Mark Pascoe interview: leadership, partnerships, and collaboration for integrated water management

An interview with Mark Pascoe, CEO of the International WaterCentre, which provides capacity building services to integrated water managers and their organisations to help develop future water leaders. Mark shares his experience from his 40+ years in the water sector across Australia and internationally, discussing: boundary-spanning leadership and transformational change; the SEQ Healthy Waterways Partnership as a boundary-spanning organisation; the different roles of champions, leaders, and followers; and cultivating mentoring and coaching opportunities.

Interview topics

  • About Mark Pascoe
  • Water champions and their role in spanning boundaries
  • The Healthy Waterways Partnership as a boundary-spanning organisation
  • Finding ‘champions’ and ‘leaders’ in different cultures
  • How leaders create transformation processes and the role of a good mentor
  • Where to find a good mentor
  • Some tips to cultivate leadership skills

Please tell us a bit about your background and experience in the water sector

I’ve been working for a long time in the water sector, starting as an applied chemist or chemical technologist in the water quality and water treatment labs of Brisbane City Council and then moving into environmental engineering after gaining a Masters degree. Later I worked with an environmental engineering consultancy firm and also in local government in the water area. I was the manager of water and sewerage in Brisbane. During the mid-‘90s, I was president of the Australian Water Association, which involved me in water after work as well as during working hours. That was when the opportunity came up to work with the International Water Association (IWA) in London. It was there that I began to appreciate the wider world of water, beyond Brisbane and Australia.

IWA has members in 130 countries. It has some fairly significant partnerships such as with the World Health Organization and with most of the UN agencies with water in their remit including the Global Water Partnership and the World Water Council (IWA was a founding member of the World Water Council). It was a good introduction to this network of individual members as well as company members and a range of significant partnerships among water people. I think water attracts a particular sort of person — we are ‘wired’ in a particular way in terms of the values that drive us and that leads to good camaraderie that ignores apparent boundaries between sectors such as public or private.

After the IWA I moved into my current role with the International WaterCentre (IWC), in 2005. At the IWC we are sharing, or facilitating the sharing of Australia’s learnings in water management with the rest of the world.

What do you think is necessary to achieve change in the water sector, given the range of disciplines, and the ‘special wiring’ of water people?

This water world is complex in a disciplinary sense, as I found when working in the water and sewerage department in Brisbane. My background was in chemistry and engineering, but my team was wider: it included a social scientist, an accountant, an asset manager, a technology expert and an environmental manager. We needed to share a common language to work together — a kind of ‘water’ version of Esperanto maybe, like applying Google translate to live conversations. This is what we try to do in the IWC also — to bridge the differences or boundaries that exist across the depth and breadth of water-related thinking and expertise and institutions. Water-work has an inherent complexity that needs to be understood by a fair proportion of the people in it and then managed, so everyone can respond to the common values that drive us.

To achieve change or transformation you need to span those boundaries between institutions and to do that you need champions who can find a way and a place to ‘cook up’ the deals and the tactics and the strategies to Iink people across institutions. The ‘champions’ I’m talking about are not just people at the tops of organisations. Instead, they are anyone who is prepared to go outside their hierarchical comfort zone in their own institution, or even in their own department if it’s a large institution, to start to develop relationships that cross boundaries. It could be a boundary between a government organisation and an environmental or social NGO. Once you can span those boundaries, or negotiate them at an individual level at first and then at a strategic level, then I think you can get some satisfaction from little successes here and there.

In south-east Queensland, there’s a really good example of a bridging organisation, that has spanned those boundaries and demonstrated true leadership and achieved that transformation. The Healthy Waterways Partnership as it was called then (now called Healthy Land and Water) was for many years owned collectively by a group of champions who came together and were able to influence upwards and outwards for the good of SE Queensland waterways.

Tell us the story of that bridging organisation, the Healthy Waterways Partnership, and how it has achieved its goals

In the early 1990s, when I was managing wastewater treatment with the Brisbane City Council, the environmental regulator started to insist on the use of best available technology in businesses that affected water quality. We realised that although we were doing a pretty good job in terms of receiving water quality, we didn’t actually know what environmental issues our wastewater was affecting. To work on outcomes, it was necessary to understand the existing condition of receiving waters, which led to monitoring and evaluation studies of the water environment in SE Queensland — and they showed there had already been significant impacts. The result was a bit of a ‘vision’ statement around everyone’s grandchildren being able to see dugong and sea turtles in Moreton Bay, which meant achieving water conditions that did not destroy the seagrass that these creatures eat. Seagrass cannot survive if you keep covering it with sediment and nutrient. That started to drive investment at the polluter-inputs-end of the pipe, and the end result was the Healthy Waterways Partnership.

