MPA-MSES Alumni Spotlight: Meghan Ploch, Regional Director @ Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Alum: Meghan Ploch

Organization: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC)

Current Position: Regional Director, Office of External Affairs

Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Alma Maters: Indiana University, BS (2012) / Indiana University, MPA-MSES (2014)

Can you share a little bit about yourself with the work you do now?

Meghan has been with TDEC since 2015. She started in their central office in Nashville working with the Division of Water Resources. The Division is responsible for managing, protecting and enhancing the quality of the state’s water resources through voluntary, regulatory and educational programs. She worked for a program that issues aquatic resource alteration permits (§401 Water Quality Certification). Her unit focuses on stream and wetland ecology and the impacts of physical alterations to those aquatic resources. Two years ago, she transitioned to a role in the Office of External Affairs at TDEC. Here, she serves as the primary point of contact and liaison for TDEC in all of their bureaus. Those bureaus include the Bureau of Environment, Bureau of Conservation, and Bureau of Operations, Strategy and Engagement.  She works closely with state and local elected officials as well as NGOs, other private organizations in their community, and the public, bridging the gap between internal and external stakeholders.

Meghan had extremely high praise and gratitude for her career and team. TDEC has allowed her to have a career in public service with opportunities to grow and connect with like-minded people. Her background in permit writing work has helped in her external-facing role to understand the context of difficult decisions and the different audiences and perspectives involved in programmatic decisions.

When we talked about what a role career in public service might mean, it was interesting to hear Meghan talk about her time at IU and how she didn’t realize how many options were out there. She found lots of opportunities that allowed her to give back to and participate in her community. She encourages current students to reach out to alumni and learn about their experiences and the paths people have taken.

What advice do you have for someone who might want to follow your career path?

Meghan had lots of advice for current students interested in a similar career path.

  1. Have confidence and stand up in adversity.

Don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for the community you work in and for the larger goals. Sometimes we get very caught up in our own worlds and the immediate future–which is okay–but don’t forget to take a deep breath and take a step back to take yourself out of that immediate mindset. Try to reflect on the bigger picture of what you strive for in your life and what drives you in a larger context. What are your values? What is your mission? Be goal-oriented and be active in those steps to get there.

  1. Be open to diverse opportunities.

Even if something might seem outside of your comfort zone, go for it! Try something new. The best way for you to grow as an individual is to explore outside of your comfort zone. I am an avid outdoor recreator. When I talk with folks in the outdoor recreational space like climbing, we talk about how you’re not going to become a stronger climber if you’re always jumping on the same grade. If you want to grow, you have to push those boundaries and you have to be self-motivated and persevere to expand on those experiences and try something new. And you never know, sometimes those experiences lead to new opportunities.

  1. Explore and build your network and maintain relationships.

We live in a more virtual world these days, but there is no replacement for in-person contact or meetings. There’s a lot to be said for meeting in person, especially in a group context. For example, we had a multi-agency group that had been meeting virtually for months and we were kind of regurgitating the same discussion points without any real progress. And then we met in person for an OEA-lead facilitated event which allowed us to regroup and refocus on our goals and our mission. It was the most productive meeting we’d had in months! We had action items, and identified who was going to implement specific deliverables. Folks who had been only talking on camera finally got to meet in person, and there were sidebar conversations, and people got to meet each other and learn who they were as a person, not just a face on a screen that hops on at the start of the meeting and clicks off when it ends. So, be open to meeting in person and getting to know someone. Those relations go a long way in building communication, trust, credibility, and long-term success.

  1. Make time to purposely create space in your life to connect to those things that give you purpose or allow you time to reflect.
    1. For me, it was about getting outside and being out in nature. It’s rejuvinating to disconnect in nature, be active, and be in the environment I’m committed to conserving. Life can be busy, but if you’re not reminded of what’s important and what drives you, then you can get lost in your journey through your career. Avoid getting to a point where you’re monotonously going through the day-to-day tasks and balancing a diverse workload that you forget what’s important to you and ask “Wait, why am I doing this?”. Be mindful and find something that encourages you have an active presence in what you do and reminds you why you do it. Think about the bigger picture and the impact you’re striving to make. Revive yourself with what fuels your journey.

What skills are most important in your current role?

Meghan spoke at length about communication and strategic planning as skills necessary for any public relations role. She also acknowledged the way her technical background gave her a strong set of skills to bring to her current role. Understanding how to interpret data and talk with data-driven people has served her well. Your audience impacts the way you communicate. For example, scientists might prefer very technical language and she wouldn’t use that same style of communication with a community that is concerned about their health being impacted by certain emerging contaminants.  

Beyond communication, strategic planning in Meghan’s role, in addition to facilitating public meetings, is keeping a big-picture perspective so she can anticipate needs and questions in a project. This includes developing and implementing strategic communication plans, analyzing trends, identifying opportunities and adapting strategies as needed to effectively convey key messages to various stakeholders. This helps her bring the appropriate parties into the conversation so they can address community needs as completely as possible.

Is there a failure or disappointment that was instrumental in your development and getting to where you are now?

Meghan’s words about failure were too important to not share directly.

“There have been a few and that’s okay, right? I think, in those moments where we face significant challenges and maybe find failure, it’s often failure that we put on ourselves and not the expectations of others. Those moments can hit really deep and make you reflect on where you’re going in life, and sometimes it can just pull the mat from underneath your feet.

I am a planner. That’s just my nature. I’m very adaptable, but I like to have things planned out. And I remember in grad school I had this plan, and each step was going lead to a subsequent step forward. I thought everything had to be just right. I put way too much pressure on these things being just right. I was so set on the Presidential Management Fellows Program. For years, I told myself it was happening. I’m going to do that, and that program was going to lead to the next steps into my career. I was extremely hopeful. I knew that it might not work out, but I had planned this, and I was just so sure it was gonna be part of my plan.

It wasn’t. I didn’t get in, and I remember just being so devastated. I remember thinking, what am I supposed to do now? That was part of the plan. It was something I really wanted to do, and it didn’t work out. I felt like I failed myself, and those around me. While that door didn’t open, there were so many other options out there for me to explore, and because I didn’t choose that path, I was able to start another journey. [Without that failure,] I wouldn’t have landed where I am today. I’m glad it didn’t work out because I’ve been able to experience so many other tremendous opportunities that have allowed me to grow as a professional and personally. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Whatever you do, try not to get lost in comparison. Trying to be someone else isn’t going to allow you to be your best self. There is so much unnecessary pressure that is added when you compare yourself to others. There’s a difference between making comparisons to someone you view as a hero and a mentor versus comparisons in a negative light. Focus on your strengths that make you and that will allow you to shine in your best light.”

What does Lead for the Greater Good mean to you?

“It means I am driven and focused on supporting my community at-large by facilitating and fostering a positive change. It influences how I give back in my role in public service. I want to form those collaborations that are going to enhance the quality of life for Tennesseans, especially here in my local community and state. I want people to feel safe and value their environment, both from a public health standpoint and from an environmental, conservational ecological standpoint.”

Meghan’s perspective here reminded me that “Leading for the Greater Good” can be about changing the world in different ways. I think it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the responsibility we might feel in O’Neill to make great waves. After speaking with Meghan, I felt inspired to think small. Maybe we can change the world if we each focus individually on changing our worlds. And if all of us are doing that, that’s when we’re changing the world, not because one of us is doing it all.

If you’re interested in learning more about TDEC and the work Meghan does with her office, be sure to check out their website!

By Elizabeth Gawron
Elizabeth Gawron Assistant Director of Career Services