interview

Chris Saucier Named TVA Engineer of the Year

There is an engineer stereotype out there—you know the one. Quiet, introverted, always head down over a project, shy, intellectual, etc. They’re interested in getting the job done, and—most often—getting it done solo.

Chris Saucier, however— this year’s winner of the 40th Annual Ike Zeringue Engineering Award, TVA’s highest honor— is quite the opposite. He’s an engineer who’s not only engaging and outgoing, but also team-oriented.

He’s served the last five years as technical director at the Boone Dam Remediation Project—including construction of an internal cut-off wall—skillfully juggling the tasks that needed to be done while keeping his cross-functional 60-member team engaged and working toward common goals.

Moreover, he’s kept them working on the same plan: Repair the dam and return it to service for the people of the Tennessee Valley as expediently, safely and cost effectively as possible.

The results of his actions? Success! The dam is being readied now for full operations this summer, and will be both on time and under budget.

“This is the largest dam safety modification project that TVA has ever undertaken,” Saucier says, putting it in perspective. “As the dam’s internal ‘owner’ I have responsibilities for the engineering design, quality assurance, dam safety monitoring, technical records and documentation, and keeping our construction team supported…”

There’s no "I" in team

Chris Saucier shows dam model to students

Saucier is also involved in strategic level planning, day-to-day management; communicating with internal and external stakeholders; and making sure everything is working together.

“This is a technical project, a one-of-a-kind project,” says Saucier. “It’s a huge technical accomplishment, but at the end of the day it’s about relationships and people. If we have a strong team, working together, we can do anything.”

Right from the start, Saucier emphasized teamwork. “Internally there are competing demands, even though we all ultimately want what is best for TVA and the folks we serve”,” he says. “Getting everyone on the same page was a great accomplishment. We took six months on the front end to have all the difficult conversations and it paid off.”

In his role, Saucier cross-checked a lot of data, and made a lot of decisions. “We all can recognize and empathize with where our various departments are coming from—you’re impacting money and time, every decision is complex and has people on all sides of the issues with different priorities that have a valid interest in a particular outcome.

“There were competing outcomes that all needed to be considered. It was a lot of planning and back and forth communications. If we do this what happens? What if we do that and not this? It was a lot of technical, objective thinking. “

People person

Chris Saucier with media at Boone

In the end, he says, it all comes down to people. “To succeed, you need to relate and work well with people. “Before Boone Dam, I started out as a geotechnical engineer, specialized in how civil engineering projects interact with the ground. I was involved with repair at Blue Ridge, and was assigned full time on site. From there I was in Dam Safety, moved in construction group, beginning to see how different departments deal with each other.”

“A position in Dam Safety opened up, and I went there, thought, ‘It would be good to have a manager on site at Boone.’” He was right.

Chris embraced a project that would take all his time, talent, and initiative, and call him to put forth his best work every day.

What’s more, it caused him to think about diversity in new ways. “TVA has adopted this initiative for promoting diversity within TVA, and that came to life for me at Boone,” Saucier explains. “You get people with different experiences and perspectives looking at the same problem in different ways, each with a nuanced need, but each wanting what is best for TVA. The Dam Safety folks worry about keeping the dam completely safe. The construction folks remind us that we are constrained by needs for personnel safety and the way things will actually be built. Then the engineering folks remind us that those sets of needs might be contrary to creating the perfect long-term solution. And then the communications folks and project managers remind us of the commitments we’ve made for timely completion and spending, which may also compete with the objectives of others in the team.

“In the end, by considering all these perspectives, you can get a fantastic solution that’s never been done,” Saucier says. “So, it’s real, not only for our projects but for our people! We truly need diversity of perspectives to get the best solution—this project brought that home to me.”

High praise

Chris Saucier with baby

Saucier is a father of five, including a 3-month-old baby girl, a son with special needs, and college-age daughters who are triplets. They are, he says, his passion in life. “It’s really fun to watch all the changes,” he says.

But Saucier brings the same level of passion and curiosity to his job. “ I really love it, and I love TVA,” he says. “I have worked at a lot of different places, in research labs, consulting, at university. I have never worked anywhere that works so hard to create a positive environment for its employees, and knows how to support us.”

Chris shares his award with all the others who worked on Boone Dam: “I don’t want anyone to lose credit, he says. “I know I made a contribution, but this is really about the contributions of a whole team. It reflects efforts of a lot of people inside TVA who have worked together successfully and it’s something special for me.“

He’s also been nominated for the Federal Engineer of the Year—one of the top ten competitors—and will travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the awards on February 24. Who knows? He could bring home the win and share his knowledge with engineers all over the U.S. We wish him luck.

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