Welcome to another exciting edition of the Leadership Toolbox, Fletch present and accounted for! As I write this month’s article, the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup is once again upon us and my Golden Knights are in the hunt. Not that this has much to do with my topic this month, but I like to personalize things when the opportunity arises because leaders are people — and sports fans too! Last month, I discussed the free company t-shirt, and how creating a caring environment for all employees — especially new hires — makes it worth the investment. This month, I am excited to tie leadership to a personal experience about well rehabilitation.
Long before I got involved with the water well drilling program at RED HORSE, the U.S. Air Force’s heavy construction units, I found myself overseas completing critical infrastructure evaluations at various locations. I arrived at the coordinates of a water well, drilled before I was born, thought to be dry. To provide some background, I have an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering with a concentration in water quality and resources. This did not make me an expert, but I had studied groundwater and wells before, making me the most qualified person to address the situation at hand: determining the best course of action to provide a water source for this location.
Prior to arriving on-site, I received a brief description of the issue. With a generator hooked up and running, the pump would run for about 15 minutes before shutting off suddenly. I double-checked whether the water trickled off or shut off immediately, and heard the latter. First order of business: visit and personally inspect the well, and gather any paperwork on the history.
I found the site neatly constructed. It had the necessary elements to pull water directly from the ground into a purification unit to produce clean water for operations. The pump controls had ample protection, and the generator and purification units sat on a level concrete pad. Clearly, experienced drillers had built this well.
I began to inquire how and where to gather information on wells that the military had drilled. As I learned, all roads generally lead to the Army Corps of Engineers. After many hours of researching, I found the database and tracked down what should have been the number for this well. No paperwork on file — just my luck. Remembering an old piece of paper I had seen in the pump control panel, I returned to the well site. It felt like holding a historical document. I knew as I held the paper, which explained optimal settings for the pump operation, that the captain and master sergeant who signed it led the team to drill this well. I considered it my job to try to make sure their efforts were not in vain. I took on a sense of personal responsibility for this lone well.
In my new role as cold case investigator on the history of this well, I left no geologic formation unturned. I learned that the unit that drilled this well moved their central operating location several times — most likely contributing to the loss of paperwork. The drillers also built it over 30 years ago, before you could scan a document with your smartphone camera.
Once I determined that the only history of the well was the handwritten SOPs in the control panel, it was time to fire up the generator and send it. After going through what felt like a jurisdictional debate between departments in an old “Die-Hard” movie, I managed to get a generator on site to conduct tests. I had no specific testing equipment besides a 5-gallon bucket to measure the flow rate and what little knowledge I had from my education. We hooked up the generator with everyone from our small team present. I had annoyed everyone with talk of my cold case over the course of several weeks.
The generator hummed with life and the smell of diesel fumes filled the air. The time came to push the black button and turn on the pump. For the first time in my life, I experienced the joy of watching water come out of the ground and knowing the years I spent in a classroom and late nights studying engineering translated to something in the real world. I measured the flow rate, timing how long it took to fill the 5-gallon bucket: 3 seconds. A little public-school math led me to 100 gpm, pretty good for a well not run for 30 years. I smelled the water. No odd smells. I rubbed a few drops on the back of my hand and waited a few minutes. No adverse skin reactions. Finally, I dipped my pinkie in the discharging flow and put it on the tip of my tongue. Salty! At the 15-minute mark the flow interrupted abruptly, as if someone had hit a shut-off valve. I had seen all I needed to see.
I determined this was a mechanical problem, not a dry well. I recommended that the unit that had drilled the well should send a team to troubleshoot and replace the pump, as it had sat unused since its completion. The command team thanked me for my recommendation and my steadfast dedication to this case. I continued to follow-up to see what would become of Well X, as I called it. Last I heard, command decided to drill another well right beside Well X, despite costs and others confirming my recommendations.
You may wonder about the leadership lesson in this story. One of the easiest ways to dishearten a person: give them a mission and the full autonomy to carry it out, and then go a different direction without any explanation as to why their efforts fell short. Fortunately for me, I was hooked on drilling regardless of what decision was made. I had seen the culmination of what drillers could do and how it could impact the world.
I have since garnered more stories, friends, experiences and adventures, and look forward to many more. What is your Well X? Is there someone filled with potential in your ranks, owning a mission you gave them? Will you foster their growth by showing them how their efforts played a part in your decisions and the direction of the company? Or will you leave them feeling confused as to why they bothered to make such an effort? Another great thought to consider while straightening up your leadership toolbox. Until next time, Fletch over and out.