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In conversation with Tom Mollenkopf

3 min read

Early days

Mollenkopf’s first experience in the water industry began at South East Water as the company secretary and legal counsel, where he was stationed for ten years. His experience in corporate services and corporate strategy uncovered an interest in water policy, and from there he was recruited to join the International Water Association as Deputy Executive Director. After a number of years in London, Tom Mollenkopf returned to Australia and joined the Australian Water Association (AWA) in 2007 as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), where he continues his work today.

Pressing issues for the industry and the country

“The biggest issue confronting us at the moment is our climate in terms of learning more about the ten or twenty year time span between proverbial droughts and flooding rains. In Australia water scarcity generally refers to variability and volatility of rainfall rather than lack of water,”

“We’re also going through some very interesting phases with desalination and recycling technology. Acceptance of these new technologies and demonstrating the need for them, when they are expensive to implement, is quite a task for the water sector. We no longer have access to an unlimited supply so we’re now being forced to look at more expensive options for water security.”

Association advocacy

Mollenkopf describes the AWA’s role as a facilitator and a catalyst for change and policy-making. “The most powerful way that we can benefit the community and the sector is by allowing people to exchange knowledge and share in meetings,”

The AWA plays an important advocacy role within the national and international spheres. “There are many occasions where we’re called on by governments in other countries to participate in working groups, to provide advice and to connect people with the right sort of experts as part of informing government decision making policy, says Mollenkopf”

CEO as all-rounder

Mollenkopf describes his position as “being both broad and deep.”

“You have to be strategic as well as be able to fix the photocopier! Associations tend to do a great deal – you’ve got to be able to sit at the high table with the Minister and then be able to talk with people in the field. In terms of the breadth, you’ve got to be able to cover a great diversity of issues. The idea that one can just specialise in a narrow field is comical.”

At the centre of Mollenkopf’s role is communication in every form, and he notes that his experiences abroad have helped shape the way he relates to a variety of stakeholders and lobby groups. “Working across different nations and regions is a bit of a matrix just like any other corporate structure. When you’re talking to government, policy makers or the community, you think about how you select your language so you are actually going to be understood, and to ensure you have a meaningful conversation.”

The attraction of membership

“Association membership can be attractive to many people irrespective of where they are in their career,” reflects Mollenkopf.

“We find that we have a very strong young water professionals section and that they’re interested in meeting fellow young professionals, finding mentors to grow their understanding, and increasing their technical and managerial expertise in the sector by attending workshops and conferences.

“As you move through your career cycle, you find people want to use the association as a way to give back and contribute to the sector and generate community understanding, have something published, get involved in our policy forums, or help shape the future direction of the sector.”

Tips for good governance

“I consider myself quite fortunate that we’ve got such a highly functional board and a pretty good governance framework. “From a practical perspective, regardless of your governance strategy, I think that all boards respond to the same sort of things. The first thing is they like to be treated professionally, treated with respect.”

Mollenkopf also stresses the importance of preparing well for board meetings.

“Having board papers that actually show some discipline and show the thought behind proposals means that when you get to a board meeting you can focus on the critical issue rather than arguing about the data. I don’t think any board wants to be surprised, so if there’s plans in the wings, try to let them know. That means not concealing bad news, and there’s always bad news. Alerting to the bad news means you can move on to the solution.

“At the end of the day, when things go well, everybody is happy. Everyone wants to be on the winning team,” says Mollenkopf,

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