Water Leader Q&A: Liz Barat and Agnes Generoso Discuss San Diego's Successful Leadership Academy

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Public Utilities Department logo.

“Remember that when you accepted the position of leadership, you accepted the responsibility of caring about the welfare of all those employees who now report to you.”
– Agnes Generoso

Today’s water leaders interview is about developing new leaders. The City of San Diego Public Utilities has operated a popular and successful Leadership Academy for five years. We talked with Liz Barat, the Senior Management Analyst for Organization Effectiveness & Employee Wellness and Agnes Generoso, the Deputy Director of the Wastewater Collection Division about what the department has learned running a leadership program for their employees.

1. What prompted your Department to start a leadership training program?
Liz: Around 6-7 years ago our Department began to implement leadership development, succession planning and knowledge management initiatives. Our leadership Team recognized the need to build bench strength, as well as to groom future leaders for leadership positions.

The Leadership team saw a lot of potential in current employees and wanted to give them a way to develop their leadership skills. We began by assessing our leadership needs, which are very diverse. This needs assessment helped us prioritize our focus for the leadership development program and to develop our Management and Field Academies.Developing and conducting a leadership Academy internally is kind of rare in government agencies. We are glad our leadership team is very dedicated to developing our employees.

Agnes: When the Public Utilities Department embarked on the development of its Strategic Business Plan several years ago, one of the four pillars was Employee Excellence. An intrinsic element of employee excellence is leadership.

It’s our belief that to the extent that our employees are able to step up, take ownership of their areas of influence, and therefore display leadership, it is value added in our organization. This is where we saw the great value in implementing a leadership training program.

2. What type of leadership training classes did you develop?

Liz Barat, MS Senior Management Analyst Organization Effectiveness & Employee Wellness, Public Utilities Department

Liz Barat, MS
Senior Management Analyst
Organization Effectiveness & Employee Wellness

Liz: We developed several programs, some of which were available to all employees, and others were designed for “high potential” future leaders. These programs were popular amongst employees.

A) Our largest program was the Management & Field Academies, in which we trained 1/3 of our employee population. The Management Academy was designed for developing and enhancing the leadership skills of mid-level managers and supervisors. The Field Academy was designed for developing leadership skills for employees in the field and treatment plant environments that were second-line supervisors and crew leads.

We hired a consultant to deliver these academies using the City’s RFP and contracting process. Organization Effectiveness Consultants (www.oecstrategicsolutions.com) provided the training, and they had previous experience training for water and wastewater agencies. Our internal organization development staff worked closely with them to tailor the curriculum to meet our needs. Some of the topics covered in the Academies included developing high performing teams, admirable leadership and performance management and coaching.

B) We also offered a series of “Brown-bag lunches,” open to all employees, that featured one hour of training on topics such as being a great team player, effective communication skills and career management.

C) Finally, we created a mentorship program in which top executives were paired up with high-potential mentees from across business groups. In this mentorship program, the mentees worked on special projects for a set amount of time under guidance of the executive mentor. The mentee had an opportunity to “cross-pollinate” and learn about a different business area, network with other mentees and other department executives, and gain experience on a special project.

Agnes Generoso Deputy Director, Wastewater Collection Division

Agnes Generoso
Deputy Director, Wastewater Collection Division

Agnes: The workforce as a whole greatly benefited from the availability of various leadership programs offered in different formats. Essentially the diversity in formats and topics ensured that there was something for everyone – from the top executives of the department to the front line employees.

In addition, within the divisions, we as division heads had the ability to work closely with our department organization effectiveness consultants to tailor specific leadership programs that could be rolled out to our own senior management staff and supervisors in the context of us being one team. Topics included: leadership, engagement and behaviors of an ideal team player; our best leadership approaches; Myers – Briggs self assessment; emotional intelligence, communication, etc.

3. Any results so far?

Liz: The results of implementing the leadership development program have been fantastic! Over a 5 year period, about 1/3 of our organization participated in these Academies and I personally have seen the caliber of leadership raise over that period. We now have a common “language of leadership,” and core training experience among hundreds of employees. These Academies were hugely popular – we’d consistently receive more than double the number of applicants for the number of seats available.

Our employees loved this program and consistently gave it the highest ratings possible in class evaluations and individual testimonials.

“Numerous employees and “future leaders” have told me over the years that participating in this program has changed their life and propelled their career.” – Liz Barat

I’ve been so proud to be there along the way with them through these classes as a project manager and co-facilitator. We are currently developing the next phase of leadership development at Public Utilities and will be rolling it out in the coming year.

This program wouldn’t have been possible or successful without strong executive team participation, support, and endorsement. Our executive team members were champions of this program and promoted it among their staff, which was critical to the program’s success.

Agnes: I have seen the positive results Liz mentioned within my division (Wastewater Collection Division) in spades. Whereas in the past, it seemed like employees did not feel as valued or that their jobs mattered, now in employee opinion surveys we are seeing higher positive scores in employee motivation, engagement, and positive relationships with their supervisors. Employees feel that what they do makes a difference.

Supervisors, for their part, are understanding their role from a more positive light – i.e., as coaches and mentors to their employees – and less from a negative, punitive standpoint.

City of San Diego - Collection System of the Year

City of San Diego team members celebrate this year after winning the Collection System of the Year award.

4. Are strong leaders born or is it something they learn?

Liz: I would say yes to both, and lean more towards “it’s something to be learned.” I think anyone who is dedicated to personal growth, hard work, sustaining positive relationships, and career advancement can become a leader through hard work, training, practice, and application.

Agnes: I believe every person is born with traits that, if developed properly, can be leveraged for a leadership role. Even if it’s only one trait, if developed properly, it can empower an individual to act with conviction and thus with leadership.

Leadership is needed in almost every situation at work – whether it’s one person making the decision to provide the best service to the customer, two people working on a project, or a whole team performing an operation. In all these circumstances, the employee has the ability to guide and influence the outcome of the situation. This is leadership.

5. How did managers balance the employee time commitments for the Academies?

Liz: Our executive team and managers were champions of this program and helped prioritize employees attendance, while balancing work demands and the operational realities of running our organization. The classes were spread out over a 16-week period, usually one class every 1-2 weeks, which also helped reduce the burden on our operations. Occasionally an employee would have to postpone attending the Academy due to a large project, but for the most part, everyone was able to attend. We also had some flexibility and allowed class participants to make-up classes if needed.

For the Field Academy, to reduce burden on operations, most of the class sessions were half-days so class participants were still able to go out and work with their crews or at the plants for the second half of the day.

Agnes: From my perspective, there was no question that attendance in these Academies was a high priority. My placing the highest importance on this guided the decisions and actions of the managers and supervisors in my division to ensure that their employees made it to every class.

6. Is you department concerned about a wave of retirements? If so how will you prepare?

Liz: There is concern about retirements. This fiscal year, we started a cross-training, succession planning, and knowledge management initiative to help us capture some of the institutional knowledge.

In the most recent year we collected data (2012), about 1/3 of our employees had worked for the City for 20 years or more, and about 1/5 of our employees reported being of retirement age or 55 or older. This cohort of employees represents a vast wealth of institutional knowledge of our facilities, business processes, and operations. We’d like to pass that resourceful information on to others before they retire.

Agnes: As an Executive Team we are concerned about retirements as much as any employer who is surveying the future of the organization and the talent that comes in to secure that future or that leaves and takes the institutional knowledge with them.

“For many years, experts have warned about the imminent mass exodus of the largest represented generation in the work force today, the baby boomers. For several years now, the Public Utilities Department has been preparing for this .” – Agnes Generoso

We’ve prepared for this through a number of ways: we’ve looked at restructuring our positions so that critical institutional knowledge does not reside in one or two persons alone; we constantly look at ways of leveraging technology to facilitate knowledge storage, retrieval and transfer; and we put a premium on training our employees to make sure that the next generation of workers and leaders are prepared to handle operational challenges.

7. How did you get into this field?

Liz: After receiving my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I realized I did not want to go into academia or clinical psychology. I was attracted to organization development and using psychology in organizations to make the workplace a better place. I decided to go to graduate school and received my Masters of Science Degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. This was my first “real” job out of graduate school and I’ve been here 7 years. It’s a great place to be!

Probably very few people in San Diego wake up in the morning and appreciate the science, technology, and engineering feats that have occurred in order to provide them the ability to turn on their water faucet and receive water that has been imported hundreds of miles from Northern California and the Colorado River. Or to flush the toilet – that goes somewhere and gets treated too! Without water and wastewater treatment, it wouldn’t be possible to have a modern city.

I love working at the Public Utilities Department because I feel like we’re making a difference for our employees and helping them to unleash their full potential, and in turn our Department has a positive effect on our community and the citizens of this region. It’s a very exciting and dynamic place to be working, and I am proud to be a part of the team.

Agnes: My background was initially in Human Resources, and I was the HR Manager for the Water Department for a number of years. When the Water and Wastewater Departments merged into the Public Utilities Department, I was selected to be the Program Manager for the Wastewater Branch, acting as an Assistant Deputy Director at large for four major divisions – Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Division, Wastewater Collection Division, Engineering and Program Management Division and the Environmental Monitoring and Technical Services Division.

After some time, I was selected to be the interim Deputy Director for the Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Division, then eventually to become the Deputy Director for the Wastewater Collection Division.

8. Best advice for new leaders?

Liz: Always leverage your people skills and sincerely treat your colleagues well, and respect and value them. They are what make things happen! Develop and sustain positive, professional relationships with all people you work with and in all interactions. Listen to input from your co-workers, and value it and hear them out. Actively seek out diverse opinions from all members of your team. Treat every day on the job like you are going in for an interview and put your best foot forward and you’re going to soar.

Also, be receptive to personal feedback that might make you cringe or that you don’t like to hear, because that is a powerful source of where your personal growth and change can happen.

Agnes: Remember that when you accepted the position of leadership, whether as a first line supervisor, manager or executive, you accepted the responsibility of caring about the welfare of all those employees who now report to you.

This means that you have agreed to invest yourself in getting to know them as individuals who have the potential to develop themselves and contribute to the well being of the organization and the citizens you serve. To the extent that you are able to successfully guide and inspire your employees to want to give their best, your organization’s success will follow, because an organization’s lasting success can only be realized when each employee recognizes and takes ownership of his/her role in the organization and desires to make it better.

If you desire the respect and dedication of your employees, remember that your employees will not care how much you know until they know how much you care.

9. Anything else to add about leadership in the wastewater profession?

Liz: I would say for people in the water and wastewater profession to not only nurture and develop your technical skills, but also be sure to develop your interpersonal skills and relationship skills. Both are equally important.

I also think that the wastewater profession is going to be in even more demand than ever before as the world changes and becomes more focused on sustainability and environmental stewardship. It’s a great place to be right now!


“The wastewater profession continues to evolve as its role in the protection of health and the environment reaches new heights with the implementation of advanced water purification technology and water reuse.” – Agnes Generoso

Understanding the importance of our role in facilitating the process of taking water through its full life cycle to provide a sustainable resource for people is more critical now than ever.

Opportunities to get our workforce engaged in this exciting endeavor abound, and we should use every means possible to get every wastewater worker and professional energized and ready to be a part of it.


About the Author

Alec Mackie

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