The partnership linked two universities, CSIRO, the national government, several departments of the state government including environment and water resources, and around 15 industries in Brisbane and around 30 catchment groups. Our byline was ‘we’re all in the same boat’, and we shared a common goal which was to protect the waters of the nine rivers in south-east Queensland.

To achieve that partnership took a number of ingredients. One of them was champions. Healthy Waterways had executive-level champions of significance in the mayors of Brisbane and of Ipswich. It also had a number of champions at a very broad community level, who could, or did, articulate that vision. Another ingredient was financing. It takes about $4–5 million each year for Healthy Waterways Partnership to do its job.

Of course there were tensions: around financing, and around the science. The nine local governments in the region were all dealing with their own various economic and lifestyle and industry ‘drivers’. The main challenges I think included finding the money each year to spend on this goal versus other targets such as infrastructure and investment needs for the cities in the region. The partnership allowed us to appropriately prioritise how much to invest in water as compared to issues such as roads or greenspace. The tension around the science-policy interface was managed in, I think, a fairly clever way by having the scientists as a group reach consensus among themselves rather than trying to do that in the public sphere. That meant the politicians and other decision-makers saw consensus around the scientific analyses, with the scientists coming up with fairly definitive answers to policy questions.

With a venture like this, you need the leadership to be handed on to the next person, and sometimes, there is no next person. I’ve seen the Healthy Waterways Partnership wax and wane in its ability to get its job done, with resources — mostly the financial resources — being a key issue over time.

The financing has been underwritten by the state government and local governments. There’s been some wonderful science developed, and some great communication and campaign tools. They keep everyone informed about everything from cleaning up the bay, litter campaigns and getting plastic bottle tops out of the bay because they harm turtles through to the Report Card that’s handed to the politicians each year. There’s an annual process of getting a commitment to funding. I think it’s a credit to this partnership that for a long time didn’t even have a corporate form, that it has kept going. Nowadays, it is a company with the shareholding of the partners and it has a stronger governance structure than it had in the past when it was relying on those champions.

How do you identify and cultivate champions or ‘leaders’ in various cultures?

Champions, that is, leaders, stand out. For example, they may stand up in a forum and everyone hears their good ideas and that they are not afraid to talk about them. However, I think you need a culture in institutions and organisations that allows champions or leaders to reveal themselves and develop. I’ll call them ‘leaders’ from now on, recognising that the words ‘leaders’ and ‘champions’ may translate differently in different languages. Ideally, an institution or organisation will have a culture where these people can have the freedom to operate a little, particularly if they are aiming to be spanning boundaries. However, I think leaders will often find ways to operate, anyway.

Some leadership activity is more subtle than standing up and speaking out or asking questions. By that I mean that leadership can be shown by a good back-room guy who has really good ideas even if he has no authority, or by a person who is able to cause relationships to be developed by facilitating them rather than leading them.

We can recognise kinds of power or authority. The person at the top of a hierarchy or organisation has what I think of as ‘legitimate’ power, and other people might have ‘personal’ power — which could even be personal charm. Then there is ‘knowledge’ power, held by people who are smart and articulate and can translate science into information that most people can understand.

Cultures differ in their attitudes toward leaders. Australians, of course, like to think we have an egalitarian culture, which means that the persons at the top of the hierarchy should look out for the people who see them as tall poppies which need to be chopped down. We have that culture of, almost, disrespect of authority. Asian and African cultures are quite different.

Some people imagine a cruel dictator when they hear the term ‘leader’. Then remember Lee Kuan Yew who led Singapore for so many years. He was a visionary rather than a cruel dictator, able to create a culture that may have been a little autocratic but has been very successful in Singapore’s development over the last 30 to 50 years. Military dictatorships, I am sure, create a particular culture in a country and may depress people’s willingness to take on leadership roles.

IWC is very keen to develop leadership capability in schools in South-East Asia. We would like to develop emerging leaders, future leaders, with the kind of training that was not generally available to people who were young in the 1960s for instance. In the International WaterCentre, we fundamentally believe that a leader can be trained and developed: that a person doesn’t have to be born a leader.

What is involved in leaders achieving change? Must they have mentors?

