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Water Industry Awards Rising Stars: leading the UK’s first ‘shade ball’ installation

Ahead of the 2022 Water Industry Awards, Rising Star category finalist and Wessex Water site manager, Sophie Ward, discusses her path to spearheading the UK’s first shade ball project and becoming a site manager just months before the Covid pandemic hit.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

My first job was on the operations management graduate trainee scheme at Wessex Water. I was one of four graduate trainees who did rotations throughout operations, to gain an insight into the inner workings and challenges that the departments face.

I left the scheme after a year due to getting a job in the water recycling department after responding to a vacancy. But my time on the scheme was brilliant and it was a great experience to work with such a variety of teams and get an overview and understanding of each department.

What work experience or qualifications did you have before moving into the industry?

I had no water industry experience when I joined Wessex Water. My relevant experience was having participated in work experience at a management consultancy firm and through the transferrable skills I gained from being in a leadership role in the university officer training corps.

I have since learned industry-specific knowledge from all of my generous colleagues, and through mentorship from my manager and other mentors within the company, I have been able to develop as a manager and leader.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

My career highlight so far has been leading the installation of shade balls – an innovation which blocks UV rays and reduces algae growth in bodies of water – at Didmarton Water Recycling Centre in Gloucestershire, which was the first application of this product in the UK water industry.

It was a great opportunity to use the project management skills that I learnt in my Institute of Leadership and Management level five diploma and from my colleague Martin Harris who is a project manager.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during your time in utilities?

I’ve recently changed roles within the company, going from an area water recycling centre manager to a site manager of two water recycling centres and biogas sites.

Learning the role and the process of operational sites, whilst also operating it, is definitely the biggest challenge that I’ve faced. But reactivity and the need to be adaptable isn’t uncommon in operations, and every day is different and poses new challenges.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

Throughout my career I have always tried to approach and overcome challenges while remaining positive. Positivity and a confidence in the ability of the team is infectious and I’ve found that it can help tasks feel less daunting.

How would you describe your creative process in three words?

Probably, ‘what about this?’ – that might sound really woolly, but some of the best creative ideas for problem solving, have generally come from asking a question along those lines and working collaboratively.

I also work best when I feel organised and like there is a good plan in place, so finding solutions and thinking creatively to do so, is some of the most rewarding aspects of my work.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best advice I was given was that the key to being an effective manager is having self-awareness. Having an appreciation and confidence of your own abilities and also knowing when to seek assistance and information from others, has proved to be fundamental.

What do you think Utility Week Innovate readers would be surprised to learn about you?

People are often surprised that I’m a history graduate.

Which piece of technology, or app, could you not function without?

I can’t remember what meetings were like without Teams anymore – especially when I was an area manager of 28 sites. Teams is brilliant for making it so much easier to get all the appropriate people together. Even if I do forget to take myself off of mute sometimes.

What do you think is the key to creating the conditions for innovation within the utilities sector?

Empowerment of the team to voice their ideas is absolutely key for innovation. Being open to ideas and encouraging diversity of thought, has been the basis of so many efficiency and quality improvements in our department. Recognition is also really important as well.

Did you learn anything new about collaborating or innovating as a team or business during the pandemic?

I became a manager four months before the pandemic hit, so I learnt so much about change management during that time. The most important thing that I learnt was about how to develop my emotional intelligence, as it was such a stressful and confusing time for everyone.

Simple things like helping individuals get to grips with Microsoft Teams for team briefs, to more complex issues like being there for the team when it was so tough for everyone mentally. Change management and emotional intelligence skills were essential.

What is the change you’d most like to see within the utilities industry?

I’d love to see more diversity within the industry. There are some brilliant initiatives already happening, so it’s really exciting to think how diversity of thought and broadening representation will drive the future.

To book a table and to find out more about the awards, click here.