Seán Kearney: “You make your own luck by doing your best and working hard”

You make your own luck by doing your best and working hard. We were in Indonesia and I commented to an Australian bricklaying instructor who was working with us about how lucky we had gotten with the volunteer group that had been assembled for the building project. He disagreed and told me he could see […]

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You make your own luck by doing your best and working hard. We were in Indonesia and I commented to an Australian bricklaying instructor who was working with us about how lucky we had gotten with the volunteer group that had been assembled for the building project. He disagreed and told me he could see how hard our IWSH team had worked to organize everything — so it might have felt like luck, but he recognized that so much had been done behind-the-scenes to get us to this point.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Seán Kearney.

Kearney is the Managing Director at The International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation, the charitable arm of The International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO). He oversees the development of the international Community Plumbing Challenge (CPC) program, which has grown into the flagship initiative of IWSH today. Over the past six years, he has directed projects launched in India, South Africa, Indonesia, and the United States to bring safe and hygienic plumbing solutions to communities that previously lacked access.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While I was in school studying Visual Communication in Dublin I was introduced to an organization called WorldSkills, which is an Olympic Games-style competition for the skilled trades — everything from plumbing to other building and construction trades, to manufacturing and engineering, creative arts, IT, and other social and personal service careers. I entered the local competition in Dublin and won, and was selected to represent Ireland in Graphic Design Technology in the international competition. It gave me a totally unique perspective to see all these other young people around my age in all the different trades from more than 50 countries around the world.

I got hooked on this experience: on the international perspective, on getting to travel and to learn about and see other trades in action, so I volunteered to help at that same competition event the next time around. This experience set me off on an amazing path where eventually I got a job with the WorldSkills organization itself, connecting with plumbers and other skilled trades as I went along.

Now I work with IAPMO, which is a WorldSkills Global Industry Partner, so I am proud to have come up through the ranks of the WorldSkills movement from the grassroots — as a competitor, then volunteer, then staff — to now being involved in running international projects with them.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I couldn’t pick one, in particular! Through this job, I’ve been able to travel and see a lot of the world in a close-up, special way. When you work on a community level like this, you’re in places that most ‘outside’ people never see. So we’re working in people’s homes, in schools, I’ve been to local churches and mosques, I’ve been in orphanages and hospitals — experiencing up-close places and situations where some of the most vulnerable people in the world are living. We’ve had projects everywhere from informal settlements in South Africa to the Navajo Nation in the southwestern U.S. to small villages in Indonesia. A really fun part of this work is bringing ‘Western world’ plumbers to these places, and it blows their minds to be put into those kinds of environments and be so welcome, and to go away having changed lives by helping provide something that we think is simple — pipes and safe water.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Growing up, my mother was a social worker and my dad was a teacher, and their influence taught me a lot about the importance of helping others.

Now, I am a parent myself. I’ve got two young boys with autism. As they have special needs around speech and language, I’ve learned so much about communicating with people from them. I myself don’t have a talent for languages, but I think you can still relate to people even if they do speak a different language, you can still understand what they are trying to communicate, and you can get along without a shared language. It’s particularly cool when you bring skills into it, like in our job, when you put skilled people together. People can work side-by-side together, hands-on, and their shared skills do the talking!

I also firmly believe in the importance of respecting others. I don’t come from a privileged background, but I recognize that in the global sense, so many of us are extremely privileged purely by the luck of where we were born. When I travel to different parts of the world and get to meet new people and start work in a new community setting, I always try to put myself in their position, and it’s important to remember and recognize that we’re all people, all equally deserving of respect.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Through IWSH, we are putting the skills and expertise of plumbers and other trade professionals to work alongside international organizations and manufacturers to carry out critical water, sanitation, and hygiene projects around the world. We work together to develop local infrastructure and improve water and sanitation conditions to improve public health and economic outcomes in the communities that need it most.

You know, the world is full of well-intentioned projects where equipment is donated and installed, but then years or even months later, it breaks down and no one knows how to fix it. It just goes out of use, and the people who received this donation are actually in a worse position than they were before the donation was given, because they’ve had time to enjoy the benefits of this new system but lost it or had it taken away from them again! It is now useless.

What makes IWSH different is that we bring education and skills into the heart of the communities we are working in, regardless of where they are in the world. We’re thinking about the whole structure, the skills and expertise needed to operate and maintain these new systems and new technologies into the future. IWSH embeds the work in the community — it’s so important to collaborate with local people and local authorities, and build in the support they will need to create resilient systems that will bring value to them in the long term.

So it could be pipes, or pumps, or water filters being delivered into a community for the first time, but it can’t just be about installing a shiny new plumbing system and walking away — it also has to be about the skills development, awareness and understanding that is transferred. This means new systems can be properly managed and maintained, then even expanded and upgraded in time.

How do you think this will change the world?

What we do is simple, but it can be life-changing. When running water is supplied to a community or into a household for the first time, this has a massive impact on people’s daily lives, on their health, and on the community as a whole.

