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AWA CEO Corinne Cheeseman on finding opportunities in a crisis

Starting a new job in the midst of a global pandemic has its challenges, but for self-described optimist and new Australian Water Association (AWA) CEO Corinne Cheeseman, there are also opportunities to be found.

Cheeseman began her new role in May, coming from global consulting firm PwC, where she had been a senior leader in the Data Consulting practice since 2018. 

In any year, she would have been joining the organisation during a particularly busy period. May is when AWA holds its annual Ozwater conference, bringing together thousands of water professionals for three days of technical presentations, inspiring keynote speakers and networking events. 

But this year, May was very different. The COVID-19 crisis meant the AWA team had to transform Ozwater’20 into a digital-only event in a matter of weeks. The result is Ozwater’20 Online, which offers the same high-quality experience Ozwater is known for – virtually.

For Cheeseman, this digital shift is just the start of what she aims to achieve as CEO. While she is hopeful Ozwater’21 will be held face-to-face in Adelaide as planned, she is eager for AWA to capitalise on this digital focus by finding new ways to deliver content and enhance the member experience. 

“I was really excited to come to AWA when Ozwater went online. I certainly can’t take the credit for the fantastic work the team has done, but it was very connected to who I am, having worked with organisations to transform digitally,” she said.

“It’s quite a new and innovative way of doing things. I don’t think many organisations in Australia have been able to achieve what the team did in such a short period of time.”

She also sees an opportunity for AWA to use digital approaches and data to help connect its members in new ways.

“I think COVID and being in isolation has really helped people become more comfortable with [digital technologies],” she said.

“Our members have different interests in different parts of the industry and might want to connect with like-minded people. So we’ll be looking at what sorts of services they would value and how we can make that easy and seamless.”

On a personal level, the shift to working from home and virtual meetings has allowed Cheeseman to dive straight into her new role. She has been able to meet with AWA’s Directors, committees and staff over Zoom and get the lay of the land a lot faster than she otherwise would.

“I think the fact I’m not having to get on a plane and travel to meet people so early in my job lets me do what most new leaders do in the first six months in a matter of weeks, which is a listening tour, spending time talking to people, building relationships and understanding the organisation,” she said.

A water family

Not that Cheeseman is unfamiliar with AWA. She has spent the majority of her 24-year career in the water sector, including seven years with the association. 

Over the years, her roles have changed from water quality analysis to community education and more strategic positions, but her passion has remained as strong as it was when she first started in Sydney Water’s algal lab, fresh from completing a biology degree at university. 

With a keen interest in the environment, she couldn’t believe she got to spend her days looking down a microscope.

“It was amazing to be analysing samples and thinking about the impact on water quality and the environment,” she said.

Soon after, Cheeseman was selected to be part of a small team to open a new Sydney Water laboratory in Brisbane, where she worked for nearly 18 months. Upon her return to Sydney, she moved into water quality sampling and reporting with the utility, and completed a master’s degree in environmental management.

“I did that for a few years and loved it, and then I got the opportunity to get involved with [citizen water monitoring group] Streamwatch, and I fell in love with the community engagement side of water management,” she said.

Cheeseman pursued this passion, ultimately joining AWA as Education Manager in 2004 before her promotion to the executive team as the National Manager for Technical Programs. 

It was during this time that she developed an interest in big-picture, strategic thinking.

"My time at AWA gave me a national view of the water sector,” she said.

“I got to travel around the country and meet these amazing people who did a lot of water saving education in schools and communities during the Millennium Drought.”

She went on to lead a large data and analytics team at Sydney Water before moving to PwC to challenge herself with a role outside of the water sector. But she always intended to return.

“When I decided to apply for the role of CEO at AWA, I reflected on my career and thought about the jobs I had enjoyed the most,” she said.

"I would say that my previous roles at AWA were some of my favourite times of my career so far; having the opportunity to work in water with a national context and connecting with people across the country to make an impact.”

The path ahead

Today, Cheeseman remains connected to many of the people she started out with, something she sees as one of the many benefits of a career in water.

“I often refer to it as the water family; people build relationships they’ll have throughout their whole career,” she said.

“It’s that kind of industry: it’s large enough but small enough for you to have all the benefits of that.”

With challenges such as climate change, bushfires, the inequity of access to water across the country and, now, the coronavirus to tackle, Cheeseman said it’s more important than ever for the sector to be connected. 

She said the role of AWA is to not only enable these connections, but to also help inspire action. 

“We can share and connect much more than we have in the past using digital forums, which provides a real opportunity,” she said.

“Thinking about the things that will have the most positive impact is really important in order to help create change and action that will help the sector to sustainably manage water into the future.”

And while some thought she was crazy for choosing to switch jobs during a pandemic, Cheeseman is positive and excited about the months ahead. 

“People said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to change jobs right now?’ But I’m an optimist,” she said.

“The water industry is an essential service and, while it certainly goes through growth and decline, there is no doubt that it is crucial to quality of life and the economy. 

“Water is so important to Australia and we can’t forget that there are still some places in drought. There are still areas that we as an industry are working on, and I’m really looking forward to leading at this time, as I can see many opportunities that lie ahead in the next year and beyond."