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Interview with Amanda Lewry

Amanda is General Manager, Sustainable Infrastructure and joined SA Water in June 2020, bringing more than 27 years’ experience in leading and managing diverse teams.

She has worked across multiple industries including water, mining, oil and gas, electricity generation, defence, transport and local government. Amanda brings a deep understanding of the water sector drawn from more than a decade of leading asset, operations and delivery teams in the industry.

Our Branch President Elsie Mann and newsletter committee member, Carly Soutter, had the pleasure of meeting Amanda to understand more about her background, her inspiration, and any advice that she would offer to young water professionals wanting to make it in this industry.

AWA: You moved to Adelaide during a pandemic - how have you managed? What have been some of the challenges? Were there any silver linings?

AL: There’s always a yin and yang; Although we dearly miss our home in Murrumbateman in NSW, moving to Adelaide meant arriving to a comparatively unchanged lifestyle. My husband and I are ex-Navy and love the ocean. We love the opportunity to live a relatively normal life near our beautiful beaches in Adelaide.

However, some aspects didn’t work in our favour. Through much of the transition from NSW to SA, my husband lived separate from our family due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. I was not expecting to be single parenting for big blocks of time and I found this incredibly challenging. Typically my husband is a stay-at-home dad, so this was a considerable adjustment for our family.

Secondly, upon arrival into SA, my first two weeks comprised of having my first SA Water inductions and team meet and greet experiences entirely on Webex. As you can imagine this was an unusual environment to commence building relationships. My experience working in global firms offered a taste of this, however, this environment was quite unusual.

AWA: How have you and your team successfully navigated through the challenges of COVID-19?

AL: The SA Water team had been effectively navigating COVID-19 before I started. Throughout my recruitment I observed SA Water was very quick to transition to working from home, social distancing, field/laboratory staff implemented split shifts successfully. Much of this was embedded as business as usual.

There were certainly some challenges. One example was the unusual and non-standard Murray Darling Basin Authority work that our River Murray Operations Unit had to respond to in relation to the Victoria, New South Wales and South Australian border changes. I am so proud of the agile way that team has adapted, given the separation they faced from each other and loved ones as well as regular COVID testing. Our Melbourne labs team have also continued delivering services to Yarra Valley Water and Melbourne Water – near COVID hotspots. Regardless of the discomfort and challenges, our people genuinely engaged in wearing masks in public, on planes to our regional areas and while using lab equipment and all with the uncertainty of not going to too far and working in split shifts. Much of great initiatives and ideas often came from the bottom up – which is such a positive result of our organisation’s culture.

AWA: What are the top three things you draw on from your diverse background and experience in regional and urban utilities as well as in private industry in your role at SA Water?

AL: The water sector consistently demonstrates the strongest sense of collaboration – which for me is an incredibly important value. No matter if it’s metro or regional, the water sector is so collaborative. The thing that keeps drawing me back into sector, is how wonderfully people work together with a common goal – doing good by the community, even when you work as part of supply chain to the sector. I know from my experience client-side and as a consulting contractor, everyone is so united and focused on that common goal of clean water and sanitation for communities. More specifically, collaboration with supply chain is something I will draw on while working closely with other utilities – I regularly receive calls from other water utilities curious to discuss how we are dealing with some of the challenges they’re facing – and equally I’m incredibly curious about what they’re doing in mutually challenging areas where we could benefit from some new thinking. I will always value the water industry’s strong collaboration.

I will lean on the leadership characteristics of integrity, honesty and moral courage. I joined the military at 16 and after successfully completing school I joined military university at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), Canberra. From my earliest military days a strong leadership focus was instilled. After joining as an Army officer, I moved to the Navy, and found myself regularly looking at myself in the mirror while making value based decisions – and being comfortable you’ve made right decision with integrity and having moral courage to make those difficult decisions. Whether we like it or not, as we get more senior we will regularly be faced with challenging decisions and its about whether we can be decisive and honest in making these difficult decisions.

