A philosophy of bottom-up management has been a driving force behind years of success at the East Valley Water District, pandemic or not.
John Mura, the district’s general manager and chief executive, says a strategy that allows his team of 67 people to “mess up and ‘fess up” has helped build trust and in turn has improved the organization.
“People don’t have to walk on eggshells,” he says. “As long as the outcomes are benefiting the community.”
The agency has been on a multimillion-dollar quest to bring water independence to Highland. The $183 million Sterling Natural Resource Center, a project years in the making, will treat up to 8 million gallons of water daily and recharge the local Bunker Hill Groundwater Basin. The center also includes a demonstration garden and spaces for community engagement.
EVWD has been honored six years in a row in the Inland News Group’s Top Workplaces program, and this year it’s the No. 1 small business or organization among 25 honorees in three categories overall.
We spoke to Mura in late December about his team and dealing with the pandemic in one of the most challenging work years on record. His answers have been edited for length.
Q: Tell us, how do you foster a winning work culture?
A: We have a really good mix right now. And like any agency, we’re facing the gray tsunami in retirements. I also understand and appreciate that people have to move out to move up. So, we’re mapping career paths and promoting from within as much as possible.
We want other people to adopt how we do business. It’s really good for communities, to give people the confidence to achieve new things.
Q: Pivoting to the pandemic, hard decisions had to be made. How did you maintain communication and empathy for employees affected by shift changes and the shutdowns?
A: I think it starts by building a reservoir of trust. When you have an emergency, that’s not the time to gain people’s trust. We could have open and honest communication because we started with that, especially when we had to start working remotely.
We had to wrap our minds around this new challenge, creating virtual training sessions, looking at certain things and figuring out how we could support the team at home. We crossed over to the personal realm. We had to think about educational aspects. How could we help and determine what needs to be done and be open-minded to do it in a different way?
With a younger staff, it was easier; they were more plugged in, so we just flipped a switch.
As for technology, we were a little ahead of the curve, working smarter and harder, listening to employees, and thank God we did. We have to be focused on outcomes, identify the objective and what we’re trying to accomplish.
We didn’t change the what, we just changed the how.
Q: Employees in the Top Workplaces survey mentioned a willingness by supervisors to be flexible and support home-life challenges during the pandemic. How did managers come to terms with employees who suddenly had no school or daycare?
A: It started with our employees being honest about what they could and couldn’t do and being challenged as parents. There were big pressures outside of work and we were listening. They had good ideas and were respectful of what they could get done with kids at home.
Q: Obviously, water needs were still needed during the pandemic. Tell us how separating employees into different shifts helped manage social distancing while getting the work done.
A: We have a critical mission as the water district. When someone was exposed, we couldn’t be in a position to lose a unit, so we bifurcated. Only 50% of staff reported on certain days. It was fantastic and worked out great.
Q: Tell us about your future projects and how the team will work together to build new infrastructure in the district’s coverage area.
We expect the Sterling Natural Resource Center to be complete by 2022. We’re looking at 11 months of construction, 36 months total, and we’re two-thirds done. We’ve turned the final lap.
We’ve had some issues with the work-proximity restrictions and some staff got sick. There were some minor tariff and supply issues. But Sterling and a couple of other projects were kind of a rallying cry that we weren’t going to go backward. We had high-profile projects and we wanted to demonstrate we’re not going back.
We can’t be successful if our community isn’t successful. If our projects provide additional value to the region, it’s a win-win.
East Valley Water District
Quote: “We didn’t change the what, we just changed the how,” John Mura, general manager of EVWD, on adapting to working in a pandemic.