May 25, 2020
JMJ’s Master Consultant Gill Kernick, interviews Tamsin Lishman, Asset Director at Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) in Durham, UK, to find out what Life is like as a Leader during these COVID-19 pandemic times. As well as what challenges they have faced in providing a vital service to their many customers and how they are rapidly adapting to ensure the safety of their workers.
Gill Kernick: I’ve known Tamsin for several years, and she is one of the most passionate safety leaders whom I've come across. We’ve been discussing what it's like in these crazy COVID-19 times, and she has agreed to have a conversation and share her journey as a leader.
Tamsin Lishman: Thank you, Gill; I'm just so pleased to be having a conversation with you. I often remember the work we've done together and the thinking you've inspired in me.
GK: About Tamsin before we dive into questions. She has a Master of Engineering from Oxford University and attended Harvard Business School's High Potential Leadership Program. Tamsin’s currently the Asset Director at Northumbrian Water Group. She’s held former roles, including at BP and Centrica. Another passion of hers is her love of operations—the conflicts and getting your hands dirty.
TL: I love the combination of asset-based businesses and engineering and people. I’ve thoroughly enjoying being at Northumbrian Water, which has a very complex asset base and great people. That combination of engineering, people and how we recreate a great asset base, in our case, to deliver water to our customers, is really essential at this time.
GK: What are you having to deal with? What does your world look like right now?
TL: I started my job at Northumbrian Water in February of this year. It was probably enough time to get to know people and visit some of our sites. That quickly evolved into this world with COVID-19. We provide water to homes, hospitals and businesses and then also sewage systems services. So we provide an essential service to people to be able to wash their hands and we want to be able to have clean drinking water at any time. This all comes into play.
We’re seeing these unsung heroes who keep us fed, safe, warm, having Internet, and in our case, having water. We've got water and wastewater treatment plants, large, huge numbers of kilometers of pipe, work pumps and lots of engineering assets that are needed.
Very early on it became clear that we were going to have to find a way to keep people safe in this environment to perform their roles, to be able to keep the water flowing. What helps us be a very clear purposely-led company is that we have to keep water flowing and we’re really focused on our customers and that's really the heartbeat of everything we do.
GK: What was done to keep people safe?
TL: We put social distancing in place quite early on in our operations and in our water treatment plants to protect those people who were needed on site. We trained people to become backup operators, for example - and they stepped out of their day jobs. We use the safety principles of hierarchy of control around protecting our people.
Number one is social distancing and lots of hand washing. If a job can't be done with social distancing, we find the right PPE and we also engage our peopled . Our HSE manager put together a suite of simple Toolbox Talks, and with a huge amount of engagement and listening from our people about their needs, we are reinforcing safety messages across everything we do.
Our role is to support employees and support them in safely managing any risk, and that's very much in play now. What has really inspired me is that I also work with our capital project supply chain, particularly construction companies. They have done well in engaging their employees on safe working in Covid. Like everything in safety, you're caught constantly in a sort of unease about thinking what could go wrong and how to make it better. I'm proud of the approach I've seen and being part of creating a safe working environment in these times.
GK: What are your greatest challenges these days?
TL: It’s interesting that during disruptive times, how much we can achieve. Breaking down all our instincts as human beings, which is not about social distancing, it’s about social contact. If we look around, for example, when we go for our walks or while we are in the supermarkets, how much we've all just adapted as human beings to physical distancing.
Anyone who can work from home at Northumbrian Water Group is working from home. We have got our teams set up to work effectively, but also to stay connected and manage the potential isolation, and other impacts that working from home has. It was a challenge. What’s been an absolute delight is to see how quickly the teams have worked out and are learning much more about each other.
In keeping water flowing, we need to keep investing in our infrastructure to be able to make sure we can do that in six months’ time and in a year's time, as well as tomorrow. We have safe water treatment plants, pumping stations, and pipes that require constant investment. Now’s it around how can we set up people to work safely and use that human ingenuity to find ways of gaining productivity? We’ve been working very closely with our supply chain partners around this. We need them now. We need them in the future. What are the ways we can work together? So that's what's on my mind right now. We're taking leaps of courage with them, and they're taking those with us. Where is the opportunity to create something better in this disruptive time?
GK: You can hear it in your in your speaking and it's consistent with my experience--it's massively challenging on many levels and on a societal level, it's devastating. Some of the barriers to collaboration, innovation seem to just have fallen away. What are you noticing in how we're working differently and how might that be a shift or change in the future?
