Stephen Robinson is no stranger to the SFPUC.
As the new Wastewater Enterprise Capital Program Director, Robinson doesn’t think of his job as merely a title but as an opportunity to steer the agency forward towards a more sustainable future.
“Five words for me in a title is just too many,” Robinson said through laughter. “I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the 70s and 80s where life was complex. It roused a passion for purity, the outdoors, the environment, and people.”
Beyond his five-word title, Robinson brings a wealth of knowledge to the SFPUC with his unique style of servant leadership, and passion for community, and environmental stewardship.
After growing up during the Northern Ireland conflict commonly known as “the Troubles,” Robinson joined the military before getting into consulting work in Scotland.
He then moved to California in 2007 and started working with the SFPUC. His work has been on the wastewater side as a consultant with MWH/Stantec before the opportunity for his current role opened up.
“The transition and the journey to the SFPUC was evolutionary,” said Robinson. “When this opportunity arose I had already been working with the program so it wasn’t just an opportunity for me but an opportunity for the City and our community to adapt to what was happening with the program and industry.”
Although the Wastewater Enterprise Capital Program is technically meant for the Wastewater Enterprise, the program is in fact delivered under the Infrastructure Bureau as a partnership between the two.
“It’s not just the SSIP [Sewer System Improvement Program],” said Robinson. “Our capital plan for wastewater is a mixture of primarily SSIP but also R&R [Rehab and Renewal] and other facilities and infrastructure-type projects like the Ocean Beach Climate Change Adaptation Project, the new Southeast Community Center at 1550 Evans and the new treatment plant at Treasure Island.”
Robinson is being encouraged to use his prior personal and professional experiences to bring a fresh perspective and help ensure the successful delivery of the capital plan. He points to servant leadership as his main philosophy and prioritizes what he considers the “Five Ps”: purpose, passion, perseverance, patience, and positivity.
“There’s a great talent pool here at the SFPUC and the City and it doesn’t take some new guy to come in and start telling people what to do,” said Robinson. “Steve Jobs said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’ I’m a firm believer in serving the team that are already onboard because they know a lot more than I do.”
Robinson said that servant leadership is about breaking from the traditional hierarchy and finding strength in everyone’s respective passions regardless of their background, race, or gender.
As people realize their full potential, Robinson believes the Agency will become best equipped to invest in its overall mission.
“We are all invested in the vision whether you’re a consultant or the general manager or anybody in between,” said Robinson. “We all should hopefully have a similar vision or alignment with what that vision is, especially when it comes to our core values.”
Robinson’s transition into his new role at the SFPUC could not have been any timelier. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt industries across the globe, agencies including the SFPUC are looking for more ways to be sustainable during this challenging period.
“I spent the first few months talking one-on-one to over 50 people,” said Robinson. “I just had lots of little quiet conversations, closed the door, and said, ‘How are things going?’ ‘Tell me what’s working and what’s not,’ and ‘What do we do?’ I just listened.”
Companies and agencies across multiple sectors are navigating through an unpredictable landscape. Robinson sees that challenge as an opportunity to create a more agile culture. Adapting to cultural shifts like remote work, changing markets and a more tech-savvy workforce, helps everyone pull in the same direction.
“Things are changing and the virus now is just another thing that’s causing us to adapt,” said Robinson. “We have to be ready and be nimble. This is drama. This is real life too, and whether you’re working off a laptop or going through Citrix, or you’re at home or at work or literally turning that valve or digging that trench, life goes on. We just have to figure out the way to do it safely and keep going.”
Robinson said that, similar to COVID-19, there is a surge that the agency has to ready itself for in terms of its capital projects.
“There was a lot of talk about bending the curve with COVID-19 and flattening doesn’t actually reduce the number of cases – it just spreads it out a bit and lets our society and our healthcare systems cope,” said Robinson. “That’s a real acknowledgement that we can’t cure this thing yet, so let’s at least flatten the curve. It’s a very similar analogy for what’s happening with our capital work.”
Although the outlook may seem bleak for some, Robinson has a keen optimism for the future. His vision for the agency over the next decade could be summed up into one word: sustainability. Whether it is construction, organization, regulation, or working with different generations, Robinson believes the agency must evolve steadily and strategically towards the future.
“I would hope that by then we’re healthy, we’re more strategic about what we’re doing, and we’re basing more of our decisions on data,” said Robinson.
“I think about the workforce, the environment, and financial affordability. There won’t be enough people, the environment is struggling with climate change, and there won’t be as much money to go around. It all kind of comes together and this is our moment as a generation, right? — To try and do something different for the better.”