When we collaborate with our host partners and help transfer and develop the new skills they will need to maintain their new systems, it requires true buy-in from the community and a level of understanding, trust, and respect on both sides. But if you want to talk about changing the world — it would be difficult to overstate the impact these resources bring to the people who need them the most. When we get the chance to work together and give the support they need, they immediately see what they can do themselves to improve their own day-to-day lives.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The projects we focus on aren’t the type of work where you are at risk of seeing unintended drawbacks. What we’re talking about is as simple as installing plumbing in a place where it didn’t exist previously and providing the training needed to maintain the systems within the community itself. It’s improving hygiene and protecting people’s health around the world in the most basic way. The only unintended consequences we can imagine in these projects are positive ones.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The tipping points I think about the most are the smaller realizations that happen during every project. Once we worked at a school in Indonesia, where we taught some young kids a handwashing game. They were washing their hands with soap as part of the game and were smelling their hands and having a real laugh over it. We realized that, for those kids, the soap smell was quite funny and unusual because washing their hands in this way was a novel experience for them. These kids were right around the same age as my own sons, and I realized they didn’t have access to soap, which obviously has a massive impact on the health of the child. It just reminds you of all the things that so many of us take for granted.

Everyone involved in our projects has experiences like these. From the U.S. we’ve recruited volunteer plumbers or other tradespeople who needed to get a passport to leave the country for the first time! It blows their mind when they arrive in these communities, so it is an honor to witness and help steer these learning experiences for them as a member of the IWSH organizing team. There they are, performing a task that in their day-to-day work is a basic, mundane thing, like installing a new pipe — but that’s when the lightbulb comes on and they realize how huge this simple installation is for these families. Our volunteers talk all the time about what a life-changing experience these projects are for them. Many of them get hooked on it and are first in line for the next overseas opportunity that comes up. The benefits of the work are felt on both sides.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We need to continue collaborating across industries, combining industry resources with education, and building partnerships with solid community organizations around the world. It’s a potent mix when essential skills development and new opportunities are connected with the right partners at the table, and there’s no end to what we can accomplish when we’re working together effectively.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You make your own luck by doing your best and working hard. We were in Indonesia and I commented to an Australian bricklaying instructor who was working with us about how lucky we had gotten with the volunteer group that had been assembled for the building project. He disagreed and told me he could see how hard our IWSH team had worked to organize everything — so it might have felt like luck, but he recognized that so much had been done behind-the-scenes to get us to this point.
  2. Always be on the lookout for new connections. I realize this is true in virtually every field, but making new connections and thinking creatively about new partnerships are invaluable to my work with IWSH. Innovative collaborations across industries and across communities are essential to the success of our projects. Always seize those opportunities to make new connections…
  3. … And if you see an opportunity, take it! Don’t waste your time being passive or nervous; take a chance, and believe in yourself. What if I had been too hesitant or self-conscious to compete in WorldSkills when I was a young student back in Dublin? I certainly would never have arrived at my current role with IWSH and would have missed out on so many life-changing experiences. Always stand up and take advantage of the opportunities that cross your path in life.
  4. Respond, not React. When conflicts inevitably arise on a project, I’ve learned it’s important to be a calming influence. Avoid knee-jerk reactions, but instead take the time and effort to provide considered and constructive responses that will help get things back on track. It’s not always easy to do, but I think it goes a long way towards building stronger collaborative partnerships with people. When you are always open to change and ready to respond in a positive way, you can help things move in a new, and often better, direction.
  5. Underpromise, but Overdeliver. It is a favorite work expression of mine that I heard early on, at the start of my career, and I’ve always tried to stick with it ever since. It comes back to clear communication, the importance of being honest, open, and being respectful, particularly when working in community environments like we do with IWSH. Resist the urge to exaggerate and instead concentrate on getting the absolute maximum benefit out of the resources and opportunities available in any given situation.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

As a manager of projects like these, I think the best thing you can do is to set other people up to succeed, to create work environments that will enable them to perform at their best. This is particularly true when you work with people who have skill sets that are very different from yours. For example, in my role with IWSH, we’re talking about everyone from master plumbers to engineers to other specialist construction tradespeople or experts. Paying attention to the details and anticipating people’s needs ahead of time will allow you to get the best performance out of everybody. Be positive, encourage others, and then get out of their way and let them tackle it! That’s where you get that feeling of satisfaction.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

When you look at projects like the ones that IWSH takes on, small amounts of money can go a really long way when the structure is set up correctly. On the flip side, a huge amount of money can be wasted on well-intentioned projects if they aren’t well thought out. Whether a project budget is 5,000 dollars or 5 million dollars, the right people and the right skills will always need to be in place to build the resiliency and provide the knowledge base to keep new water, sanitation, and hygiene systems running for the long term. That is the IWSH approach.

Money enables further outreach, but most of all it’s about continued investment in people and in communities. Every IWSH project — regardless of its size or budget — is designed to benefit the locality and empower people for the long term, creating a well-resourced environment for the future.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/se%C3%A1n-kearney-18a62b11/

They can also follow IWSH on social media:

https://twitter.com/IWSH_Foundation
https://www.facebook.com/IWSHFoundation
https://www.linkedin.com/company/iwshfoundation/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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