TL: The new normal. The questions you pose are brilliant and if I’m honest, I don't know the answers to them yet. People are really embracing flexible working and virtual working. But I want us to move beyond that--we've seen that real connection of team dynamics. The other thing we've seen is a purpose-driven life, where all the people with whom I work are all absolutely clear on our role to keep water flowing. What are these collaborative practices working with each other and talking to each other? How do we sustain that?
GK: It's too early because we don't know how this is going to play out, but it's not too early to start thinking about it. There is good amidst these times in terms of what you've spoken about--the relationship, collaboration that was much more difficult in a pre-COVID world. How do we take all the good elements with us in a new normal? What are the learnings? Why do you care so much? This stands out to me!
TL: I'm struggling to answer that. I can’t imagine a world where I wouldn't care about the people. I want people to be engaged, as I am, and feel that sense of purpose and be able to go home to their families every day.
I think alongside that is just a sense of if we get things right and we engage in the right conversations, everything will be good. Some big experiences in my life have shaped my thinking, the first example being my first job. It was at a very small manufacturing plant at the Tilbury Docks in Essex. I was given a role overseeing commissioning and then running a small batch processing plant. I sent operators in green chemical suits to climb up a ladder with a bucket of 50% hydrochloric acid to tip it in the top of a vessel. The situation I put people in, should I have really been given quite all that autonomy and freedom with that level of experience? I certainly learned fast.
What I learned from one of my mentors, , “Start with the front line, listen to them and what they tell you and what their needs are. It may not always be as articulate as someone in the head office, but that's where the heart of the business is.” I think that really shaped my thinking in the role where you and I worked together. It shaped my thinking today. My purpose in life is to make sure our team can go out and do their role safely because we need to keep water flowing. It’s not a lot more complicated than that.
GK: That is one of the things I really admire about you is the willingness. Well, it's not even the willingness to listen. It's there. You know that without that, you won't succeed. In your position of authority and power, you create equality of voice. I think that's critical for any safety leader.
Two more questions. There must be so many competing commitments, goals pulling at you all the time. How are you ensuring good decision making? Where are you grounding yourself right now?
TL: Great questions, Gill. Some of what I’ve done is probably like what many people have ended up doing-- being intuitive, given the fast-moving pace. What are the key principles? Because if I know the principles, I can come back and test against them. For my business, it's quite easy because we must keep water flowing. There is no choice. We must look after our people who do that. Listening and having a team together, creating dialogue, making a decision, being willing to then listen and adapt. Make imperfect decisions and learn as we go.
GK: As a passionate leader around safety, if you look from the perspective of safety leadership, what is one piece of advice that you'd give to us?
TL: When we talk about safety leadership and leadership, it's about standing for something that matters. It's about engaging with people on a human level. It's about putting the right support systems in place to allow people to work safely. That’s true across anything. Keep that dialogue going. Keep listening to your people. You may need to dig in about that, but people know.
GK: How is this going to play out in terms of our mental health and resilience? Any thoughts or reflections around taking care of our mental health while people are going through horrific times?
TL: You bring up a really important point and around the level of different factors that are here now, from losing people who are dear to us, to the financial and emotional stress of potentially losing your job, through to isolation, and much more. I know friends of mine who have been struggling with anxiety. It’s simply too much. We all havea role to support society. That's coming to the forefront now and I hope we continue that afterwards.
We need to keep on talking about mental health and making it okay for people to recognize that there are some who need more help than others. There are people you and I know who have been fantastic role models, who have been able to talk about some of their struggles, which has created space for others. We need to keep the recognition of this present.
GK: There are good days and some bad days. The thing for me is compassion, compassion, compassion.
What does collective grief look like? How do we navigate through that and how can organizations really play a supporting, enabling role? There’s going to be a need to support each other, and we might not all have that capacity as we go forward.
GK: If you're going to really impact safety, you must look beyond your statistics. I try to practice that and expand it globally. But then on some level also, if we don't go beyond the numbers to the human impact, I don't think we'll learn. How do you strike that balance of staying connected and not being in tears all the time?
TL: It's always such a pleasure talking to you. Just being able to share thinking and ideas and testing approaches is so critical, because none of us know all the right answers. I remember that amazing first workshop where we met, and that “ah ha” moment of “I don't know that, I don't know the problem, and I don't know the answer, and we have to therefore explore that. We explore together.” There is so much power in dialogue and conversation.
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