Monday, December 16, 2013

Every Team Member Is Important!

In the Mission: Impossible TV episodes, there were many times when the mission required the Team to simulate a large political reception…or a fully manned submarine… or a fully staffed hospital.  There is just no way that the 4 or 5 people who were part of the "main team" were going to pull this off.  When this happened, Mr. Phelps turned to outside repertory companies to help him fill the temporary staffing needs he had.  These people were critical to the success of the mission even if they were not named members of the Team.  The failure of these people to do their job well could have easily led to the failure of the mission as a whole.  Because of this, Mr. Phelps, I’m sure, went out of his way to let these people know they were valued and key parts of the overall success plan.

They were, in effect, temp workers.  Contractors.  Part-timers from a staffing agency.  Yet, it seems obvious to us that Phelps would have been foolish to treat them poorly because, even though they had no major part in the mission (such as a speaking part), they could easily cause the mission to fail should they be any less than perfect in what they were doing.

Is this really any different than the temps, contractors and part timers that we employ routinely today at our companies?  Obviously we need the temps working for us to be just as perfect in their jobs so that our “missions” are equally successful!  If you treat temps like they are expendable, isn’t it likely that they will not be working to the peak of their ability and will, in all likelihood, develop a bad attitude that will be noticed by a customer (who will have no idea that this is “only a temp”.)  We must find ways to remind them that they are part of our Team.

How do we do this?  In my past, I have worked for chemical plants that made a point of telling the 15-20 contract workers that worked for them that they were NOT invited to the company picnic because “they were just contract workers”.  Did the money this plant saved on a few hot dogs and glasses of iced tea really make up for the markedly depressed enthusiasm these workers felt at such a slight?  Hardly!  At my utility company, we make a point of inviting everyone who works for or with us to every function we hold…lunches, holiday get-togethers, awards dinners…everything! 

Treat everyone on your team like they are, in fact, on your Team… BECAUSE THEY ARE!   

ACTION:  What are YOU willing to do to ensure that the temps and part-timers working for you do not cause your mission to fail?  (And “firing them after they have allowed your mission to fail” is not really a viable answer.)  How can you make each one of them feel needed and vital.  Finding the answer to this question can determine the success of your entire mission!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

WEFTEC Behind Me...and An Update to My Website!

I just returned from WEFTEC, the largest water and wastewater trade show and educational conference on the planet!  I was honored to speak three times at this year's conference.

On Monday, Oct. 6th, I was the kick-off to a whole new program session at WEFTEC entitled "Meet the Experts".  This small and informal gathering is intended to give various speakers a chance to network with a smaller group and allow for extended discussions on various utility related subjects. 
During this session, I presented a VERY scaled down version of my "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE" talk and then just had a relaxed conversation with the group gathered to hear me.  It was really a fantastic experience and I am sure it will be something that WEFTEC repeats in coming years!

On Tuesday, Oct. 7th, I alond with Jim Caudle (my plant manager) and Melinda Immel (top-notch engineer from Volkert) presented a talk on our headworks upgrade project entitled "Restoring Lost Capacity Through New Technologies". 

On Wednesday, Oct. 8th, I spoke to the elected officials / decision-makers track on "How to Deliver Oscar-Winning Performance at Your Utility Operation".  This session was open to all decision makers and management staff associated with the utilities industry and uses lessons I have gleaned from popular movies we have all seen to build great organizations.  (Anytime I can put all of those hours I've spent watching movoes at the house to work actually helping me develop a great utility, that's a great day in my book!)

I have also completely revamped my personal website so please stop by there if you have a minute: 

I have multiple ways to connect with you via this site so please reach out and make a connection!  I am more than happy to help YOU do something great in our industry...or business in general!

Get Them What They Need

GET THEM WHAT THEY NEED –  Imagine you are on the "Impossible Missions Force" from the classic TV show MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE.  Jim Phelps, your team leader, arrives to brief you on the mission.

“Okay, this will be a tough mission but I am sure you’ll pull it off.  The first thing you need to know is that each of you needs to be in Munich in the morning.  Now, if you’ll recall, we’re over budget at the moment so I had to cut out all of the travel funds to keep us in the black… so you won’t be able to buy any plane tickets…but you still need to be in Munich in the morning.

When you get there, you’ll need to show a expertly-made fake IDs with your secret alias names on them at the border.  They had better be perfect or the Immigrations Officer will have you arrested.  Now, I know I cut out a Documents Expert from the staffing budget for this year but I am going to try and plan for one next year…but you still need your new IDs for this trip.

Oh, one final thing… when you get there, the most crucial part of the mission is to precisely measure the distance to the target within less than 12 inches from over 2 miles away.  This is absolutely critical...that's why we always use our laser range finder.  Oh, but if you’ll remember, it broke a few weeks ago and the repairs were going to be over $800!  We’re a little short of funds until we get more in a few months so I haven’t been able to get the range finder repaired.  But you guys have been doing really good estimating (guesstimating?) your ranges lately so I am confident you’ll do find this time, too.  Now get out there and have a great mission!”   

