Orange County Branch Newsletter
Mentorship Corner - Blake Anderson
An Interview with Blake Anderson, General Manager
By Yazdan Emrani, P.E.
Blake Anderson is a Southern California native who grew up on the north side of Pomona. He enjoyed the peace and security of growing up in a small town. As a kid he enjoyed bike rides with his buddies and was in the Boy Scouts. Blake was very adventurous and when he started college right after high school, it took him three colleges and four change of majors before he finally landed in Cal Poly Pomona studying Aerospace Engineering. But then, he had an epiphany. The year was 1970 and it was Earth Day. After listening to the speeches for Earth Day on the quad, Blake knew what he wanted to do. So he went straight to the Registrar’s Office and changed his major to Civil Engineering. He graduated in 1972 from Cal Poly Pomona and went to work for Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (LACSD). At the time LACSD was spending a lot of money on research and new facilities and was recruiting young engineers from all over the country. Blake worked at LACSD for six years in various capacities including operations and maintenance. In 1978 he went to work for a private consulting firm for two years. He did Treatment Plant start-ups and operator training throughout Southern California. Blake then joined the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) in 1980. He started out by running the Operations Department which also included the Industrial Source Control. He worked in this capacity for a few years until he became Director of Technical Services in Mid 1980’s. Blake worked as the Director of Technical Services for 10 years. Working in this capacity gave Blake a first hand look and experience into the political and legislative workings of his industry. He started working with organizations such as AMSA and also went to Washington, D.C. from time to time to help work on issues of interest to OCSD. Later on in mid-1990’s he became the Acting Director of Engineering Department for a few months. When the then General Manager, Wayne Sylvester retired in 1995, and Don McIntyre became the new General Manger, Blake also was promoted to Assistant General Manager. He served in this capacity until the year 2000 when he became the General Manager.
I asked Blake about his thoughts on communications skills. He replied that he always looks for natural communicators at OCSD. He looks for how people interact with their colleagues and the Board and tries to encourage open and honest dialogs. Blake believes strongly in transparent and clear communications; be it with his employees, Board members, or the general public. Blake also believes that you have to be proactive with regulators. Blake gave me an example of that by describing the incident that happened in early September 2004. There was a discharge to the Santa Ana River due to a power outage at the treatment plant. OCSD gave the Board a complete coverage of what happened and their efforts in mitigating the problem. Later that year in early December, Blake was talking to a resident who expressed his appreciation on how the OCSD handled this incident. Blake had an interesting quote for this:
“There is virtually no risk in being open and honest; there is tremendous risk in being otherwise.”
Blake has an interesting management philosophy which he has implemented at OCSD. He believes strongly in environmental stewardship, use of asset management principles, shared leadership and developing activism throughout the organization, and most importantly having fun along the way.
Blake has a simple philosophy for motivating employees. “Treat everyone the same way, everyone has an important role and contribution to make; be respectful and honest; and have an open door policy.” Judging by his interaction with everyone and his easy going manner Blake practices what he preaches. Blake also talked about “Leadership by Example”. He believes that management sets the expectation at every organization and therefore “walking the Talk” by managers and senior staff is extremely important. This takes on a more significant role especially when dealing with “Conflict Resolution”. By setting the standard that every conflict can and will need to be resolved in a respectful and civil manner, you develop cooperative employees rather than combative ones.
Although OCSD does not have an official mentoring program, it does offer employees opportunities to further their professional career goals. OCSD does that through a generous tuition reimbursement plan. Over the years a number of employees have taken advantage of this by earning degrees at the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and even Ph.D. levels. I asked Blake’s opinion about what constitutes a good manager. He said that a good manager is one that sets goals, communicates effectively, is willing to delegate, and is consistent. As an example, he added, he gives his Assistant General Managers wide latitude and authority so that they can get the work done.
Blake counts “Fearlessness” as one of his main strengths. When something needs to get done, Blake is willing to push the issue as far as it needs to be pushed. He also has a sunny and optimistic disposition and has trust in his people. Blake cites the Groundwater Replenishment System as one of OCSD’s most successful public relations endeavors. This was a total team effort. Through active listening and responding to general public’s questions and concerns, OCSD staff received the public’s support. Through clear and concise communications with the Board, they also had the Board’s support. In the end, the OCSD Board demonstrated that it was not afraid to spend the money needed to adequately protect the environment.
Blake defines “success” as dealing with people around you fairly as you move an idea forward. He defines “failure” as being abusive of your power and position as you move an idea forward because it won’t last and can’t be successful.
Towards the end of our interview I asked Blake about his three major accomplishments in life. He cited raising two children who are now loving parents themselves, having helped build an organization that is both optimistic and competent, and developing a home life that is loving and spiritually based as his major accomplishments in life. By the way, you may be surprised to find out that Blake is an avid biker and in his spare time loves to take long trips and travel to different destinations on his bike.