Want to Be a Leader? Maybe You Already Are, Says This Research Report

If you aspire to a leadership role at some point in your career, you can learn from experiences described in a new paper on leading through change.

Want to Be a Leader? Maybe You Already Are, Says This Research Report

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Many treatment plant operators plan on rising through the ranks to become plant supervisors, plant managers or even utility administrators.

But what does it take to be an effective leader? Eileen O’Neill, Ph.D., former executive director of the Water Environment Federation, explored that question in her new role as a co-founder of the nonprofit Partnering for Impact (PFI).

She reported the findings in a paper, Staying Above Water: Lessons Learned from Water Sector Change Leaders. The report is based on in-depth interviews with 11 leaders from water organizations in the United States. It explores transformational leadership practices, career pathways and leadership resilience. 

PFI co-founder Rick Warner observes, “We believe strongly that there are skills, equally if not more important than our engineering and scientific capabilities, that will enable us to bring the most innovative and sustainable solutions to bear on interconnected and thorny problems. This project shines a light on some of those attributes.”

The paper presents each leader’s career story, explores their experiences in leading through change, and reveals what has kept them fresh and motivated going through the inevitable challenges of working in the water sector. O’Neill talked about her project in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

How would you describe the group of people you interviewed?

O’Neill: I contacted some people I knew and some I didn’t know. Everyone said yes to an interview. I interviewed a diverse group in terms of geography and the kinds of organizations: public works departments, standalone entities, water, wastewater and stormwater agencies. I spoke to about half men and half women, and about half people of color. As soon as I started talking to them, I found there were important insights to be shared. 

What were the interviewees’ educational and career backgrounds?

O’Neill: Everyone I interviewed was an engineer. What surprised was that while we always think of engineers as problem solvers who deal with technical challenges, the one lesson that came to the top was that it’s all about people: being able to listen to them and help them work together and be their best. They all probably got where they are by having a technical background, but they all stressed the ability to relate to people. That means all kinds of people: the public, the people in the organization, a wide range of people. Being a people person is really important to leading through change.

Did any other characteristics stand out as important?

O’Neill: Another important quality was courage — not being reckless but being able to take bold steps and deal with the ups and downs and the challenges that come, particularly with being in the public sector.

What are the special challenges of the public sector?

O’Neill: You’re under the public eye a great deal. Depending on the nature of your agency, there can be extra political challenges around having to tell hard truths about investments that are needed, rates that may have to be increased, where you’re dealing with politicians who think in terms of elections. And then there’s the bureaucracy. Getting things accomplished quickly can definitely be a challenge in the public sector.  

What did you learn about the importance of resiliency?

O’Neill: One key observation about the group is that they were optimistic — not irrationally so, but able to keep going and look for opportunities even within challenges. Another common trait is that they don’t take highs or the lows in professional life too personally. This is business. Things can change. Perhaps not getting a job you wanted or having some other setback can be a learning experience. Don’t take a setback as something permanent.

Where did these leaders say they looked for inspiration?

O’Neill: Much of their inspiration came from the big picture of doing important work. They all have stayed in the public sector because they recognize the value to their communities in terms of public health, economic development and the environment — the importance of being in water in a practical, service-oriented way. A number of them mentioned how they are inspired by the dedication, skills and sense of service among their frontline workers.

How do those workers provide inspiration to their leaders?

O’Neill: They see that their workforces have done heroic things during natural disasters, and have shown that they will do almost anything to keep their plants running. Some of those interviewed said that on a day-to-day basis, when feeling like they needed a lift, they would go out and spend time among their frontline workers to give themselves a pick-me-up. It’s an emotional point with them, the importance of their operators and how underappreciated they feel these professionals are, from a skills perspective and the contributions they make.

Did these leaders’ lives outside of work help make them more resilient?

O’Neill: It was interesting to see that they all took time for hobbies. Some were doing arts and crafts, not something I would have put together with engineers. Perhaps being very driven earlier in their careers, being in situations of high pressure, they now see it as important to take time to rest and recuperate.

How do you translate lessons from these leaders to plant managers or to young, up-and-coming operators who aspire to leadership?

O’Neill: The operative phrase is that leadership is not a title, it’s a way to behave. Many frontline people likely are leaders already, serving as an example to others without even realizing it. The idea is that as you go up the chain, you will spend more time getting work done through others and helping others work together.

How did those you interviewed rate the importance of mentorship?

O’Neill: If you don’t have a formal mentor, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn and get advice from others. None of the leaders I interviewed went through a former mentorship program. But when I asked who influenced them, they all named people. In almost all cases these were people who were humble, were optimistic and made time for them. So don’t be afraid to reach out to people to get feedback. And in a similar way, you may be able to help someone without thinking of yourself as a formal mentor.

Were there other insights that stood out from your research?

O’Neill: One leader talked about how we all come to work as our whole selves. Leaders are not just their titles or their technical skills. We need to think about telling our story so that we can show up in the workplace as the whole person. As we move to be a more diverse and inclusive water workforce, we might make time to tell our story, what our values are, what brought us to where we are — and be ready to listen to the stories of others. There are some amazing stories in the paper. A number of the people have experienced being the first or being the only. For example, they were the first woman or the first African American to hold their role. There were very interesting things about each person’s story.   


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