Breonia Lindsey, one of the agency’s top African Americans, oversees maintenance and construction of the city’s 7,300-mile pipeline
Breonia Lindsey, one of the highest-ranking African Americans at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, wasn’t recruited from another agency to lead the Water Distribution Division of the nation’s largest municipally owned utility.
Instead, he worked his way up, starting in the trenches, digging holes to lay the pipes that make up L.A.’s water distribution system. In the early years of his career, Lindsey helped construct and maintain sections of the city’s more than 7,300 miles of pipeline.
Fast forward 30+-years and Lindsey is among the leading executives at LADWP, overseeing nearly 1,000 employees and an annual budget exceeding $250 million. How did he reach the top? Some say that Lindsey’s dynamic interpersonal and leadership skills ignited his progression. While he certainly possesses those traits, a conversation with him revealed another key to his success.
“I had a desire just to move forward to better the organization, not necessarily for my own gain,” said Lindsey with an earnest expression. “My ultimate goal is to make sure that our customers – our ratepayers – get the service that they’re paying for!”
Such an admirable objective wasn’t always at the forefront of Lindsey’s career plans. Like many high school seniors in 1985, he contemplated college and other higher education options. And then, his guidance counselor suggested he consider the LADWP Summer Youth Student Worker Program.
“So I went, interviewed and started working there over the summer and I fell in love with the work. I felt the camaraderie with the people and at that point, right out of high school, I realized that I could do this the rest of my career,” he recalled.
Starting out in an entry-level job in the field, Lindsey admitted that the opportunity to make more money initially influenced him to seek higher positions. “In my mind, I was just thinking financially. I figured if I was to make it to supervisor or a lead level, I would be fine,” he said.
But once he received that promotion, his viewpoint transformed – a change that Lindsey credited to the support of people who already served in management. Their desire to see him excel, Lindsey remembered, inspired him to pursue opportunities and positions to help others as well as the agency as a whole.
Over the years, he progressed through LADWP, ascending from maintenance laborer to maintenance and construction helper to water utility worker to water utility supervisor. His rise in management included stints as assistant superintendent, district superintendent and assistant division director of water distribution.
Lindsey also earned credentials as a certified Drinking Water Distribution System Operator with the State of California Department of Public Health and recognition as a leader with LADWP’s emergency preparedness management planning team.
Every assignment, including his current position as director of water distribution, allowed him to fulfill his dual mission of assisting his co-workers and improving the organization. Of course, each position also brought a range of challenges such as shoring up the city’s deteriorating water infrastructure or turning around the negative perception some members of the public have about LADWP.
Addressing those concerns, Lindsey said the agency has an aggressive, yet strategic, infrastructure replacement plan that entails identifying the “oldest pipe in the system” and “some of the contributing factors that cause our pipes to leak and attack those areas. Sometimes you have to target those areas where the pipes are leaking the most and once you target those areas, you’ll start seeing the leak numbers come down.”
Utilizing that formula has worked with LADWP’s rate decreasing in the last three years from 1,500 leaks annually to 1,100 leaks, noted Lindsey. “It’s dropped dramatically and it will continue to drop as long as we target the right pipe. This year, our goal is to install 34 miles of pipe and next year increase it to 36 miles of pipe. We’ll continue to do that until we replace the infrastructure that needs to be replaced to lower the leak rate.”
As for reversing negative public perception, Lindsey believes every LADWP employee can assist by performing assignments with the organization’s core values in mind. Those tenets include customer satisfaction, responsibility to the community, safety for employees and the public, and performing quality work in an efficient and effective manner.
“When you put all of these values together, it eventually describes the main core value and that’s integrity,” explained Lindsey. “If we’re working with integrity, if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, if we’re training our employees in the proper way to perform their functions and to treat our customers with dignity and respect, I think it will change the perception.”
Calling upon what he described as “the elephant analogy,” Lindsey poses a question to staff when they become discouraged from hearing some of the comments from the public. He asks them, “How do you eat an elephant?”
His response: “You eat an elephant one bite at a time. So, [if we take] one customer at a time, [we’ll] ultimately affect more than one. It’s almost like they tell a friend and they tell a friend. So, it’s day-by-day, one customer at a time, performing the functions and making sure we give the customers what they need.”
To ensure that his staff is prepared to meet the needs of the customer, Lindsey invests considerable resources in workforce development. Employees receive ongoing training and mentoring about LADWP’s values and the agency’s various job opportunities. Also, Lindsey gives tangible support to employee organizations like the Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professionals and Engineers and Water and Power African American Association.
His commitment aligns with his mission to help others and the organization, and as his career winds down, Lindsey has been focusing more time and effort in that area. Looking towards the future, he said, “My ultimate goal is to make sure that our employees are prepared for that next level.
“I only have a couple of more years here and I [want] to make it so that when I leave, I’ve done all that I can for the employees under me -whether they are African American or another nationality or culture – to be in a position [that] if they want to move up, we can make it possible for them to do so. So preparing our employees – employee development, making sure that the knowledge transfer takes place – before I exit this organization [is my goal],” he insisted.
Until then, Lindsey will continue to apply the principles that have successfully worked for him throughout his career. Sharing the philosophy that guides him each day, he said, “It’s very simple and it is spiritual. It’s ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That’s not only [applicable] to my personal life, but also at work.
“Treat people how you want to be treated – that’s with your employees, that’s with your customers, that’s with your home life. People want to be treated with respect. I want to be treated that way, so I do my best to try to treat everyone that way.”