Views expressed in the Executive Corner category may not reflect the official positions or thoughts of the Washington Association of Conservation Districts. We share various thoughts to help stimulate thinking and discussion within our conservation community.

Listen, Learn, Adapt, Act

Washington Asssociation of District Employees

As I write this, the last day of the 2021 Washington Association of District Employees annual conference is occurring. I am already reflecting on this year’s WADE conference and my conclusion is: excellent job!

Listen and learn

What I observed in the sessions I attended was respectful listening and openness to learning. Folks demonstrated a willingness to take in new ideas and to consider different approaches in their conservation work.

A serendipitous moment

Sometimes serendipity reigns supreme. At the beginning of the week, a conservation friend in Pennsylvania described her approach to equity as: “listen, learn, accept correction, take action.” I softened and shortened that a bit as we talked, summarizing it as: listen, learn, adapt, act.

Isn’t that what the WADE conference is all about? Listen to the wisdom and experience of others. Learn new information, approaches, and ideas. Adapt those new things to fit your own situation or community. And act on what you learn to implement the best of what you harvested.

Listen, Learn, Adapt, Act

I often reflect on ideas while I drive. For some reason, the act of concentrating on driving frees up part of my mind to dwell on thoughts that have nothing to do with what I’m doing behind the wheel.

As I drove various places on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the surprising connection for me was that this listen – learn – adapt – act approach is exactly what we do when we work with conservation customers. It is what we do in our area association and state association meetings. It is what we are doing right now as two committees delve into election and equity issues.


My early guru who helped me become a better employee, Dr. Stephen R. Covey, wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He wrote of the need to listen intently to others. What most of us do is work on our reply or what we want to interject into the conversation even while someone else is talking.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood


I’ve spoken before of the need to be a lifelong learner. In my opening remarks at the WADE conference on Monday, I emphasized this point and heard it picked up by other speakers.

I encourage you to embrace improvement, to incorporate the idea that being a lifelong learner is not only desirable but necessary. This is why the WADE conference is so important. It helps you increase your knowledge and hone your skills. It helps you become better, both personally and professionally. That’s why you’re here: to learn so that you can be and do better.


This is the step where many of us falter. Over my decades in our conservation community, one belief has resurfaced with every major issue: the attitude that someone is trying to tell someone else what to do or how to act.

That has certainly occurred recently in both the election and equity realms. It happens with other significant topics, too. Folks get hung up on the idea that someone else is trying to tell them what to do.

I’d like to change that because it is a barrier to our growth and improvement. Adapting to the new knowledge you gain means making it fit with your community and customers. We have 45 unique conservation districts and not one of the 45 is identical to another. What works for one may not work for all. Where some see the desires and actions of other districts to be an attempt to force all districts to do the same thing, I see those actions as explorations of what may work in their own situation.

– Required and Desired

A corollary thought here is one that I’ve expressed many times over the years. It came about when I encountered a state auditor telling a conservation district that they were required to do something, but when I investigated, I found that to be an exaggeration. As I explored that situation, I discovered that what was desired had, over several years, become accepted among auditors as something that was required.

When it comes to conservation district elections, there is a distinction between what is required and what is desired. You are required to publish notice that meets certain standards. It is desirable to exceed that minimum requirement so that more people know of, and can participate in, your local conservation district election.

I think the same distinction holds true in the equity realm. Conservation districts are required to be non-discriminatory in their employment and services, and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nothing bars you from exceeding those required minimums, and some conservation districts are exploring additional actions that they deem to be desirable in their situation.

Where I keep seeing conversations go awry is when someone believes a district that is exploring some desirable ideas is trying to force other districts to adopt those measures. Sometimes that is true, but over my term of service, that is very rare. Most of the time, what I see is a district wanting to try some new approaches that go beyond the minimum required actions, and then share what they learned with other conservation districts. Sometimes that takes the form of a workshop or an ad hoc sharing of information. Sometimes it emerges as a proposal (often in the form of a resolution) to be debated and potentially adopted by WACD’s members.

Might it not help us all to view these things as someone else exploring new ideas and approaches? Perhaps those ideas had not occurred to others or others aren’t ready to try them. I don’t find it fruitful to view the testing of new ideas as attempts to force other districts to do something. To me, taking new ideas that may go beyond the minimum requirements is an adaptation that has to fit with your local conservation district. While those new ideas may work for some folks, they may not work for others. You know your community best.

– Special assessments is an example

This week, Pierce Conservation District associate supervisor Stu Trefry recounted a story of how special assessments came to be added to RCW 89.08 Conservation Districts Law. For me, it was a heartwarming story of commitment and patience.

My very brief summary (subject to correction by Stu!) is about Ron Juris spending a lot of time in Olympia to get special assessments added to RCW 89.08 in 1989. Back then, Ron was WACD President. Even though his conservation district wasn’t ready to impose special assessments, Ron could see the value to many conservation districts and he fought for this change in Conservation Districts Law.

Fast forward several years and the work of others to correct some deficiencies in special assessments resulted in the creation of the rates-and-charges system we have today. Fast forward a bit more and Ron’s rural conservation district now benefits from rates and charges imposed by their county commission…30 years later!

I recall that there was sometimes a push for all conservation districts to adopt special assessments. We’ve also heard from time to time that more districts should consolidate. My cardinal rule is: the solution has to fit the local district.


Finally comes putting your new learning into practice, in ways that work for your situation. I think I dwelled on that enough above in the “Required and Desired” section so I won’t dwell on it here except to say: without action, learning is but an academic exercise. We learn, we grow, we change. If we don’t change, then we stagnate. Ultimately, when we choose to stagnate we get left behind because everything around us does change. Change may happen quickly in some districts and very slowly in others, but change is inexorable and inevitable.

I love the mantra of listen, learn, adapt, act. I have it stuck to my computer monitor to remind me every day to strive to be and do better, in ways that fit the situation. I hope that you are able to take some of the things you learned this week at the WADE conference and put them into action.

Brené Brown

One of my favorite business authors is Brené Brown. In her blog post, The Courage to Not Know, she talks about the difference between “armored leadership” and “daring leadership.” Armored leadership is “being an knower & being right.” Daring leadership is “being a learner & getting it right.” It’s a great read: short and to the point.

What I am suggesting to you is that listen – learn – adapt – act is a form of daring leadership. It takes courage. It takes the ability to set aside our own desire to be right and instead to do right.

If you’d like a bigger dose of Dr. Brown, I suggest starting with Dare to Lead. If we had a regular leadership and management book club, this would be one of my top recommendations. It’s not expensive in the paperback version on Amazon, and the Kindle edition is even cheaper. (If you do buy the book from Amazon, please remember to support the Washington Conservation Society by designating them as your AmazonSmile charity.)

I am here to get it right, not to be right.Dr. Brené Brown

Thank you

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

I need to close by thanking the Washington Association of District Employees for another fine conference that was full of great information. I saw excellent participation and plenty of thoughtful interactions. It was enjoyable, informative, and helped connect us with each other. Job well done!

And I want to express a special thank you to my Pennsylvania friend who shared her thoughts with me. I heard her. She influenced me. I am adapting what she shared to fit my situation. And I will continue to try to act on what I learn, every day and in every way.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director