Guest Column | October 11, 2017

Innovate, Collaborate, And Commit: 3 Keys To High Performance In The Water Sector

Deborah Kiers

By Deborah Kiers


In a recent Water Online editorial, Kevin Westerling shared a Q&A with Water Environment Federation (WEF) President Rick Warner. Central to the conversation were the topics of innovation, collaboration, and leadership within the context of the challenges faced by the U.S. water industry. Among these issues: rebuilding and replacing aging infrastructure, advancing clean water initiatives, and making progress with water reuse.

With this timely editorial in mind, I would like to expound on three critical capacities which can lead to enhanced performance for water organizations: (1) innovation, (2) collaboration, and (3) commitment from the top.

Innovation: Not A One-Time Event

Water industry leaders around the world are increasingly turning to innovation. Examples from the U.S. include advances in energy recovery, as well as the way WEF has helped communities implement new technologies to reduce nutrients being discharged to their local water systems, while also reducing the need for concrete infrastructure.

An essential insight about innovation is that it often doesn’t begin with an ambition to innovate. It starts with something bigger: creating an environment where innovation can flourish. For example, my colleagues and I worked with a large Australian water utility as they produced an impressive string of innovations in recent years — including an award-winning customer hardship program and a standalone, profitable waste-to-energy facility.

They did this by creating an environment where new ways of thinking could thrive — a culture where high performance became the norm, then innovation became a hallmark of that new norm. As their leadership bucked the status quo, the organization’s collective mindset was reframed in a way that motivated people to take the organization far beyond what they thought was possible. A culture which fosters innovation is one where a larger sense of purpose is constantly motivating people.

Collaboration: Get It Right

Water organizations are increasingly realizing the importance of collaboration in reaching ambitious goals. But here’s the thing about collaboration: It’s something we know is effective, yet we may not have a shared understanding of what it actually is or how to make it happen. It’s very distinct from cooperation, yet often confused for it. It’s about people and organizations reaching beyond what might normally motivate them — perhaps recognition or financial gain — to deliver on an aspiration. In the Asia Pacific region, for example, we’re seeing the most successful water corporations collaborate in new ways to develop technologies, educate consumers, and anticipate future challenges.

Organizations that truly collaborate also share burdens and problems, which means they have to manage difficult — yet critical — conversations. For example, my U.S. colleagues worked with some of the world’s oil and gas giants as they created an alliance to develop a very remote deep-water gas field. The venture almost failed from the start because the partners were blaming one another for initial setbacks. What put the project back on course was bringing every key player to the table to agree to a broader vision they were committed to delivering — and the ground rules for getting there.

It’s also very important to remember that, ultimately, collaboration isn’t only about a sense of partnership or shared vision: It’s about results. It’s good to have an awareness of cultural issues and operating practices, but only insofar as this focus delivers the aspirational results. The purpose of the collaboration is to achieve something that each partner is unlikely to achieve on their own.

Commit: It Could Be Your Secret Weapon

With limited budgets, competing priorities, and public pressures, water organizations need an edge. That’s where you come in: Lead like you mean it. There’s a common misperception that effective leaders have a unique set of characteristics that naturally make them leadership material — charismatic, dynamic, visionary, bold, eloquent, and so on. And while these may be accurate observations about how the best leaders are perceived, they don’t speak to the genesis of leadership.

The best leaders I’ve known have led their organizations to new heights because of a commitment to something much larger than themselves. This was why people were inspired to follow their lead — not their personality, not how persuasively they spoke, not command-and-control target-setting. Consider the example of a newly-appointed CEO as he took charge of an energy business just after it was sold off by its parent company. The organization was essentially the branch office of a global institution, suddenly expected to stand on its own as an independent New Zealand company. Expectations for the venture were generally low and employees were less than motivated, but this leader was committed to the company developing a performance orientation that would make them the country’s leading energy company.

And that’s exactly what happened, but not because this individual had some sort of inexplicable, positive influence on people. He took a stand for what the company could be, set unprecedented performance expectations, and then led people through the steps required to get there. It all began with this leader standing up for what he believed the people in the organization could accomplish — an aspiration that people literally couldn’t resist.

Unprecedented Results Are Possible

The rewards of mastering innovation, collaboration, and committed leadership can redefine the future of an organization — especially water sector organizations constantly taking on new and deepening challenges. These are capacities that will give your operation new agility and capability, and give your people new tools for delivering game-changing results.

International Consultant and Director Deborah Kiers of JMW has worked with global clients in industries including infrastructure, power and resources, health, and government. Her consulting with Boards, CEOs, and C-Level Teams has gained global award recognition based on client outcomes. Based in Melbourne, Australia, she holds a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard University, where she won the Littauer Award for academic excellence and leadership.

Image credit: "Renata Pinheiro," 3. Water #fmsphotoaday #littlemomentsapp 2015, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: