Sophie McGuinness, Operations Controller at Watercare in Auckland, has highlighted some leadership learnings from the 2019/20 bushfire crisis as key resources in managing the COVID-19 crisis.

Ms McGuinness, who is also a Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) Young Utility Member, has reflected on the WSAA’s February 2020 Member’s Meeting in Melbourne where she gathered advice from industry leaders about leadership during a crisis.

Ms McGuinness said many of the recommendations she received at that meeting are relevant now, and should be considered when dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.

“I left Melbourne wondering what it would be like to lead in a crisis, with the pressure of thousands of residents needing clean water and sanitation services, and the looming extreme circumstances bearing down on cities large and small. 

“Charmaine Quick, Managing Director of Goulburn-Murray Water, spoke highly of Shane Fitzsimmons of the NSW Rural Fire Service, who is said to be ‘calm, empathetic, direct but respectful’. 

“As for young leaders, calmness in a storm may seem impossible but working with the facts could be a saviour when making decisions. Charmaine noted to ‘be direct and respectful when passing on information and recommendations’, as there is a lot of quickly-changing information to absorb in uncertain times.

“Neil Brennan, CEO of Seqwater, noted that it is ‘paramount to understand yourself as a leader’ when in times of crisis.” 

Ms McGuinness said that Mr Brennan’s advice outlined the importance of knowing your strength and weaknesses as a leader, especially when, as an essential utility service provider, people are looking to you for stability and calmness in a crisis.

“Leadership is about ensuring those around you are supported and have the resources they need, ‘so that people can depend on the stability you bring in a crisis’. Importantly, we must also make sure to keep out of their way – ‘they know what to do’.

“Fiona Smith, Executive Manager of WaterNSW, advised that young leaders should reach out as ‘the water industry is great at sharing knowledge and help’. She noted that while the circumstances may be extreme, ‘there are lots of people who work in this industry that have seen and managed some really unique circumstances, and they are always willing to help out with practical advice’. 

“We can support each other both inside and outside our respective utilities, as the challenges we face are largely the same.”

Ms McGuinness said that the three industry leaders echoed similar thoughts; that we should all keep calm, help each other and look after ourselves. 

“The past few weeks have seen a surge of change of a different note, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe. We are moving towards a new way of working which is online and flexible. The advice given during extreme circumstances of bushfire, drought, and flooding earlier in the year certainly applies with the same weight as leaders seek to keep moving forward despite huge uncertainty. 

“Neil Brennan added an important tool he uses in a crisis: Relieve, Ease, Safeguard, Guarantee and Ensure. 

“With some smart, factual decision-making backed by empathy and calm, we as the water utility industry, can tackle any test and I’m hopeful that young utility leaders can step up to this new challenge.”

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