Succession Planning Helps a Water System Build for the Future

New York’s Southern Cayuga Lake Intermunicipal Water Commission faces recruitment challenges while keeping the succession pipeline filled.
Succession Planning Helps a Water System Build for the Future
Joan Foote was appointed general manager May 30, succeeding the retiring Jack Rueckheim.

In 2011, the Southern Cayuga Lake Intermunicipal Water Commission suddenly found itself with open positions for general manager and production manager.

Besides filling those two roles, the commission had to fill the newly created positions of assistant distribution manager and assistant production manager at the Bolton Point Municipal Water System. That meant four key leadership positions open.

The commission responded not by rushing to fill the slots but by taking the long view and developing training and succession plans to help ensure a full pipeline of leadership candidates for the future.

On the career path

The Southern Cayuga commission, based in Ithaca, New York, operates the Bolton Point system, which serves just under 7,000 metered connections in the towns of Ithaca, Dryden and Lansing and the villages of Cayuga Heights and Lansing.

Without a succession plan in place, it was difficult to move existing personnel into the open leadership slots. The Bolton Point system has a staff of 17, including four distribution operators, four water treatment plant operators, instrument and control mechanic operators, water maintenance specialists and a GIS/IT specialist.

The most likely internal candidate for general manager was Jack Rueckheim, then distribution manager and a 33-year employee of the Southern Cayuga commission. However, he felt ill equipped for that role and was focusing on retirement. Still, in 2011, he agreed to step in as general manager for up to five years or until a replacement could be named.

Rueckheim took charge, immediately identifying opportunities to collect and standardize information and align training for all staff. “I kind of stumbled into this as a career years ago,” he says. “I never thought, ‘Oh, I want to work in a water treatment facility,’ but it has proven to be solid, dependable work.”
Judith Drake, human resources manager for the Town of Ithaca and the Southern Cayuga commission, agrees that people do not always consider work in water facilities as a career option: “It’s not always a calling one thinks about in high school, but once they are introduced to the occupation, most tend to stay for the long haul.”

Recruiting challenges

Drake finds recruiting for the water facility to be a challenge in that many professionals don’t want to jump from one water plant to another. The Bolton Point system advertised nationally for its open positions and received only eight responses.

“People like stability and staying at one facility or municipality,” says Drake. “They don’t always want to uproot their lives and their families’ lives for a job.” That makes it all the more critical to hire people who fit into a succession plan for the long term.

“As we recruit and bring in candidates, we focus on people who want advancement and want to learn more and move up,” says Drake. “That’s important for us to build our succession planning. That’s the best way for this kind of facility.”

Aside from traditional recruitment, the commission looks to local programs to generate awareness of the industry and its facilities. Tompkins Cortland Community College offered a New York State Health Department Water Operator IIA license course in which the Bolton Point system water staff helped teach a section. The students toured the water plant facility and interacted with staff in the laboratory.

A professor from Cornell University brings in students from his environmental engineering course. Earlier this year, he produced a video of the treatment plant. Extending and promoting the facility’s activities in the community helps make prospective employees aware of the career opportunities.

Promoting internally

While Rueckheim stepped in as general manager, the Southern Cayuga commission found a suitable production manager from an internal source. While a leadperson, Joan Foote had been performing some work normally done by the production manager; she was able to transition into that role.

Drake acknowledges challenges in enticing employees to advance through the ranks: “Some people understand that by moving up to a manager level, there is more responsibility to undertake. Sometimes it means being on call and making quick decisions at two in the morning. Some people just don’t want to step up to that level.”

To help promote from within, the Southern Cayuga commission launched extensive supervisory and management training to employees who show interest and potential to become managers or supervisors. In addition, employees receive operational training beyond what is required to maintain their licenses.

“The training and tests taken by our staff is a strong point of the commission,” says Rueckheim. “Employees receive cross-training in other departments as time allows. We want to develop our staff into leaders.”

Since Rueckheim’s appointment as general manager, he and his team have worked diligently to update facility procedures so that information does more than sit on a shelf. “We took the information out of our heads and put it on paper,” he says. “When someone asks a question, we pull out the manual and find the answers. That makes the team stronger and smarter.”

Leaders hope that by creating a plan and cultivating internal candidates, the commission will be able to create a dependable pipeline of leadership prospects. Drake observes, “In developing our succession program and managing open recruitment, Bolton Point focuses on people who want to move up. This means making our entire staff the strongest it can be on all levels.”


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