Archive, Innovation

Strategic Change: Building Enthusiasm and Support

At the recent Utility Management Conference in Savannah, Georgia jointly hosted by the Water Environment Federal (WEF) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA), I was asked to speak about how DC Water has worked to gain buy-in for our ambitious and far-reaching change program and strategic plan.  Two initial thoughts.

First, I am very pleased that WEF and AWWA teamed up for this program.  We need to see more collaboration from our trade associations and cross-fertilization of ideas.  And many of us do both drinking water and enriched water treatment.  I hope NACWA and perhaps AMWA join this effort next year.  I’d like to see more GM’s at a conference that focuses so intently on management issues – and NACWA and AMWA have tremendous influence on that audience.

Second, DC Water’s strategic plan is called Blue Horizon 2020. The name is obviously a play on what we see on the horizon in the blue world of water, and 20/20 is both the outside date for our longest term strategic ideas, and the vision we hope to keep on the prize as we move forward.

As for buy-in, the critical factor to success of any agenda, I outlined ten steps:

Talent.  My first answer to almost any question you might ask me begins with this principle. There is no question that everything we do depends on the people who work for us.  Retaining top talent, and recruiting the best and brightest to work with us (on staff and with consultants!) is the first priority we learn in GM school.  I am kidding about the GM school by the way, but not the priority.  I am blessed a hundred times over to have a fantastic staff in my office, and executive team for the enterprise.   I am also always on the look for top talent, and have hired tremendous additions to our team from St. Louis, New York City and Philadelphia.  And on staff, our excellent team specifically includes Ernest Jolly, who leads our strategic planning effort.  No matter what I do or bring to the table, only the team will accomplish our goals.  I want the best.
Champion.  Before engaging on a strategic or change agenda, I suggest that any leader builds pride in the organization first.  Become a champion for your enterprise and its people, who are usually the most underrated and unheralded public servants in any place we exist. We are fundamentally important to every job (every business needs our service), every home (ditto) and every living organism (water is the only element essential to all life!).   What other business can make these claims?  I have seen too many times that new leaders come into an organization with an immediate change agenda based on its imperfections, which may be needed.  But to start there out of the gate will trigger immediate resentment and resistance.  Arrive at your organization and focus first on the positives, which may well be taken for granted, and highlight them to every audience.  You can drive more change as a champion of your enterprise than from any other place.
Understand.  In the leadership equivalent to the Golden Rule, follow-up the effort to champion your enterprise with an aggressive learning campaign to hear from it.  Unless change is immediately needed, take the time to listen to as many of your employees as you can before fleshing out your agenda.  Everyone will be grateful that you listened before deciding what to do – and my bet is that your change agenda will itself change significantly based on what you hear.  In addition, you will gain invaluable insight into the champions for change, critical thought leaders, and the main obstacles to your agenda.  Not only the agenda, but your implementation strategy can be improved as a result.
Wins.  I always recommend that the first few changes you drive are based on what you have heard in the enterprise, be somewhat more modest so that the change can be achieved relatively quickly, and be designed to be visible.  Your folks will long remember if your first steps are to make an improvement or change that they have long sought.  The sense, and I hope the reality, that your agenda is ultimately to make things better for everyone will be founded on this step.
Inward.  Before engaging political and/or governing bodies on strategic planning, start to build the agenda with the staff.  We have all experienced planning where a governing body or similar entity has gone off and built a new plan for an organization that is disconnected to its current priorities or realities.  Such plans can be elegant, insightful and interesting – but usually fail or become appealing documents relegated to the bookshelf or hard drive.  Starting with an agenda that is cooked up first with the team will make sure it is connected to reality.  The risk in this approach is that the plan will not be far-reaching enough – that current reality will stifle creative ideas that should be on the table.   One of the primary jobs of the chief executive then, is to make sure the agenda is connected to what can be done, but still pushes the organization to its limits, sometimes outside our comfort zone, to achieve better results.
