Manager Corner: Vicksburg's Mark Engdahl Learns From His Team

Mark Engdahl took time to learn from an experienced team as part of what can be a challenging transition to the management ranks.
Manager Corner: Vicksburg's Mark Engdahl Learns From His Team
The Vicksburg team includes, from left, David Cochran, maintenance technician; Terry West, lead operator; Don McAuley, lab manager; and Mark Engdahl, plant director.

Promoted from team member to director, Mark Engdahl received a valuable nugget of advice in overseeing the Vicksburg Wastewater Department: Manage how you manage. He says learning from his team of six could be his strongest managerial skill.

Engdahl began his career in Vicksburg, Mississippi., in 2003 with a degree as a biological engineer, having taken wastewater courses and worked in a water-quality lab in college. He believes he gained his real education when he started working at the wastewater treatment plant.

Longtime members of the Vicksburg staff are Terry West, lead operator, Class 2 wastewater operator license, with 32 years’ experience; Don McAuley, lab manager, Class 4, 26 years; and Randy Bennett, Class 2, 20 years. Engdahl holds a Class 4 license and this year will receive his collections system certification, even though state regulators do not require it.

When hired at Vicksburg, Engdahl did not know his predecessor, who had been with the facility for 15 years, was grooming him for the director role. When she retired and recommended him as her replacement, he accepted.

He acknowledges that being promoted from within may cause some ripples. “My advice is to lead by example, treat others the way you would like to be treated and earn the respect of your employees,” he says.

After the promotion, “I was nervous because most of these guys were older than me. I worked with them for years and respected them.” The transition was less stressful than he expected, and he considers himself fortunate. In his early days, West showed him the ropes in the facility and McAuley trained him on lab processes.

Knowing when to defer

Engdahl’s management style is to lead and not get in the way: “These guys know their jobs and how to do them. I wasn’t going to stand over them and watch them. If anything comes up, we talk about it and then they go do whatever needs to be done.

“Don and Randy both have great experience. Terry really knows what’s going on. It makes my job easier to have such good team members who work well together. It’s such an asset because they can cross-train in so many areas across the facility and lab.”

The Vicksburg facility (trickling filter process, 10 mgd design flow) is staffed around the clock, including evening, weekend and midnight shifts. Usually those team members don’t see much of each other except at shift changes. “I’m working on spending more time with my guys on those shifts, but they do come to me with questions and I’m always available,” says Engdahl.

Developing skills

Engdahl conducts monthly safety-training sessions and continually seeks new and updated materials to keep the content relevant. He attends the yearly Mississippi Water Environment Association Conference and has as many of his staff members as possible go along. “Last year and this year, the conference was held in Vicksburg,” Engdahl says. “When it’s close to home, that reduces travel costs so I can send more people.”

Staff members also attend regional Mississippi/Alabama AWWA events, which include training sessions on multiple topics. Engdahl also attends the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s two-day laboratory workshop with lab manager, McAuley.

Engdahl views conferences and training sessions as important for continuing education. “The more education you have, the more it will help you,” he says. “Any time we can learn, we can do our jobs better. I’ve also come to appreciate the networking opportunities.”

Bennett, midnight shift operator, is eager to attend training but faces the challenge of working off-shift hours. “I don’t want any member of our crew feeling left out,” Engdahl says. “I do what I can to make sure he gets the same training and education opportunities. I’m looking for team members who are willing to make the commitment, even when it isn’t convenient.”

Working smarter

The Vicksburg plant has won numerous awards, including a 2006 Water Environment Federation Safety Award, but Engdahl continues to identify areas for improvement.

He learns by visiting other clean-water plants that he believes can be models for his own: “I’ve visited some great facilities, and I’m encouraged by what can be done. We want to upgrade our facility to improve processes and make our operators more efficient.”

The plant has a 1973 original equipment clarifier that needs replacing; Engdahl has worked with the city’s engineering department on the upgrade and secured $400,000 in funding, including a federal Community Development Block Grant. “It will help the facility run smoother, eliminating downtime and improving efficiency,” Engdahl says.

His goals also include more advanced technology: He’s looking to upgrade the SCADA system to allow operators to monitor the plant remotely and so respond faster to issues.

Managing the family

When Engdahl started in Vicksburg, he did not plan to stay as long as he has. After more than 10 years at the facility, he says, “I’ve grown to love this job for what it is. Often people don’t think of their utilities unless something goes wrong. What we do on a daily basis is often thankless, but knowing it is an important job makes the profession rewarding.”

Engdahl and his team take pride in their work and how they serve the community. Whether it’s managing systems efficiently or conducting tours, he’s proud of his crew: “It’s like a family environment, especially when we’re together for so many hours. The best part of managing is having good people who make it easier to do my job.”  


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