Lastly - communicating with impact is incredibly important to me. I’m so grateful for the past three years I spent, both at PWC and GHD Advisory, in consulting. These roles taught me management consulting tools and techniques that allow you to absorb, synthesise and play back information in an easy and impactful way. The techniques also allow me to quickly get across a large volume and breadth of information, which is particularly helpful in this role.

AWA: You are about six months into the new role, what has surprised you, or isn't as you expected? 

AL: I was really surprised – and grateful – to have the priviledge of working with a majority female Executive group together with our CE David Ryan. I had never dreamed in my whole career I’d have that opportunity – and I’m really liking it! The support I get from my colleagues is outstanding, the collaboration in that environment was highly unexpected. When I joined the team it was a 50/50 gender split which has since changed. Of course a diverse blend is important but it is lovely, after working in strongly male-dominated sectors my whole life, I had never had that experience and didn’t know what that would be like. However, I am really enjoying it!

AWA: What new belief, behaviours, or habits, adopted within the past five years, have most positively impacted your life?

AL: There are three things I have incorporated into my life which help to centre me as a person:

  • Mindfulness – we all have challenges that will try to take us off-kilter and my three-minute mindfulness phone app is a wonderful way of re-centering;
  • Thankfulness – sadly too often as a society we focus on the issues and challenges, rather than on the great stuff; and lastly,
  • Being comfortable with being uncomfortable – so often we are thrown into situations where we feel we are out of our depth. After some great advice from a former mentor I am embracing this feeling and, think about it, that’s life! If your’re not pushing yourself and constantly in your comfort zone you’re not being the best person you can possibly be.

AWA: Can you tell us about a purchase of less than $100 that has most improved your life?

AL: It took me a long time to think of the answer to this question, but it is my glasses case! There is a story – Five years ago I travelled to Uluru with family and friends, and I felt a really strong spiritual connection to the landscape and was fascinated with its culture and artwork. I was fortunate to be one of the first people who toured through an amazing art installation and the artwork on my glasses case was by a Utopian artist and reminded me of the whole experience at Uluru. Not only is it handy to carry my glasses, pen and lip gloss but it’s a lovely reminder of the deep sense of belonging I felt, and my connection with family and friends. The case is my second and it took three years to track down the same print by the same artist. Our organisation’s connection to Reconciliation, genuine belief in our strategy and actions like having Acknowledgement of Country at every meeting resonates really strongly with me.

AWA: What have you become better at saying “no” to, and what approaches have worked for you?

AL: I’d like to reframe this question. The military taught me to say “no” pretty quickly. If the answer was no, I would make the tough decision and make it as early as possible. Saying “no” wasn’t something I struggled with. I will take on a lot, not normally to the point of being unable to handle it.  I learned in past five years it’s really important to ask for help – as opposed to saying no. I hear my mentor – an amazing man from the water sector – in the back of my mind, “Amanda if you don’t ask, you don’t get”. In consulting there is often those awkward deal-closing, elephant-in-the-room questions and sadly, in those moments we can sometimes feel if we show vulnerability by asking for help people may see this as a sign of weakness. But if you don’t ask you don’t get!

AWA: What advice do you give to prospective young water professionals, or generally to women considering a career in STEM?

AL: What I’d say to anyone – particularly as a mother (and mother of daughters), the single biggest influence in my daughter’s life is the same-sex parent, me. The mantra in my house is don’t let anytone tell you you can’t do anything, be open to opportunities and grab them with both arms.

If you can’t visualise something, or don’t know anyone [in a particular career] or your family experience is with traditional gender-orientated careers, this is not necessarily a deliberate barrier – it’s simply not seen in their upbringing, such that the young person’s environmental influence is more powerful than the genetic influences. I have a daughter who wants to be an asset manager (who knew!?). For me its about what excites you? What makes you interested?

At SA Water we are doing a lot of work with the University of Adelaide including a careers program which is particularly focused on STEM, something we are very passionate about.

For those in a STEM environment at any level, let’s support each other, embrace and lift our colleagues up because we are making a difference. I’m so blessed to have worked with such talented women in STEM, regardless of sector. These women are outstanding and make such a difference in bringing a unique perspective and greater richness of thinking. So my advice is be confident that the value you add in your STEM career is significant.