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Tallahassee Underground Utilities Win Sterling Award

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While a Tallahassee delegation was in Denver hoping to bring home an All-America City award, there was still celebration following the recent win by the city’s underground utilities of the coveted Sterling Award.

The presentation took place during the Sterling Council’s annual conference June 2-5 in Orlando.

Before that happened, Underground Utilities General Manager Mike Tadros said he was expecting a call from the Sterling Award people.  But it was still a shock when it came.

“The phone almost dropped from my hand.  I had mixed emotions about the journey we went through with the team when I was appointed to be the general manager.  It was a very, very exciting moment of my life,” he smiled.

One key member of the 360-member underground utilities team is Joe Cheatham, wastewater operations manager.

“One good thing about what we are doing after we won the Sterling Award is we are going to put together a best-practices showcase in the fall where we actually tell everybody how we did it and why we did it and what the benefits are,” he said.

The Governor’s Sterling Awards are given out each year to private and public entities that follow the highest standards of organizational effectiveness, customer focus and measurable results.  Tadros said part of the reason Tallahassee Underground Utilities took the Sterling Awards prize dates back to 2008 and a massive restructuring of the whole organization.

“It was a reaction from the City to America’s worst economic time and they said something had to be done so they went through a major City reorganization,” he said.  “Part of that was merging water, wastewater, natural gas and storm water and call that ‘underground utility’.”

And although the resulting team quickly learned to work together well, Cheatham said the prospect of winning statewide honors brought the workers together even more.

“One thing I really thought was great about the Sterling and the Sterling model and the Sterling criteria is how it really gets our employees engaged.  We really focused on listening to them.  We focused on how we could reward them for a great performance, we listened to their suggestions and always tried to get their feedback.”

Still, Tadros said providing the highest possible level of external customer service was the key to winning the hearts and minds of the Sterling Award judges.

“They wanted to know how we compared to the benchmark at the state level, and how we compared to the national benchmark.  To earn that title is not easy.”

Tallahassee’s scores on the prime and secondary criteria were consistently high.  And even though Tallahassee took the Sterling Award – the first ever – for a public utility, Joe Cheatham said there will be no resting on laurels.

“In the feedback report from the Sterling examiners, they give us additional opportunities that we haven’t gotten to yet so actually the Sterling process is a journey so it never ends,” he said.  “You’re always trying to reach for the stars and so you never stop trying to improve what we do.”

So, regardless of how Tallahassee fares in this weekend’s All-America City shootout in Denver, the community has already won a very prestigious recognition for accomplishments that, while absolutely critical to the well-being of the community, are largely – and very literally – invisible to the average person.