A Measured Embrace of Change: Phil Newsum, ADCI

By • December 17, 2020

As we close out a tumultuous year of change and new ways of working, gathering and exchanging information, we talked with an association executive whose steady leadership has guided his team and association members with military precision and calm confidence.

Phil Newsum, executive director of the Association of Diving Contractors International, offers a unique perspective about navigating through tough waters: the same principles of active listening, vetting information before distribution and considering the whole team before acting is just as important in times of crisis as in normal times.

The extraordinary work ADCI has completed this year to guide divers itching to safely go back in the water is an example of the leadership industry stakeholders admire associations for. Phil reminds us that staying agile and embracing change as an opportunity to improve are two essential lessons we should take with us into 2021.

Association Adviser: Tell us about your professional background. You have degrees in English and secondary education, plus a master’s degree in educational leadership, but you’ve made a career out of your work with underwater diving. How did you make your way to the executive director role at ADCI?

Phil Newsum: Space and deep-sea exploration fascinated me a when I was a child. As I got older, those areas didn’t appear to be real career tracks for me, so I gravitated to the liberal arts and education. I served in secondary education as both a teacher and administrator for over twelve years before I was exposed to the profession of commercial diving. I chose my real passion and made the career switch twenty years ago.

I have never had a day of regret since I made that decision. In fact, I’m blessed for following my heart and going into commercial diving. I was the oldest student at commercial dive school, but this enabled me to approach my studies with more focus than the other students.

After graduating, I went to work in the Gulf of Mexico. After several years in the field, I worked as an instructor at the school I graduated from, Divers Institute of Technology.  In 2005, I went to work for the ADCI as director of program services and became the executive director in 2006.

“I have never had a day of regret since I made that decision. In fact, I’m blessed for following my heart and going into commercial diving.”

AA: Do you still volunteer with the Texas State Guard? If so, in what capacity?

PN: I am currently the commander of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade. Charlie Company contains the mission-ready packages (MRPs) for boats and dive in region two (Houston/Galveston region). Our primary mission is to provide high water rescue and other types of waterborne emergency response. Our dive work is primarily search and recovery. The Guard allows me to still serve, though in a different capacity than when I was on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. Its mission is more community-based, but the Guard lets me keep my feet in a military environment on a part-time basis. While deployed during Hurricane Harvey, I realized that I wanted to serve in the Guard until mandatory retirement (age 70).

AA: ADCI is built upon a foundation of industry-wide safe standards for commercial diving. How do you coordinate members, companies, and governments to bring attention to standards that need updating? What does the process look like? 

ADCI serving you since 1968PN: Communication is key. The association needs to leverage every tool to reach out and put forth best practices and lessons learned. Communication is also important when we solicit input from the industry for the development and revision of our International Consensus Standards for Commercial Diving and Underwater Operations.

The Consensus Standards are our premier guidance document for underwater safety. The process from development to issuance begins with a 90-day comment period for all global industry stakeholders.

Comments are then reviewed by our Consensus Standards Review Committee, which takes several months to perform a detailed review. Those comments which are considered to improve and better the document are then sent to the Safety and Technical Committees.

The final review and ratification of the revisions to the document are performed by the ADCI Board of Directors. Experts in diving operations and equipment manufacturing and maintenance sit on all of the committees and the ADCI Board. Those items which deal with medicine and physiology are developed and revised by the ADCI Physicians’ Diving Advisory Committee (PDAC). This is a group of 20 certified hyperbaric physicians representing occupational medical facilities and universities across the country.

When it is time for us to release the document, we use social media tools to announce the release and post the document on our website for free download.

AA: How does ADCI leadership keep their finger on the pulse of membership? 

PN: I think the key to leadership is being relevant and knowing what are needs of our members and industry. If you are meeting industry needs as they come up and change, you will always be relevant, and the issue of membership will take care of itself. It is also important to have robust program services. This ties into meeting industry needs. Robust program services bring in needed revenue, without inflating membership dues.

It is also important for the association to be dialed into any turns in the industry which may be affecting work positively or negatively. The association needs to have partnerships with other associations and government agencies to better address the needs of its members. This may mean forming alliances with unions or organizations to help address an industry challenge that is standing in the way of work. An industry challenge also can involve alliances between multiple industry associations, contractors, and end-users (clients) to address a major issue involving diver safety. This is where we see folks on both sides of the fence come together because safety isn’t proprietary.

“The association needs to have partnerships with other associations and government agencies to better address the needs of its members. This may mean forming alliances with unions or organizations to help address an industry challenge that is standing in the way of work.”

AA: What has ADCI done this year to support members through the pandemic and the challenges it has created for the diving industry?

PN: The association summoned all its partners to get ahead of the questions that both clients and contractors would soon be asking:

  • “How can we get personnel out on the job without infecting the entire crew?”
  • “How can we safely perform essential tasks without further spread of infection to personnel?”

We had to develop COVID-19 Guidance for Surface Diving Operations based upon feedback from our PDAC, CDC, and contractors. As we learned more about the virus, we would issue additional information notices, culminating with the one document our industry needed, Returning to Diving after Infection from COVID-19. This document outlines what protocols and examinations need to be undertaken if divers are suspected or confirmed to be asymptomatic, exhibiting mild, moderate, or severe symptoms.

In hindsight, the level of collaboration between industry stakeholders to address the challenges of COVID-19 was unprecedented on so many levels. It demonstrated that we can overcome the greatest of challenges if we all work together.

AA: What resources would you recommend to someone wanting to break into association work?

PN: Identify solid third-party vendors that can help you in areas that your team may not have expertise in. What you don’t want to do is to divert all of your team’s energy from accomplishing its mission with focusing on tools for delivery. This is where the exercise of performing a SWOT needs to take place, in conjunction with the development of a strategic plan. Do the things that will help your team achieve its goals and identify and leverage all things that can assist with this undertaking.

Stay agile! These are dynamic and fluid times, so be prepared for change and reinforce to your team to always embrace change as an opportunity to improve. Reinforce to your team that they are all leaders that need to employ active listening to their members and with each other.

“Reinforce to your team that they are all leaders that need to employ active listening to their members and with each other.”

AA: What do you think is the biggest challenge for association leaders as we head into 2021?

PN: Reinforcing confidence among members that the challenges from COVID-19 have provided us with a new and fresh way of delivering services and holding meetings and events that were normally delivered and held in large group settings. The emergence of virtual meetings and seminars have provided us a way to continue to spread our message and share lessons learned safely, while saving time and money lost with travel. There will be those that need time to understand that this should be framed as an opportunity and not a hinderance.

Once the vaccines have removed restrictions from travel and social distancing, we can return to those aspects of in-person gatherings that we deem necessary for meeting the needs of our members, but there will forever be some element of virtual meetings and conferencing as a by-product from COVID-19. The amount of greater engagement from a global standpoint warrants this.

AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?

PN: There really aren’t too many things that preoccupy my thoughts away from the job. Sometimes I get concerned about whether we are getting needed information out soon enough. But there is always the need for the vetting process to take place. Everyone wants to get things out as soon as possible, but you don’t want to have to retract something after it has been sent out and run the risk of greater confusion and misinformation. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” I have to always remind myself of this and not get caught up in any demands which compromise the vetting process.