Talking with... Claire Sharp, Customer Director at Northumbrian Water Group

The water sector isn’t always perceived to be the most forward-thinking. It may not be as glamorous as technology or retail, but don’t let appearances fool you. Having worked alongside utilities companies for over 7 years, our Associate Director Richard Archer has seen the creativity first-hand, and knows that the industry is actively tackling major issues like diversity and climate change head-on.

For the second episode of ‘Talking with…’ Richard spoke to Claire Sharp, Customer Director at Northumbrian Water Group. Claire first joined Northumbrian over 30 years ago, before they even had computers. Claire has seen so much in her career that she has incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to the water sector, so we were very keen to speak with her. Richard and Claire spoke about diversity, innovation, the best advice she’s received, and more. You can listen to the episode below or have a look at the key points from the conversation.

Why Claire still gets excited about the water sector

Claire joined Northumbrian Water Group at 17 in a traineeship, which had her go to university two days a week for five years to attain a degree in Business Studies. She had to spend evenings and weekends studying on top of her almost full-time job, but she hasn’t lost the drive that kept her interested back then.

Claire attributes that to the fact that water is one of life’s necessities, and she takes great pride in being part of a company that brings fresh and clean water to millions of people. She considers Northumbrian Water Group custodians of the environment, making sure that habitats and species are protected while providing their service. It’s this sense of purpose that keeps her enthusiastic about the sector and its future.

Advice for aspiring female leaders in utilities

Claire reflected on her career up to this point and thinks that the sense of purpose has kept pushing her forward, so encourages other women to find something they enjoy doing and are passionate about. Her passion is the reason that she always put herself forward for more responsibility and tried to go the extra mile. The industry used to be more male-dominated and Claire knew she had to push herself to do more.

Claire also has worked across many different teams and business areas over the years – working in marketing, customer service, transformation, operations, and more – and she believes these experiences make her a better Director today. Claire also thinks her mentors helped her a great deal, especially in her early career. She suggests that all aspiring leaders find people that you can talk openly about their goals with and how to get there.

What’s the best advice you’ve received from mentors?

Claire’s boss when she was in her late 20’s was an influential mentor, as he always pushed her out of her comfort zone and supported her with training and coaching. He made her believe that she could achieve things when she didn’t necessarily believe it herself.

Another mentor was a boss who gave her a big opportunity. Claire learned from him that she needed to develop resilience (or ‘bounce-back-ability’ as she put it). All good leaders make mistakes, but it’s how you bounce back from them that counts. The hard times are when you’ll learn the most about yourself.

When studying at Newcastle Business School, one of Claire’s professors taught her a valuable lesson about authenticity. If you can’t be yourself, then you’re putting a lot of energy into playing a role you don’t fully believe in. You could use the energy better elsewhere, and the team would be better off with an authentic leader. People will only buy into your vision if they know you’re being authentic.

Diversity in the water sector

The water sector has become much more gender balanced at the Board and Executive level than it once was (Sarah McMath, Chief Executive at MOSL and guest on the first episode for one). In fact, half of the Executive team at Northumbrian Water Group is female, which Claire noted made for better discussions and better decisions. Yet, in her first senior leadership conference, Claire remembered that she was the only woman in the room.

Water isn’t the sexiest sector, Claire admitted, but there is a diverse range of roles within it that many probably aren’t aware of. The sector must market itself better to change people’s perception of water and attract a more diverse talent pool that can bring diverse outlooks and backgrounds.

What skills are water companies looking for?

Northumbrian Water Group are currently focusing on the war for talent and looking at what skills will be important in the future. Claire thinks that collaboration and emotional intelligence will be vital, especially as the way we work changes. People who excel at working together will do very well.

But equally, so will data analytics and problem solving. Northumbrian are undergoing a massive smart meter transformation, so the ability to draw insights from data and bring ideas together to solve complex issues will be key.

Innovation in the water sector

The perception of the water sector to the public is that it just keeps the water flowing to their taps, but there is so much more to it than that. There is a lot of creativity within utilities, but Claire agreed that they should be louder about it.

Northumbrian Water Group in particular goes above and beyond to foster innovation. The organisation has Innovation Ambassadors that work across departments to collaborate on challenges set by the business. There are also regular internal competitions set, where employees are tasked with creating a solution to a daily problem they face, and winners receive prizes.

On top of that, the company runs its Innovation Festival, where people from hundreds of organisations in many industries meet and work on tackling tasks together. This could be addressing technical challenges like leakage from pipes or behavioural ones, like improving hydration in the older generation that might opt for a cup of tea over some water.

The future of the water sector

Environmental issues are becoming more prominent than ever. Claire noted that there has been an increased interest in protecting local areas recently, and one of Northumbrian’s biggest challenges at the moment is getting customers to see water as the valuable resource it is, rather than an infinite well. Flooding and dry summers caused by climate change puts more pressure on water companies and reducing wastage would help greatly.

Another aspect the industry needs to tackle is digitalisation. Utility companies aren’t as far ahead as other industries in this regard, and lockdown changed customer expectations massively. Whichever water company spearheads digitalisation will likely find success, which is why Northumbrian Water Group is aiming to become the most digital water company. They are already undergoing an ambitious smart meter transformation, but improving customer experience is just as important.

There will also be economic challenges as we come out of the pandemic, because water poverty has increased during lockdown. The poorest people have been hit hard by the pandemic. Northumbrian wants to support them and has committed to eradicating water poverty by 2030.

One good thing about working in the water sector is that people will always need water; demand isn’t going anywhere. However, the industry must keep up with the fast-moving world if it is to stay relevant and attract diverse talent. There is no shortage of innovation, but marketing itself and recruiting top people to work in the sector will be a big hurdle.

12th October

From the Experts Career Advice Podcasts