Op-ed: What new utility managers can do in their first 90 days

The first 90 days of a manager’s new job are often made a point of emphasis in business.  This time period is the chance for the new leader to set the tone, establish connections, and start to make their impact on the operation.  Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, puts it this way:

 “Lots of my research shows that what you do early on during a job transition is what matters most. Your colleagues and your boss form opinions about you based on limited information, and those opinions are sticky—it’s hard to change their minds.”

This period is critical for success.  As a new Utility Manager, there are some important tasks that you should be doing early in your tenure.  Let us review the major activities you should be working on first.

Understand the Operation

Utility Managers need to have a good grasp of the overall operation to make effective decisions.  They need to understand the “big picture,” and how each unit and staff group fits into it.  This includes how daily decisions are made, what information guides those decisions, and so on.  This may seem trite, but there are many managers out there who do not understand basics about their operation.

For example, who is running the operations, and what are their challenges?  What are their goals and how do they know if they are reaching them?  How do their goals fit into the overall goals for the business, and does that make sense?

Understanding every single detail about the operation is not the job of the Utility Manager.  However, they should know how to find the right people who know the details when necessary.

To develop this knowledge, the Utility Manager will need to rely heavily on their staff – which brings up the next point.

Cultivate Relationships

Perhaps most important is the task of building relationships with your team.  You will be depending on their expertise, so a level of trust will need to be established.  Take time to interact with everyone you can.  Get to know the people who are influencers at the facility and consult with them.

Be humble – you likely won’t know details of the operation, and your team won’t expect you to.  Admit your shortcomings and seek out the information that you lack.  The staff will not think less of you for missing details; rather they will appreciate your humility and willingness to learn.

One way to get a quick win in this area is to implement one of the ideas that you hear in discussions with the staff.  This will have to be an idea that is simple to execute and relatively low in risk.  Following through with an example will show that you are serious about empowering the team to manifest change.

Safety Culture

A safety conscious culture is of utmost importance in an industrial setting.  Early on, a manager should establish an emphasis on a culture of safety so that the entire operation understands its significance.  This focus should be directed from the top down and should make an effort to include every employee in its scope.

For example, each meeting can be started with a safety topic.  Safety audits can be conducted by all employees, especially leadership.  If not in place already, a safety committee should be assembled.  All safety suggestions should be collected and considered.

Of course, adding audits and safety topics will not alone improve the culture.  Investment in safety must also take place.  Good suggestions should be followed to completion.  Quality training must be employed to spread the importance of safety.  When employee feedback is taken seriously, engagement will increase organically, and everyone will benefit.

When safety policies are not being followed, the auditor needs to understand the root cause and implement actions to change it.  In most cases, actions such as “re-training” should be abandoned in favor of more reliable engineering solutions.

Understand Environmental Footprint

Along with protection of its employees, protection of the environment is a critical portion of being a good corporate citizen.  Therefore, the Utility Manager should understand the impacts of the operation on the environment.

Typically, a utility will be subject to an environmental operating permit by the national and/or local environmental agency.  The manager should have a basic grasp of the major rules in that permit, as well as the consequences of deviating from those rules.  In many cases, by law the manager is culpable for compliance of the operation.

Knowledge of the environmental footprint is not just in permit compliance.  Today, neighbors, shareholders, and the general public are all interested in the impact of corporations on the environment.  It is a sound business practice to work toward reducing this impact.  The Utility Manager should be driving the operation in this direction if possible.

Review Maintenance Program

Along with reviewing the safety and environmental programs, the Utility Manager should also review the maintenance program.  The maintenance department is a key portion of a successful operation and can make or break a facility’s performance.

First, review the process flow in maintenance.  How does the maintenance team respond to breakdowns, and how are they notified?  Do they focus on preventive maintenance measures? How much effort is spent on corrective maintenance measures versus emerging maintenance trends such as predictive maintenance?

If not implemented already, a Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) should be strongly considered.  This is a necessity in modern utility operations.

An evaluation of past breakdowns and reliability risks should be conducted with the maintenance team.  Are there any potential threats that need to be addressed soon?

Finally, assess any efforts into predictive maintenance.  Many maintenance programs have begun this journey.  In a sector where uptime must be near 100 percent, any effort to reduce unplanned downtime need be reviewed.

Vulnerabilities and Threats

Utility managers should study vulnerabilities of their operation.  In reviewing the safety and environmental programs, the manager should get a sense of current business risk.  Are there identifiable safety issues or potential environmental problems that need to be addressed?

Similarly, a portion of the maintenance review should include the infrastructure.  What does the facility have in terms of aging equipment, and what is the plan for replacement, if any?

Finally, health of organization should be examined.  For example, are there a lot of people who are going to retire soon?  What is the plan for backfilling those positions, and what does the training process look like?


A new Utility Manager has a lot of important things to do in their first 90 days.  They should get to know the operation and establish key relationships with their team.  They should review the safety, environmental, and maintenance programs.  Finally, the new manager should make a critical assessment of their operational vulnerabilities.

This time is crucial for the manager in establishing their strategy for the operation.  As Watkins writes:

Once the die is cast in one direction or the other, it tends to be self-perpetuating—and it can turn into a negative feedback loop if you’re not careful. For example, if you make early mistakes, people will look at you as ineffective going forward because they’ll be looking at you through a darkened lens.

Avoid this potential pitfall by setting a sound strategy, listening to your new team, and adapting to the role as needed.  By following Watkins’ advice, a new manager will likely be in a good position to build from after 90 days.

About the manager: Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO at Limble CMMS.  He can be reached at bryan@limblecmms.com



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