that count. Managing up requires employees to walk that thin line between Eddie Haskell-esque brown-nosing and flattering, and overtly telling someone stationed at a higher pay grade how to do their job. And yes, it may feel uncomfortable at first as you step out of a certain comfort zone and try to be more proactive about the process. It’s not about sticking your nose into things you shouldn’t be and going in and trying to do your manager’s job. But when you’re put in a situation where you know there’s a problem and you’re not getting a lot of support, you still want to be successful. In fact, the more successful you are, the better it is for your manager. So you have to find the right approach, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to do what feels the most authentic — customize your approach to fit the person with whom you’re dealing, and do some relationship-building along the way.”


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