Diversity Supports Better Decisions at SA Water

By Alexandra Cain

Jacqueline Guerin, SA Water’s recently appointed chief financial officer is in good company. Guerin is part of a senior leadership team comprising a majority of women.

Guerin leads the finance, pricing, information technology, data and performance and supply chain streams, in addition to the Adelaide Services Delivery project. “Together with my fellow senior leaders, I provide strategic direction for the organisation, making sure our financial and commercial outcomes protect SA Water’s long-term viability and ensuring we continue to improve our performance and innovate.”

SA Water has a focus on increasing opportunities for women in leadership positions and in jobs not traditionally performed by women, including field-based roles across science, technology, engineering and maths, as well as in the trades.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do to increase the representation of women in business. We take a top-down approach to gender equity in the workplace, and our employment processes and policies underpin that. We try to remove inequities and ensure there’s a real science to the way we recruit people, looking to address unconscious bias and employ people on merit,” she says.

The organisation’s front-foot forward approach to diversity is not just based around gender. It’s also dedicated to being more diverse across the business in terms of culture, religion, race and ability. It has a reconciliation plan and aims to grow its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment target from 2.5 per cent to three per cent as a minimum across the business.

“Having real diversity around the table means you get different perspectives and more robust and in-depth conversations, which ultimately leads to better decisions,”

Jacqueline Guerin, CFO | SA Water

As CFO, it’s no surprise Guerin uses a dashboard to record workforce statistics including the graduate retention rate, how many young women it supports in STEM projects through its work with Adelaide University and how many opportunities it’s given women to grow their careers within the business. The dashboard also records the number of hours spent in the business on learning and diversity – it’s up to 500 – and the number of people attending diversity inclusion events. “This has become a challenge during COVID since we can’t do that face-to-face.”

Given its focus on inclusion, the business has always supported flexible working arrangements, which stood it in good stead when COVID hit and office staff had to very quickly transition to working from home. It has subsequently transitioned to a hybrid model with some staff at home and some on site, and it’s currently working with its employees to design a way forward for future working arrangements.

“We’re looking at how we make sure we still have collaboration and team building and don’t get into siloed environments, while making sure our employees are safe and comfortable in the way we’re moving through something society hasn’t had to deal with before,” she adds.

The pandemic has also prompted the business, which has many interconnected and complex parts, to double down on its relationship with the community.

“Our 1.7 million customers are really important to us. We know they value price, responsiveness, reliable water and sewage and our empathy when things don’t go to plan. Sustainability, smart water capture, recycling and reuse, as well as ethical and transparent leadership is really important to them.”

A new business cycle

SA Water has just started a new four-year regulatory cycle with a significantly lower weighted average cost of capital than it enjoyed in the past, a direct result of current economic conditions. This impacts its rate of return and revenue.

Says Guerin: “With all this going on, we still need to deliver safe, reliable drinking water and sanitation. We’re in a period of significant challenge and opportunity, but our challenges are opportunities to look at our processes and practices, innovate more and use technology and digital options wherever we can. This will allow us to be more efficient and keep our staff safe, especially those out in the field who have continued to work throughout the pandemic.”

As a utility, SA Water has had people on the ground throughout the pandemic ensuring the state has access to clean, fresh water no matter what.

“If you work in the office, it’s relatively easy to go home, be productive and use technology to keep in touch. But it’s a very different scenario for people who are out there when a pipe burstsbreaks.”

Guerin was appointed to the role during the pandemic, a process that was quite out of the ordinary. “It’s difficult to go through a recruitment process where your interviews are online, including panel interviews. It’s hard to pick up people’s body language when you don’t have that human interaction.”

It’s also been challenging building up internal networks when most people are working from home. “I met everybody over a WebEx or a Zoom and it does take longer to build relationships doing it that way. You start to realise how much you get from being in the office and being able to go to someone’s desk and ask them a question. So it’s been a really interesting experience. Now we’re in a blended environment it’s been so nice to meet people in person.”

As for the future, Guerin and the senior leadership team’s focus will be on cementing SA Water’s position as an employer of choice.

“When young people can see female leadership in an organisation, it shows them that pathway exists, there’s a career opportunity and they will be considered for roles on their merit. That’s such an important message to send. We want to have a really flexible and inclusive workforce that flows from our recruitment processes to everything we do.”

Guerin says it’s important not to take the services water utilities provide for granted. “It’s wonderful to work in an industry where we’re delivering clean water and sanitation, which underpins our standard of living. We are so fortunate. It means the opportunity for education and advancement in every area of life is greatly enhanced. It’s fantastic to work in this industry and serve the community. And part of that is our workforce reflecting the community as a whole.”