Let Go.  Once the executive team has formed the structure of the agenda, the governing body must be brought in to take charge.  That is what they are – the governing body – and they must take ownership of the plan.  That requires the difficult step of letting go of the carefully thought-out plan to the governing body to be reshaped and recast according to their priorities.  My experience is that the reshaping is important, and almost always right-on: governing bodies add issues or components that are important to them.  The plan must reflect these priorities, and we on staff need to know what these issues are as soon as we can.  This step also creates an ownership interest in the plan by the governing body, which is fundamentally important to its success.  Again, the chief executive has a critical role in making sure the governing body has a sense of the reality and implementation issues associated with any new idea.  Ultimately, though, this must be the board’s plan.
Feedback.  So after the agenda is set and then molded by the governing body, be sure to include another feedback loop round with the staff.  This is a structured process to be sure that new ideas are vetted by the folks who must do the work.  While it may be hard to reject ideas proposed by the governing body, it is perfectly appropriate to review them for implementation and cost issues.  Again, the chief executive will need to take the lead in informing the governing board with how much an idea will cost, and how and when it can be done on a practical basis.  This exchange will be critical to making sure they understand the consequence of their decisions on the plan, and are fully aware of the budgetary and other resource issues and questions that will come.
Integrate.  Once the plan has been finalized and planning hopes are melded with implementation realities, it is time for the hard-core integration of the plan into the workings of the organization.  At DC Water, every objective in Blue Horizon has been assigned a champion, and has been reviewed for budgetary needs and schedule requirements.  Budgets for upcoming years are being modified, and performance goals for critical employees are being revised to include the milestones in the plan.  Finally, we are devising a cascading series of metrics – general at the board level – unfolding down with more specificity into the enterprise, to measure our success.  Reporting on Blue Horizon will become a principal part of our monthly reporting to the Board, and a principal part of my performance review as well!
Give unto Rome.  When the plan starts to unfold, spread around the credit for its accomplishments far and wide.  Invite in political leaders, labor and organizational chiefs, community leaders, environmental advocates – anyone who can help publicize the success and share in being part of the effort.  This step is hard sometimes, particularly when inviting in someone who has been a critic or an obstacle.  But my experience is that some positive publicity and giving of credit helps gain friends and allies for the future.  For some of the more ambitious parts of any plan, friends and allies galore will be essential.
Go Public, Go Big, Have Fun!  When the plan is unfolding and accomplishments start to roll – even some of the smaller initial steps – take the time to sing praises from the mountaintops.  Engage the media, provide demonstrations, give tours – anything that can drum up interest.  For DC Water, we do not spend as much time publicizing the plan itself, which has little interest to our stakeholders on its own, and runs into the skepticism almost anyone has about yet another “plan.”  But when we achieve something, or launch a new effort, we go crazy about getting the word out.  For our tunneling program, for example, we have named our machine “Lady Bird” for Lady Bird Johnson (an early champion of cleaning up the Potomac, and yes, we checked with the family) and the machine now has its own twitter feed! Even more ambitions outreach has accompanied our drinking water campaigns, including our “Must have Water” campaign (with pictures of interns reaching for water on buses and the like) and our water taste tests outside Metro stops.  Making this fun is good for the staff, and starts to drive interest in the media and the public.

The Naming Ceremony for Lady Bird

Following some form of these ten steps will not guarantee success – unfortunately except for death and taxes, little is guaranteed in life.  But I can assure you that your opportunity to build an exciting, relevant, strategy document that will help you guide your organization to higher performance and more customer satisfaction will increase ten times ten times!


  • These tips are terrific George and I enjoyed reading every one of them. In case we at WEF haven't said so lately, we thank you for the knowledge, talent, courage, and endless energy you bring to the water sector. Thank you sincerely,
    Linda Kelly

  • George, you take the concept of thought leadership to a new level and are a model for utility leaders nationwide. When there's a dynamic champion at the helm, great things can happen. We watch DC Water with great interest.

    Donna Vincent Roa, PhD, ABC
    Master Strategist | Water & Sustainability Communication
    Vincent Roa Group, LLC

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