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Cultivating a leadership culture

08242015-cultivate-leaderEver feel like the changes needed are overwhelming? Sometimes we just need to give ourselves a break and get away from the noise surrounding us. More than once on our way to the lake, my wife says she can hear me exhale.

Sometimes things aren’t as complicated or as tough as they may appear. The issue at hand may be as simple as planting a seed and not doing the massive major reconstruction that seems to be the only option.

Taking a timeout to consider and discuss options can be a career saver. While radical action is sometimes required, more often than not time spent laying a foundation to plan and develop a way to implement change saves us the pain of having to fix issues down the road. We need to address the problem, not the symptom.

Today’s challenges
I recently visited some friends who have supported utilities and public safety clients for more than 20 years. The topic of leadership and technology advancements came up, specifically related to critical infrastructure. We discussed the explosion of technology changes driven by growing access to improved communications systems and networks. We also discussed some massive changes that will be needed soon.

Beneficial reflections
These discussions, along with my preparation for an upcoming master planning presentation, sparked a need for me to take a break and reflect. A lake moment! From a practical point of view, we need teams of teams working together to make some of the massive changes we can expect. That’s not just for a few weeks, but for the better part of a decade. When developing a strategic plan for systems that will be designed for a 20+ year lifespan, we better start with the right team and leadership culture. Within such a team you need a mix of thought leaders, a healthy dose of purposeful conversations and solid engineering to increase the odds of success.

I have been blessed to have been a part of multiple teams that got it right. I have also seen when teams couldn’t get past individual agendas, then found themselves either left out of the process or having to play catchup. I’ve found you can present the best idea to a dysfunctional team with star performers only to watch it go in a thousand directions and fail. Or present an idea to a team of followers that will let one person do all of the work, until that person burns out or joins another team. Failure again! Then you can take a basic concept, present it to a team that is functionally sound and committed to each other, then watch them develop the concept into a solid solution.

How do you eat an elephant?
In 1931, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur announced that a 726.4-foot high dam would be built in Black Canyon on the Arizona-Nevada border. It would be named Hoover Dam. A labor contract was awarded to Six Companies of San Francisco, which was composed of Utah Construction of Ogden, Utah; Pacific Bridge of Portland, Oregon; Henry J. Kaiser & W.A. Bechtel of Oakland, California; MacDonald & Kahn of Los Angeles; Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Idaho; and J.F. Shea of Portland, Oregon. The bid was $48,890,995.50, the largest labor contract ever let by the U.S. government up to that time.

Railroad lines and highways were built. A construction camp, gravel-screening plant, concrete-mixing plants, air compressor plants, a plate-steel fabricating plant and much more went up in rapid succession. Ingenious techniques and devices were developed for the project, such as using dishpan reflectors to light the diversion tunnels, hardhats (cloth hats dipped into tar and hardened into a tough shell) and the a motor-driven jumbo drill equipped with 30 144-pound rock drills to bore into the rockface at the same time to speed up drilling and blasting. Fabrication of steel pipe for the penstock system was done on site because standard railroad cars could not carry the pipe sections, which exceeded 44,000 tons, from eastern fabricating mills.

08242015-Hoover-dam-iStock_000002154233Six Companies built an aggregate producing and batch plant to supply 4.5 million yards of concrete and gravel. Workers poured concrete into a honeycomb of tiered blocks laced with embedded pipes carrying ice-cold water to cool the concrete, solving the problem of intense heat generated by the chemical reactions of solidifying concrete. The crest height of the dam was reached in March 1935, two years ahead of schedule, with 3,250,335 cubic yards, or 6.6 million tons, of concrete poured into the dam structure.

Contrary to oft-repeated legend, no one is buried in the concrete, though 96 men are listed as having died on the project. In 21 months, 5,000 men built a structure greater in volume than the largest pyramid in Egypt which, according to Herodotus, required 100,000 men working 20 years to build. The American Society of Civil Engineers has named Hoover Dam one of the seven modern civil engineering wonders of the United States. It is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

It seems straightforward
So, in 1931 six companies united on a federal project and completed it two years ahead of schedule. Today that seems like a fairy tale. So you may ask yourself, “Why is it so hard to develop ideas and solutions with some teams and not others?” Maybe it’s as simple as relearning the basics.

The hard answer, based on my experience, is team development. Can you imagine an NFL team that skips spring training, or has players who don’t practice, winning the Super Bowl? I once heard a successful professional athlete say one element of his success was using the off-season to turn his weaknesses into strengths. The same ground rules apply if you are part of a critical infrastructure team, with quality of life and lives at risk if we don’t get it right. For example, which of the team types I mentioned earlier would you want to design the concrete foundation for a dam to be built on? Or operate a crisis or outage management center during a disaster or emergency?

Cultivating culture is critical

The planning process isn’t bigger is better, or smaller is faster. It’s what right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. While there can multiple paths to success, bypassing team development isn’t one of them. Among critical infrastructure professionals, lives depend on committed teams of teams and systems of systems working together effectively. Leaders need to develop a team environment based on:

  • Internal and external communications
  • Stakeholder development
  • Results
  • Mentoring

These are the key elements for success. It’s great to be part of such a team, but it takes individual and team effort. Now imagine a Hoover Dam of our generation!

About the author

Dan is our account executive in the Critical Infrastructure market and has more than 35 years of providing customer-driven technology and energy solutions to critical infrastructure operators in the United States and Canada. He focuses on critical intelligent infrastructure, from smart grids to communications connections, and how they are used as consumers become energy portfolio managers.