The GM and the Engineer

One topic that many commented on after the NY Times article is whether a General Manager of a water and sewer utility should be an engineer. Some of the comments were nasty toward me, since I am clearly not an engineer. I take no offense at the anger and believe the question is a fair one. As in most cases I don’t think the answer to such a question is simple. I know there are many fine GMs in this business who are engineers, and many who are not.

For WASA, and much of the industry though, I do think there is a change afoot. Most agree that the need to connect better with our customers is an absolute priority, and explaining and justifying the type and scale of investments we need in infrastructure is paramount. Moreover, much of the work our industry is now undertaking is driven by the federal Clean Water Act, and the understanding the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Justice, and the federal appropriations process is a dominant need. Finally, public utilities are governed by boards composed of representatives of many interests, and frequently need to balance and answer to elected officials coming from many perspectives. These overarching themes come at a time when much of the infrastructure we installed is past its useful life and we are operating on borrowed time.

This condition is what drove the Board of DC WASA to select someone with my background to be GM. I do have experience in the Clean Water Act, interacting with government bodies at every level, and a keen fascination and growing experience with public relations and modern media outreach. I also have had many, many years of experience running organizations – and have learned management skills the hard way – on the job. Yet DC WASA also has two other absolutely critical prerequisites to support my selection. The first was my predecessor – Jerry Johnson – who is a formidable expert in the field and helped modernize DC WASA from the broken organization he joined a dozen years ago. I do not believe I would have been the correct choice back then, because a more intimate knowledge of the day-to-day needs of how DC WASA should operate was paramount. Jerry was a very strong leader on that front. Second, DC WASA has an excellent and experienced set of engineering professionals — including a superb chief engineer. As a result, there is not a day that DC WASA is not well informed and advised on engineering issues as we go forward.

My conclusion is that there are different attributes that are needed in different phases of the lifecycle of an enterprise — and the wise matching of a leader to existing conditions is one of the most important responsibilities of a governing board. I also believe that overall new skills are coming to the forefront — and that more GMs in the future will have skills with the public, with the laws, and with the governing bodies that ultimately chart our course. And in all cases, GMs will need excellent and experienced engineering professionals every step of the way.

One Comment

  • What does it mean to "be an engineer"? Does it mean someone who has a degree or certification in engineering? Thanks for making the point that breadth of experience and ability to lead a team that has the appropriate skills can be just as important (or perhaps even more important) than what's on paper. DC WASA is in excellent hands 😉

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