Building Better Leaders

Steven Hardeman believes newly appointed supervisors shouldn’t have to learn leadership skills through the school of hard knocks — he considers training essential.
Building Better Leaders
Steven Hardeman

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It’s tough making the move from clean-water plant operations to management. Many who take that step have to learn leadership skills on their own, by trial and error.

That was the case for Steven Hardeman, plant superintendent in Norman, Okla. He went to work in waterline maintenance for the city in 1984, moved to the wastewater treatment plant three years later, and worked up the ranks to lead operator, supervisor, and ultimately his current position, which he assumed in 2010. On the way, he struggled with the transition from team member to team leader.

He now wants to do his part to make life easier for his eventual successors and for operators across Oklahoma who aspire to more responsibility. He earned a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the University of Phoenix and reads widely about leadership. He has also worked with the Oklahoma Water and Pollution Control Association, and plans to work with the Oklahoma Water Environment Association, to build the beginnings of leadership training programs.

In addition, Hardeman led the development of the City of Norman Leadership Council, with a mission “to provide managers with the skills to lead their teams to higher productivity and personal development.” Hardeman talked about his experiences growing into leadership, and about the leadership principles he puts to work, in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

For you, what was it like making the transition to leadership?

Hardeman: Essentially I was told, “We’re going to make you the supervisor — there’s your office.” Now what? I knew I had to make the plant operate, but on the management side, what was I going to do? I knew I needed to make the work schedule and approve staff members’ vacations and sick leave. Other than that, I had no real clue what I was supposed to be doing. I eventually called my former boss at his new job and asked him.

What was the hardest part about becoming a leader?

Hardeman: Leading people I had worked with for many years. I had been their buddy and friend, and now I was their boss. I had to figure out how to maintain good relationships with people who once were my peers — in fact, two of them used to be my boss. I love a quote from Vince Lombardi: “A leader can never close the gap between himself and the group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk a tightrope between the consent that he must win, and the control that he must exert.” That is so true.

A leader also has to play multiple roles in talking to people. I have to change in and out of talking to them as a boss, as a friend and sidekick, as a coach, counselor, teacher and visionary. As a confidant and listener, as a soldier working in the trenches with them. As a shield — taking the brunt of things coming at them from every direction. Once I sat and wrote them all down, and I came up with 29 roles a supervisor has to fulfill.

How did you deal with having to lead people with whom you used to work as equals?

Hardeman: Number one is constant prayer and my faith. Number two was to figure out how to make us one uniform team. When I first became a supervisor, I asked our plant superintendent at the time, “What is our mission here?” I thought that if I could use our mission statement to direct what we did, maybe that would give us a foundation.

It turns out we have a twofold mission: Provide the safest, highest-quality effluent, and do so at the lowest cost to our citizens. I thought maybe I could take that and build a program around it — this is what we do, and here’s what everybody’s role is. I began to talk about our mission, taking the focus off of me and putting it on what we were doing. When I asked someone to do something, I made sure they understood it as part of our mission — not something they had to do because Steve said so.

That issue aside, how did you approach leadership?

Hardeman: I had to figure out how to lead people — how to deal with their situations, how to talk to different people. How do you deal with someone who has a problem at home and has brought that to work and can’t perform on the job? Or what about a guy who’s coming in late all the time? How do you correct that behavior and make him a productive team member without breaking his spirit? It’s a matter of being in the business of restoration, not waiting to fire them. I am in the business of helping people understand what their roles are and what is required of them to make us successful. As far as I’m concerned, writing people up for discipline should be the last resort.

What is your core philosophy about leadership?

Hardeman: I believe Biblical principles, such as servant leadership, can work in the workplace: I’m a servant leader to my staff. I had to determine what the team members’ skills sets were and what I needed to give them to make them successful. Jackie Crumrine, our human resources development coordinator, said that “as supervisors, we need to give our people the time, the tools and the training to do their jobs.” If I don’t do that, then I have failed them as a supervisor.

Can you give an example of what servant leadership looks like?

Hardeman: Last summer, one of our team members, John Baze, had been out mowing and came to me unhappy. I asked why. He said, “It’s this mower. You say you like this place looking like a campus, nice and manicured, but with this mower, I can’t do it. One blade is scalping and the other is raised too high. As much as I try, I can’t adjust it.” We had some money left over from a project, so I asked Ken Komiske, our utilities director, for $7,000 to buy a new mower. He said, “No problem.” So I told John and Mike Bates, our chief operator, to go to the John Deere dealer and pick out the mower they wanted. John is happy now, riding his new mower.

How do you avoid the common manager’s tendency to lose touch with the staff members’ day-to-day challenges?

Hardeman: I spend most of my Fridays out in the field, talking and working with my staff. I still come in and operate a shift about once a quarter so I can keep myself informed on what’s going on, instead of just sitting in my office and not being a part of what they’re doing. It’s easy to become complacent. I try to get involved and stay involved, so when they tell me about situations, I can relate.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is about bridge building — building relationships and keeping them open. That includes relationships with supervisors in other departments in the city. It doesn’t matter what department you work for — if you need help, you should be able to call another department. I tell the team here: Never burn a bridge with anybody in the city because you never know when you’re going to have to cross that bridge.

How would you describe the culture you’ve helped create at your facility?

Hardeman: Our culture comes down to five values: Humble, teachable, available, flexible and adaptable. One thing I have learned is that if you have people with good values, you can teach them anything. Now when we hire, we look for those values in people. When we sit down for an interview, we bring a piece of paper with the values printed on it. We see if we can see those values in the people applying for the job. If someone has experience in the field, we look at that, but we’re more interested in values. Our last three hires were based on those values, and the people we got are awesome.

How did you get involved in leadership development at the association level?

Hardeman: At an Oklahoma Water and Pollution Control Association Short School, a few of us who came up through the operator ranks to become supervisors were talking about our challenges as managers. We discovered that none of us had received any formal management training.

So we decided that for the Short School last October, we would set aside one whole morning for leadership training. We invited Fred Kreiss, a leadership training instructor from Severn Trent Services, to share his expertise. He did an excellent job. I did a short presentation on some things I had learned as a leader. The attendees really enjoyed the program. From now on, we’re going to offer leadership training on the last morning of every Short School.

Where do you look for advice and inspiration as you look to improve as a leader?

Hardeman: My inspiration started with my family and my faith. Years ago, my mom inspired me to become the man I am today. My wife Antoinette believes I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. I draw inspiration from the men and women I work with.

I read a lot of articles about leadership on Yahoo Small Business — articles like “Eight Traits of an Extraordinary Boss,” or “Ten Signs You’re a Horrible Boss.” My favorite movie when it comes to leadership is Mel Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers.” You look at the main character’s leadership style and see how his men follow him through battle — it’s incredible. He knew them personally and prayed with each one of them, and he knew what was going on with their families. When it came time to make decisions in the middle of battle, he stepped forward, assessed the situation, and made the call. I’ve watched that movie probably 15 times.



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