Driven by Water Fueled by Passion

As professionals in the water sector we serve in some of the most rewarding roles one can imagine.

By James P. Cooper, Arcadis North America Senior Water Engineer

As professionals in the water sector we serve in some of the most rewarding roles one can imagine. I admit it is easy to be washed downstream in the tyranny of the immediate, amongst the multiple tasks we are balancing, without recognizing that the needs of today will quickly be forgotten tomorrow. In other words, focus less on the what of your role and focus more on the why. I recommend watching Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk on this subject, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”

Focus on the why rather than the what. I’ve had the opportunity to wear a variety of hats in the water sector – operator, engineer, supervisor, researcher, and volunteer. For the purpose of illustration, I’ll consider the operator role.  When focusing on the what, one may describe his or her career in the following way – “I work for XYZ Company or Municipality. I adjust treatment processes so the plant continues to operate as intended for the purpose of achieving all regulatory requirements”. When focusing on the why, the same career could be described in the following way – “Clean water and environment are essential for life and leisure. I optimize a process that converts wastewater into energy and clean water and I happen to work for XYZ Company or Municipality”. If I am a prospective employer, I’d prefer the latter individual’s career. If I am a general member of the public, I’d place a higher value on the latter individual’s career. The latter career being the exact same role, but with passion.

Recently I was interviewing college students for internships, specifically civil engineering students. I found myself asking why they chose civil engineering as their desired career path. As one would imagine, I received varying answers, including a couple blank stares. It was clear who had passion for a clean environment as they enthusiastically shared it!


Passion is a strong feeling of enthusiasm. Passion is excitement. Building upon that, passion in a career is motivation – the underlying drive regardless of the current situation or employer. The why rather than the what. Passion results in drive and is exhibited when your co-workers claim that you “eat, breath, and sleep clean water”. This is not to be confused with a lack of work-life balance or work-life integration. You chose your profession because of your passion – that’s how you change the world.

Criticizers may question why passion is important, or even suggest that passion is distracting for specific roles. In the water sector where resources are limited and professionals are juggling more tasks than manageable, passion may feel like a luxury you cannot afford. This is false on two accounts. First, passion is in the why not in the what! Second, challenges in our profession provide the perfect opportunity for passion to be expressed through our work.

About a year ago I had the opportunity to join water leaders from across North America and identify four prominent issues facing the water sector. Those were (and still are): Customer Outreach, Aging Workforce, Financial Prudence, and Changing Regulations. Do any of these challenges provide an opportunity for passion to be expressed? All of them! Consider the impact that passion can have on just one of these - Customer Outreach. Employees with passion naturally share their enthusiasm with others around them.  Imagine the impact on the value of water if a large majority of employees were willing to share their career passion with their friends and neighbors. Passion breeds passion and organic customer outreach. Your network will describe you by your passion, not by your job or employer. This is the key to building your personal brand.

To be clear, passion is not everything. A high-value employee exhibits passion in addition to other characteristics such as discipline and knowledge. I have the opportunity to work with some of the most passionate people I know and for an employer whose passion statement I firmly believe in - Improving Quality of Life. From this, I’ve observed that people with passion share these four traits:

  • People with passion have an inextinguishable desire to continuously improve. Especially in the water sector, complacency is not sustainable.  With limited resources, progress is fueled by passion and a curiosity to identify means to improve.
  • People with passion are optimistic. In any role or task there are obstacles, set sights on the opportunities and solutions rather than the obstacles.
  • People with passion are not average. Someone with passion is driven to exceed expectations and perform extraordinary work by finding the opportunity to improve even a typical task. Simply going through the motions is not acceptable to them.
  • People with passion share it. Someone who is truly passionate about what they do will talk about it.  Passion is contagious – it’s called outreach.


Your brand is how the world remembers you. Branding is establishing a presence in the mind of a customer. It’s the clever tag line or logo no one forgets. It’s also more than that, it has depth and a person’s actions reinforce the tag line. Why is establishing a brand important? Your personal brand can establish you as a leader or innovator and it can open doors you’ve never imagined. While your employer may have a brand, and you may be proud to be a member of their team, a personal brand can set you apart from your peers where you can be recognized by your passion rather than your job. As you grow your brand people will trust you as an individual more than the corporation.

Jayson Demers, Founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, suggests five steps for building a personal brand:

  1. Determine your area of expertise. (i.e. what is your passion?)
  2. Start writing and publishing. This can be a blog or posts on social media such as LinkedIn.
  3. Flush out your social media profiles. These platforms make it easy to share your passion with the world. I’ve seen professionals, undoubtedly passionate ones, with social media tagline “my blood type is H2Opositive”.
  4. Speak at events and develop case studies. Submit abstracts to technical conferences and talk about your passion.  Conference organizers and attendees walk away excited and empowered when the speaker is passionate about a topic.
  5. Network, Network, Network. It takes time and energy, but it’s worth it!  Be visible, build solid relationships and maintain those relationships.  If you have the opportunity to go to a conference, focus a portion of your time on meeting people you don’t know.

The operator who stated “Clean water and environment are essential for life and leisure. I optimize a process that converts wastewater into energy and clean water and I happen to work for XYZ Company or Municipality” clearly has passion and is branding themselves as a leader in their field. Perhaps the next meeting you attend is an opportunity to build your personal brand – it definitely provides a talking point to share while networking. Finding opportunities such as this are, after all, a trait of people with passion.

What is your passion? What do you want people to remember about you when you leave a meeting? Is it that you simply completed the task or that you served a critical role in providing clean water and inspired your peers to do the same? Do it with passion or not at all.

Jim Cooper leads the water distribution systems management, planning and modeling practice at Arcadis with experience as a professional engineer and certified operator anchored in the water, environment, and oil and gas sectors assisting public, private and non-profit organizations. He is in a leadership role in his local WEF section and is lead author of the upcoming AWWA Manual of Practice 32, Computer Modeling of Water Distribution Systems. Jim assists clients in planning and optimization, operations management and public outreach resulting in practical and resource-optimized solutions. Jim has authored multiple publications and presentations at national conferences and public meetings for unique and schedule-critical projects.

Jim Cooper

Senior Water Engineer Ask me a question