In training leaders, IWC is hoping to develop the skill of being able to influence others. Leaders influence up, down, and around themselves. When you have a few leaders working on a common goal as happened in developing the Healthy Waterways Partnership, then that’s mighty powerful.

Leaders are people who start that transformational change process. However, I think followers are almost equally important. It may be brave to be a leader who stands up and waves their arms but it may be actually braver to be the first follower. The first follower lends believability to that person who is at the front making noise, while a whole lot of other people are quietly saying he or she’s a bit weird. In fact, there’s a YouTube video that describes this really well; it’s a group of people at a music concert and an interesting demonstration of how followers are important (Sivers 2010). The general may be out in front of the battle, but he or she is not going to achieve much unless they’re followed by an army.

There’s this line that says: “It’s lonely at the top”. I think it can be quite lonely when you are a leader. There is likely to be a limit to the resources you can call on: time, money, or people. You may also be questioning yourself constantly: for example, Is this the best approach? Am I thinking about this properly? Hence, leaders often benefit from having mentors and coaches. We shouldn’t be shy about admitting doubts and that we would like some help — perhaps just someone to share those thoughts with. So, I think for leaders at all levels it is important to actively establish mentors and perhaps coaching relationships. I think if you spoke to people in leadership positions and asked them if they have or have had a mentor, a large proportion would say yes.

Mentoring is quite a commitment of time and mental energy for the mentor and can be challenging. It doesn’t get talked about much, institutionally, either in a performance sense or in a role since, in my experience in Australia. I think that many people who are the mentor in a mentor/mentee relationship actually really appreciate being asked to be a mentor, and many will make the time because they will understand that they’re getting something out of it as well. This is not a one-way relationship or a one-way benefit relationship. I’ve certainly learnt from people I have mentored. I find it quite a satisfying relationship.

How do leaders find and interact with mentors?

One source for water people is the Australian Water Association, which has been running mentoring programs for its Young Water Professionals for 3 or 4 years now. This is a good initiative that wouldn’t have been thought of 10 years ago. Water organisations, employers, are supporting that AWA program in Queensland and New South Wales and IWC has also been supporting it in both of those states. I see it as growing in acceptability, relevance and usefulness.

One can be coached or mentored remotely rather than over a cup of coffee. Technology and social media support that approach. I know a person in the Asian Development Bank in Manila, who has developed quite a network among youth in the Asian region and I think that in the water sector also there are some networks that could be tapped into. Remote mentoring is not going to be the same as the person-to-person connection which can be so valuable, and it’s likely that people will hesitate to engage in virtual discourse because there is not that face-to-face element. It might be that they would need a kind of ‘matchmaker’.

Have you any advice for people who want to be more effective in their work, or perhaps cultivate a talent for leadership?

I think the advice would be to have faith in yourself, and confidence in your own ability to make a difference. Don’t hide, especially if you are in a potential position of leadership. If you have an opinion about something, then write it down, and then talk to someone about it. Test it with people close to you and build the confidence to make noise.

An article written 17 years ago by a guy named Gary Hamel, in the Harvard Business Review, includes some tips on how to create an insurrection (Hamel 2000). It’s well worth reading. Among the 7 points, I remember off the top of my head are: write a manifesto; create a coalition; win early, win often. These are useful little tools that perhaps we should all keep in our back pockets as we look for opportunities to take on leadership.

Something else I read recently about social media showed me that I tend to look in on dialogues in social media without contributing. The term for that in the book was a ‘lurker’. It made me think that it could be better to join in; add one’s own thoughts, maybe correcting wrong information, or maybe supporting really good ideas; give feedback to people who have had the courage to put their ideas ‘out there’.

About Mark Pascoe

Mark Pascoe has held the role of Chief Executive Officer of the International WaterCentre for the past 12 years, where he enjoys sharing Australia’s water management knowledge with the rest of the world.

He started his career in water quality laboratories as a chemical technologist for the Brisbane City Council in water quality and water treatment. This inspired Mark to participate in the early formation of the Environmental Engineering Discipline in the 1980s through a postgraduate course. From there he worked in private environmental consulting and later as the Manager of Water and Sewage in Brisbane, with a ‘hobby’ of being president of the Australian Water Association.

This is the kind of proactivity that landed mark into a small and unique international water network, through a role in London as Deputy Director of the International Water Association (IWA), where he gained international recognition.

Through partnerships with members from 130 countries and significant partnerships with the World Health Organization, most of the water-related UN agencies, the Global Water Partnership & World Water Council, Mark developed an appreciation of the world of water beyond Brisbane.

