Your Most Critical Audience?

Sometimes it’s not the people out in the community, it’s the ones in the city or village hall whose hearts and minds you most need to win

One of the toughest things to deal with at work is a boss who doesn’t understand you — or worse, doesn’t understand what you do.

Wastewater operators run into that a lot. So there’s a twist to this month’s “Hearts and Minds” column. It’s not about helping the general public understand wastewater treatment and its importance. It’s about getting the bosses — those utility managers, aldermen, mayors — on board with treatment and the daily challenges operators face.

The story tells how John Hricko, manager at the Town of Crewe (Va.) Wastewater Treatment Plant, teamed with Town of Farmville manager Gerry Spates to put on a class in “Water & Wastewater Treatment 101 For Administrative Personnel.”

The moral is that the way to gain more support and buy-in at the top is not to complain and wish things would get better, but to do something affirmative about it. There was an interesting perspective on that general topic in our sister publication, Municipal Sewer & Water, last month.

There, workplace psychologist and leadership trainer Marie McIntyre emphasized that the boss-employee relationship is a two-way street: Employees are just as responsible for establishing a good relationship with their managers as those managers are for doing the same for their team.


Novel concept

That’s a novel concept — that warming up relations with the troops isn’t only the manager’s job. Just grasping that idea can be a start toward better cooperation at work.

Of course, many clean-water plant staffs are squarely on the same page with community decision makers. And plant staffs themselves seem, in general, to function quite cohesively.

But as Hricko and Spates observed, the people in city hall and the people at the plant often don’t connect as well as they should. Maybe that’s because the treatment people are specialists and the administrators are generalists. Maybe it’s that public officials and employees not in the clean-water professions prefer not to “get their hands dirty” — like the general public, they like treatment to be out of sight, out of mind.

Whatever the reason, a gap exists in many communities between those who run the plant and those who make the decisions and hold the purse strings.


Making an impact

Closing that gap doesn’t require doing something as elaborate as what Hricko and Spates did with their daylong course. There are many simpler and easier ways to establish connections — and the more personal the better.

How about inviting the city council or village board down for a tour? What about offering a tour as a matter of course to newly elected officials as soon as they take office?

How about popping into the mayor’s office maybe once a quarter to pass along an interesting article or your latest glowing report to your regulatory agency? Does your plant report regularly to the local council? That’s a good and convenient place to meet all the decision makers in the same room. How about asking for five minutes on the council agenda, maybe twice a year, to tell how the plant is doing?

And there’s nothing like good publicity to warm your local officials’ hearts. Keep your local newspaper apprised of your accomplishments — awards, service milestones, new certifications, promotions, compliance records. Your community leaders will notice.


Taking action

These ideas just scratch the surface. The point is to make the effort. It’s a near-universal truth that people find wastewater treatment interesting once they learn what is involved. That’s as true of public officials as it is of anyone else.

The point is: If your relationships with your administrators and council aren’t what you would like them to be, decide to make them better. Then act. As an old popular song said: “How often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”


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