Water is life. Working in the water industry has been a way of life for Michele Grenier, executive director of the Ontario Water Works Association (OWWA) since 2016. Her unique background and longtime involvement with OWWA serves her well as she and the association strive to create an environment of open knowledge exchange that helps water professionals manage their community’s water resources more efficiently.
Michele relies on her academic background as a chemical engineer to engineer better data collection at OWWA that helps the staff and board make better decisions about member benefits and support for the most impactful programs.
We spoke with Michele about OWWA’s membership model, how the association ensures everyone involved with OWWA, from volunteers to board members, are working in unison, and why timely decisions are the most important decisions.
Association Adviser: You earned a bachelor of applied science in chemical engineering. How did you find your way to working for the Ontario Water Works Association?
Michele Grenier: I actually started working in the water industry during my university studies, and joined the OWWA as a member in 2005. I got more involved in the Association throughout my career, as a volunteer and Committee Chair, and then I was elected to the OWWA Board of Directors in 2013. I had been on the board for 3 years, and we had been without an Executive Director for about 2 years, when we experienced some staffing changes. The board saw an opportunity to create more of an operational role for the executive director, which I found really interesting. I applied for the job and I was successful! I’ve been in this role for nearly 3 years now.
AA: How does your background in science and project management inform your role at OWWA?
MG: Working as a water treatment plant operator and as an engineering consultant has really allowed me to understand the challenges our members face on a day-to-day basis. I also tend to apply engineering principles to most of the programs and projects we develop within OWWA. As a result, we are able to collect and analyze a lot of data, which helps us make decisions about how members are accessing benefits and services, and also helps to align our resources (human and financial) to support the programs that can have the biggest impact.
AA: The OWWA’s mission is to be the leading resource for Ontario’s water. How do you and your staff carry out this mission?
MG: Our main goal is to create a community where water professionals can share the most up-to-date information to help them do their jobs better. Supported by staff, the OWWA Committees are the key to creating that environment for knowledge creation and exchange. The Annual Conference & Trade Show is also the largest gathering of water professionals in Ontario, if not in all of Canada, and some of the best and brightest minds in the water industry share their latest learning and research. We also work with a number of other like-minded organizations to expand our reach and strengthen our voice.
AA: How does the membership structure at OWWA work, and how do you encourage membership?
MG: We have a hybrid membership structure, which is driven by our parent organization, the American Water Works Association (AWWA). There are organizational memberships available for utilities and municipalities as well as service providers. Individual memberships are also available, with different categories for operators, students, young professionals and even retirees. Ultimately there is an option for everyone! We offer a broad range of member benefits both at the association level (AWWA) and at the section level (OWWA), including discounts on technical resources and events, access to member only content, volunteer opportunities, etc.
AA: OWWA has 17 volunteer committees that work on education, advocacy and leadership in water stewardship. How does OWWA staff and board ensure everyone is working in concert toward your common goals?
MG: Our Board and staff have done an excellent job of creating a policy framework in which the committees have enough flexibility to achieve the goals they set for themselves, while still keeping the OWWA’s mission at the forefront. We also assign a director liaison and a staff representative to each committee to keep the communication flowing in both directions. We firmly believe the committees are the backbone of the OWWA, even if they pose some unique challenges from time to time.
AA: What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of OWWA?
MG: We have made some fairly significant changes to our organization in my time as ED with the OWWA, including change to our financial systems, staffing model, partnerships and even some of our programs. The most important decisions are often the ones nobody wants to make, because it’s easy to get caught up in “paralysis by analysis.” In these times when our environment is constantly changing, our organizations need to be more aware and adaptive. So I would say timely decisions are the most important ones. Ultimately, making the decision is easy – following through on implementing the change is the hard part!
AA: Where do the great ideas come from in your organization?
MG: Our staff are constantly interacting with members and looking for feedback. We brainstorm and test new ideas often. When we fail, we aim to fail quickly, learn from it and try again. Those lessons learned are often what lead to our most creative solutions.
AA: What are a few resources you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better association leader?
MG: Obviously CSAE offers a number of fabulous resources for leaders in the nonprofit sector. I recently attended the Trillium Chapter Summer Summit and found that it offered some amazing learning opportunities. I’ve also been pursuing the Chang School Certificate in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Management from Ryerson University, which offers a broad range of courses that offer great insight into the past, present and future of nonprofits in Canada.
AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?
MG: The short answer would be that my “to do” list never seems to get any shorter! But seriously, the issues affecting our organization are the same as those affecting most nonprofits in Canada: changing demographics, the decrease in social capital, volunteerism, funding, etc. I spend most of my time (awake and asleep) thinking about how to keep our association healthy and relevant, and keeping our staff and volunteers engaged.