1. Get acclimated
It was the uniqueness of the situation that initially appealed to Wendy Gregg when she took the HR job with Aquatera Utilities Inc. in 2007. The company had begun as a municipal department, providing water, wastewater, and solid-waste services to the Grande Prairie, Alberta, region, with all its HR decisions managed by the City of Grande Prairie. But when Gregg came on board, Aquatera was in the process of becoming a stand-alone, privately owned organization, so all the HR responsibilities shifted to her shoulders—a daunting, sudden load, to say the least. “First of all, I threw myself at the feet of the city HR department and said, ‘Help!’” she says with a laugh. “They helped me understand all the current policies and practices in place—how all the pieces fit together—which was good, because coming in totally green would’ve been overwhelming.”
2. Find out what’s important
With Aquatera’s path established, it was critical for Gregg to do more than understand the spirit that set the company apart; she had to determine the right people to help embody that spirit. In doing so, she discovered that as important as it was for Aquatera employees to cover certain specialties, matching their principles and values with those of the company took precedence. She found herself looking for qualities such as a strong sense of respect, first-rate communication skills, and integrity about the quality of goods and services created. “So we really do look at fit; qualifications come second,” Gregg says. “And most of the time, we don’t have any problem following that rule. We tend to attract people who want to work in an organization like this.”
3. Develop the department
As Gregg defined an employee profile for Aquatera, the company’s metamorphosis from municipal utility to private company progressed, and one of the results of this was a more complex hierarchy of authority, with eight senior leadership team members leading a full-time staff of 110. “We created a whole financial management department, a functioning communications department, and did business development,” Gregg says, “and then we created still another layer of support for management in that some of the line managers have assistants now.” Meanwhile, Aquatera’s board of directors underwent a transformation of its own, switching from a set of “municipal counsellors” to a group of people with more experience in the business world. Gregg says this change helped provide a new outlook and focus for the company.
4. Seek out adaptability
When it came time to identify the leadership qualities needed in Aquatera’s new hires, descriptors such as approachable, forthright, and supportive were among those that Gregg kept an eye and an ear out for on résumés and during interviews. But above all was another word: flexibility. “Because we’re a small company, we have a lot of one-off kinds of jobs, like an HR manager or a purchasing coordinator,” Gregg says. “So if someone like that is going to be away, we need someone who can come in and pick up the work. So we really look for people who are flexible and can contribute to a team like that.”
5. Increase accountability
“It’s not that people weren’t doing their jobs before—they certainly were—but now we’re more publicly accountable,” Gregg says of Aquatera’s change from a utility department to a board-operated private enterprise. She speaks from experience, having arrived at “the top of the boom,” as she calls it, in 2007. Back then, healthy cash flow was as easy to come by as the city’s rapid growth (Grande Prairie’s population grew roughly 18 percent in the 2000s). Post-2008, though, the company is all but required to improve the planning, strategizing, and documentation of its practices. “The board [of directors] wants to know: Are we doing the right stuff? Are we doing it the right way? Are we being effective?” Gregg says. “And so the accountability is greatly increased.”
6. Embrace the HR team effort
Gregg is the first to recognize that none of the management-team selections are made by her alone. “Teams tend to do a lot of developing themselves,” she says.
But with the Aquatera principles firmly in place, and with the valued input of existing staff, she’s proud of the choices made. “A lot of human relations processes are done within the work groups,” Gregg says. “We provide support, but they do the work. That’s what makes it possible to do HR as we’re doing it here.”