How many of you would think that you were being set up for failure?  You would be absolutely right!

If you fail to get your people what they need at your utility, you are setting them up for failure…and your team knows it.  How do you think that affects morale?

“Getting them what they need” might mean a tool…but it could just as easily mean training…or enough people to do a job right…or it could mean support from upper management when a tough but right decision needs to be made like laying off a bad worker who might be related to someone high up in the company.  Your people deserve the tools to do their job right.  The only thing left to be decided is whether you will provide them…or set your people up for failure. 

ACTION:  Get your people what they need to be successful.  It is the only way for them to attack the mission with the confidence it takes to win.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Listen to the Team's Feedback

The one thing Jim Phelps did during his mission briefings was to listen a lot and let others answer the big questions.  “How will we get out of the prison once we have the General?”  “Well, Cinnamon, that’s where’s Barney comes in…why don’t you brief us on that Barney.” 
Even more than that, the IMF team often asked pointed questions like, “Do you really think you can convince him that you are his father, Jim?” 

They sometimes had to point out facts like, “That’s a time delay door.  It will take three minutes to open once we have input the code.  Your timeline won’t work as is.”  Phelps never got angry with the feedback he received.  He used it to refine the plan and allow others to feel more of a part of the overall success.  In addition to this, the act of listening to his people's concerns helped build faith in the plan as a whole.  This was vitally important in completing the mission because people who feel they are sent out to fail, usually do.  Likewise, people who have confidence in the plan and confidence in the person who scripted the plan, often succeed.

If your staff meetings and company meetings consist mostly with you talking about what you want to talk about, something is wrong.  Are you listening?  Are you sharing the stage?  Are you letting other people own their parts of the mission?

If you get angry when people question your plan, you are stifling valuable input that can make or break your mission.  Is it more important that you never be questioned?  Or is it more important that your mission be a success?

ACTION:  Listen as much as you talk and always be receptive to the feedback you receive.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Great Conference in Arkansas!

I was very honored to be a featured speaker at the Arkansas Water / Wastewater Managers’ Association at their Annual Conference which was held this year at the Big Cedar Lodge in Ridgedale, MO (close to Branson).  The Lodge was incredible!  It all looks strangely familiar…until you realize that it is a Bass Pro Shops property and then everything makes sense!  (It’s like sleeping inside a Bass Pro Shops… and that surely has to be more than one person’s fantasy!) 

The conference was fantastic as well!  I delivered a few words on the opening night meet and greet and then spoke four times over the next two days to the group.  The Association picked out a few great topics from my catalog: 
Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

-  How to Turn Your Utility from Kitchen Nightmare into a Top Chef Operation

-  The Importance of Delivering WOW Service to a Captive Audience

-  Engineers Are From Mars, Utilities Are From Venus

If you’d like a copy of my press kit including my catalog of presentations, you can download it here:

The crowd was very warm and engaging.  Thanks to all of you who made it a great conference!  We even got to take in a show in Branson…the Haygoods!  I didn’t know what to expect but came away thoroughly enjoying the entire night and, as if it needs to be said again, those Haygoods are one talented bunch!  I did bring running shoes with me as I am working on losing weight again with summer here (and I’ve lost 25 lbs so far!)  I had no idea that the ground was going to be as hilly as it was!  Where I am from, 30’ in elevation is a mountain!  This little jog in the afternoon turned out to be one of my toughest workouts!

If you are a water or wastewater professional in Arkansas, please look into joining the Arkansas Water Wastewater managers’ Association.  That is one top notch group and really appear to have their act together!  They can probably help you further your own career path in our industry as well.

Here’s a link to their website:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bring The Team Together

The IMF Team began every mission by meeting together. At the end of each mission, they always left together.  There is a very important reason why this happened.  No matter how good we each are, we cannot get the job done alone.  We need help from others and we, in turn, must let the others on our Team understand that we are there to help them whenever they need it. 

This goes back to the old saying, “We will either win together or we will lose together.”

Imagine if the IMF team came back from a failed mission and Mr. Phelps had said, “Well, MY part of the mission went well.  In fact, I think if you look back at my performance, you’ll see that I did not make any mistakes whatsoever.  Barney might have screwed up… or Cinnamon… or Willie… If anyone failed, it was one of them, not me… so I guess you can just put this down as a win in MY dossier, Mr. Secretary.”

It is imperative to understand that success will only come when we act as a proper TEAM.  At my company, Daphne Utilities, we constantly say, “We’re One Utility…not a bunch of people who coincidentally have the same logo on our shirts.”

If you are not actively working to bring your Team together… If your Team is fractured…

If your Team is not focused first and foremost on helping the entire Team to win together…

…then you and your Team are planning to fail.  Period. 

ACTION: What are you doing to bring your team together?

NEXT POST: What key activity should happen when you are bringing your Team together?


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pick Your Team For Skills

One of the most famous scenes from the Mission Impossible TV show was Mr. Phelps scanning through dossiers as he put together just the right team.  For the mission to be successful, Mr. Phelps knew that he needed specific kinds of people with specific skills to do specific tasks. 

This seems obvious, right?   If the mission required someone to carry a 300 pound suitcase through a building without it looking heavy, then Willy Armitage was the person selected because he was the strongest man alive.  It didn’t matter if supermodel Cinnamon Carter had worked for the agency longer or had great acting skills, she would not possess the key strength needed to get the job done.

If the mission required an electronics expert, then Barney Collier was the person selected because he was a brilliant electronics engineer.  It would not have mattered if Rollin Hand, the Master of Disguise, had more seniority… or could imitate any voice… or was an escape artist.  He did not have the key skills needed to get the job done. 

How are YOUR team selections made at your company?  Are you looking at the skills needed? Or are you simply looking at rather meaningless things like seniority?  For instance, if you need to hire a manager or supervisor, the skills you need to look for are the ability to lead and manage people, to bring people together and effectively represent the company to their team.  Seniority alone does not address these key traits that are vital to mission success. It may be less troublesome for you take the easy way out and promote the person who has worked at the company the longest (so that they don’t file a grievance because they were clearly in line to get that job) but it does NOT get the job done. 

No one said Jim Phelps job was easy.  No one said your job as a company manager was an easy one either.  But if we are going to do our job properly and accomplish our mission, we need to do it right…and promoting people without the skills to do the job is NOT how we successfully complete our mission. 

ACTION:  Select ONLY for skills and stand behind your decision.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Be Open To Something Unique

One of the things that made the IMF so successful was that they never approached problems the same way as everyone else did. 

For instance, on one mission, the Team was required to get a document out of a safe that was impossible to crack.  They had one of the best safe-crackers in the business helping them and, after reviewing the plans and specs for the safe, had to tell Mr. Phelps that it was impossible to break into.  Phelps’ reply was to tell the team, “Of course it’s impossible to break into this safe.  That’s why we’re not going to break in…we’re going to break out.” 

Phelps figured out that, if he could just sneak a man into the safe (hidden in a large suitcase), then it would be easy for that person to get the document and break out of the safe once he had access to the tumblers for the lock and all of the other electronics from the inside of the door.  He was right, of course, and the team accomplished another “impossible” mission simply by NOT approaching the problem the way everyone had always done it before.   

At our utilities, we hear the phrase, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” a lot.  This phrase has stopped innovations from happening since the dawn of time.            Our utility used to have a real problem with sewer spills.  When I asked how we stop them, everyone said that we can’t stop them… it’s impossible because we cannot force people to change what they do in their own homes (like pouring oil and grease down their drains) which cause sewer spills.  We refused to accept this answer and instead launched a Used Cooking Oil Recycling and Biodiesel Program coupled with a major customer outreach effort.  By capturing the public’s attention in a way not tried before, we have reduced sewer spills in our system more than 70%!

What is stopping progress and innovation at your company?  Push back HARD every time you get an answer like, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  There is very likely a new and unique way to solve the problem that is different from the way you’ve always done it.  

ACTION:  Challenge assumption!  Blaze your own path!  Find new and innovative ways to solve problems…there are plenty of them for you to tackle!


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Decide Upon a Plan

There is a specific order that Jim Phelps goes through to accomplish the mission. 
Do you ever think there was an episode where Mr. Phelps said, “I think I’ll just grab a few random people, fly to Europe and see if we can wing it.”
The first thing he did was to decide upon a plan of action.  This is crucial.  He saw what he needed to accomplish by the end of the mission and backward planned, step by step, how to get from where he was to where he needed to be.  By breaking the plan down into small enough steps, each one of them could be accomplished easily.  Together, they accomplished the mission others thought was impossible. 
At our utilities, we can do the same thing.  Close your eyes.  Picture the perfect utility in your mind.  Now open your eye and realize that you are not there yet.  Then make a conscious decision to do what it takes to get you to that vision of perfection that you had in your head. Backwards plan from “perfect” all the way back to where you are today. 
For instance, if you need funding for a major upgrade, a rate increase might seem impossible to pass in this economy. To accomplish this, you might backwards plan in this manner:
To get additional funding, pass rate increase.
To pass rate increase, gain support of Board (and the politicians that make up your Board).
To gain this support, lower pushback from the public.
To lower pushback, communicate value effectively to customers.
To communicate value, actively engage customers.
To engage customers, increase customer service and the public presence of utility.
To increase customer service, lead by example to show all employees that customers should be treated with great respect and care, instead of as interruptions in our work.      
To increase public presence, visibly support activities that the public embraces.
As you can see, none of these steps alone seems “impossible”, yet together, they enable you to accomplish a seemingly impossible task!
ACTION:  What is your plan to get where you need to be?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Accomplishing Your Impossible Mission

Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it…

These words kicked off one of the best action TV shows ever produced.  Each week, Jim Phelps, leader of the Impossible Missions Force, somehow found a way to accomplish what so many around him thought was impossible.  You know, it says a lot about what people consider to be “impossible” when some people routinely find a way to accomplish the mission while others are content to say it just can’t be done.

We face the same issue today in the utilities industry.  We have a seemingly impossible mission ahead of us today.  Run a successful utility operation in the face of ever expanding regulations, a troubled economy that has dramatically cut our revenues, increasing maintenance cost on an aging infrastructure, a disengaged workforce, a customer base not receptive to rate increases…it certainly looks impossible.  Yet, somehow, there are utility managers that find a way to accomplish this mission while others satisfy themselves by saying it can’t be done.  How do they do it and, more importantly, how can we all learn from their example?

Mission: Impossible was certainly an entertaining show but it was so much more than that.  It actually contains a wealth of management lessons that can be applied equally well to accomplishing our impossible missions we face here in the utility industry.  Let’s look at a few of these lessons over the next few weeks:

First, every mission started out the same way:  Jim Phelps finding out his team’s mission from some sort of recording device hidden all over the city.  One of the first questions put to him was this one, “Your mission, should you decide to accept it…”   Did Jim Phelps have a choice whether to accept the mission or not?  Of course he did!  He could have said, “No”…but could he have done so and still been the leader of the IMF? Not at all!  This is a key concept not only for you but for everyone on your team.  We all have choices, but what we choose opens and closes doors.  As IMF team Leader, Jim Phelps did not have to accept the mission…but he could not be the IMF leader unless he did.
As utility managers, you don’t have to make the tough choices that come with management… but you can’t be a manager unless you do.  As utility workers, you don’t have to be drug free or care about our customers…but you cannot work for our utility unless you make the right choice.  Instilling these lessons into your people is what will set you apart as a success in this or any business. 
Are YOU ready to accept your mission?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Accomplishing the Impossible

“It might work for you, Rob, because you are a small utility and we are much larger.  It would be impossible for a utility our size to do this.”

 “Rob, we’re much smaller than you and, therefore, our budgets are much tighter than yours.  It sounds easy, but it would be impossible for me to accomplish something like that.”

 “Rob, we’re a city department so it’s probably impossible for us…”

“We’re a union shop so that will not work here…”

 “Maybe if I could get my people a pay raise, I might get them to care, but absent that, it’s going to be impossible at my shop.”

 IMPOSSIBLE.  The way we like to banter that would around these days.  There was a time when we could accomplish great things.  When our heroes did much with nothing. 

There was a time when the top show on television was “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” and it was a hit because ordinary people from ordinary jobs found ways to work together as a team to get the right things done.  There was a time when we proudly watched a man step foot on the Moon for the first time and we accomplished that using less calculating power than all of us carry around on our phones today.  There was a time when “McGYVER” was the top hit on TV because here was a man that looked around him all the time and saw what could be accomplished using only what he had on hand at the moment…not what was impossible. 

What is a top hit on TV today?  SURVIVOR…where they take people to an island where people are already living and give them a million dollars if they can somehow find a way to live there, too!

This is nuts.  We must get back to our “can do” attitude!  We CAN accomplish this if we just work together and have faith in our abilities.  Someone…YOU…needs to start the ball rolling.  Not in a big way…but in something. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A New Year and New Beginnings!

I will be heading to Boston to keynote the New England Water Environment Association Annual Conference.  My talk?  “How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible”.  If you are in the area, please stop by and say hello.  I am only there for Sunday thru Tuesday and then it’s off to Chicago for the WEF Mid-Year planning Meeting.  By the way, I wrote a change order the other day to extend the hours in a single day to about 30.  Haven’t seen it come through approved yet but I am hopeful!  That would surely help me maintain pace with all the commitments I have gathered in the last few months!

Again, apologies all around for the time away.  I am rededicating myself to writing regularly and to reaching out more to maintain active connections to my friends throughout industry and business in general.  If you would like to connect with me on LinkedIn, please follow the link here:

If you need a dynamic speaker at your next conference, Please do not hesitate to contact me.  It is some of the most fulfilling work I do and I would be happy to work with you to get just the right message out to your group or organization.  My press kit can be downloaded via the following link:

I sincerely hope you have a most prosperous 2013 and that your every endeavor reaps positive returns for you!  Excelsior!