Boundary Spanning Leadership

In his interview, Mark refers to the need for boundary spanning leadership, which is defined well by a 2009 white paper by the Centre for Creative Leadership. Mark described this by reflecting on the necessary diversity of his team as Manager of Water and Sewage in Brisbane and the need for an Esperanto” to address the complexity of the water profession.

About the SEQ ‘ Healthy Waterways Partnership ’ as a boundary-spanning organisation

Mark talks about the development of the Healthy Waterways Partnership in South East Queensland through ‘Mark Pascoe eyes’ as a boundary-spanning organisation, which has now formed into the corporate entity of ‘ Healthy Land and Water ’.

The bridging organization spanned:

  • Two universities,
  • The CSIRO,
  • The federal government and several state government departments
  • Fifteen industry groups in Brisbane,
  • And approximately 30 catchment groups.

A vision was established about having grandchildren being able to see dugongs and sea turtles which were threatened by major plumes of organic-rich sediment in the bay and a monitoring program was established that drove investment back upstream.

A detailed summary of the formation of the Healthy Waterways Partnership can be found in the article “ Making the connection between healthy waterways and healthy catchments: South East Queensland, Australia (2007)”

The need for champions or leaders

Mark talked in his interview about the importance of champions as a key ingredient in creating transformative change in being able to articulate a vision. He suggests that “ by definition, a champion isn’t going to be found under a rock. You’re going to be able to see a champion, or see a champion’s behaviour”.

Mark suggested that they can be enabled by a permissive institutional culture that enables them to flourish and referred to the different types of power that leaders/ champions might use to overcome the lack of this culture to influence. These types of power are outlined in the graphic below.

Mark also discussed the different types of general cultural leadership contexts of Australia such as ‘ tall poppy syndrome ’ or the role of ‘authoritarian leadership ’ in other countries with high power distances and what that might mean in terms of champions influencing transformational leadership in the Asia Pacific region. This can add a layer of complexity in sharing knowledge about water management.

A conceptual tool, which might be helpful in understanding this complexity is the Lewis Model, which classifies cultural preferences for different types of authority based on linear active (Germany, US or UK), multi-active (many South American countries), or reactive (many South-East Asian or East Asian countries) typologies.

As Mark suggests “We do have to be careful when we’re operating across cultures, understand what a particular culture is, and know how to operate within it”.

He gives the example of the authoritative approach to water leadership of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, which might be compared with the authoritative approach of Ek Sonn Chan in Cambodia in improving water management.

Mark refers to the key role of organisations like the International WaterCentre in developing leadership capability amongst emerging leaders in the region as they change and develop over time. He says I don’t think very many people get the chance to be trained as a leader but at the International Water Center, we fundamentally believe that a leader can be trained”.

The importance of embracing followers when leading transformational change

In his interview, Mark refers to a YouTube video that highlights the importance of followers in influencing up, down, and around a leader’s shared-vision. While leaders start transformation processes it’s probably braver to be the first follower. When you have got this person at the front making a noise, with people saying he or she’s a bit weird the first follower is actually quite important.

It is well worth watching.

The role of mentoring and coaching

Karen and Mark discussed another integral relationship for leadership to deal with the loneliness of the leadership role. He suggests that

Actively establishing mentor and coaching relationships had become important for leaders at all levels. If you spoke to people in leadership positions and ask whether they have had a mentor, I think a large proportion would say yes.

Mark’s response echoes the sentiments an earlier Kini Interviewee, Chris O’Neill, who suggests that mentoring and coaching should perhaps form part of the KPI criteria of senior water professionals. Mark suggests that the mentor-mentee relationship has two-way benefits particularly if each party comes from diverse backgrounds or experiences.

For example, the Australian Water Association now has a mentoring program that would have been unheard of 10 years ago, which the IWC supports in NSW and QLD.

He also referred to the work of Chris Morris of the ADB in developing youth networking opportunities in the region. The rationale for this approach is described in this think piece, ‘Partnering with the youth to solve Asia’s water problems

Final Nugget of Advice

Mark ended his interview with the following advice:

“I think my advice would be to have faith in yourself, and confidence in your own ability to make a difference. So, don’t hide, build confidence to make a noise”

He also strongly recommended reading an article by Gary Hamel for the Harvard Business Review, 17 years ago on how to start an insurrection, looking at the role of transformative change within IBM. It is a 7-point manifesto, which is worth a look.

Interview Quotes

 

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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