What you can do for other people: Patty Hilderbrand

   Patty Hilderbrand

Editor's Note: This month's Member Profile features Patty Hilderbrand, Planning Group Leader, Public Works Department, City of Kansas City, Missouri; former chair of the Kansas City Metro Chapter Awards Program; member of APWA's Leadership and Management Technical Committee; and recipient of APWA's Young Leader Award in 2003.

Tell us about your background: I graduated from the University of Kansas in 1993 with a degree in civil engineering. With little real-world experience I felt that I didn't really have any business designing projects if I didn't know how they were put together, so I chose a construction position with the Kansas Department of Transportation in a very small town in the middle of western Kansas, literally an hour and a half from anywhere. I spent four years inspecting construction projects for KDOT and gaining practical experience before moving back to a "real" city.

In 1997, I was hired by the City of Kansas City, Missouri as the project manager for several major flood mitigation projects with the Corps of Engineers, including Turkey Creek and Brush Creek. I grew up in Bonner Springs, a suburb of Kansas City, so I was actually coming home.

Since 1999, I have led the Public Works Department's Planning Group. Our team is responsible for compiling the five-year, $500 million Capital Improvement Program, coordinating TEA-21 funding representing the City on several committees at MARC, the metropolitan planning organization. We also coordinate a unique public involvement process where the citizens have the opportunity to request projects—it's called the Public Improvement Advisory Committee, or PIAC.

Favorite Book: Well, the most influential book in my life was probably The Diary of Anne Frank, but the favorite books right now are anything by Tom Clancy and the Harry Potter series. I have two toddlers, but I think my husband and I like them more than the kids do.

Hobbies/Interests: I wish! Like I said, I have two small children, so whatever they're interested in right now is usually what I'm into. If I have personal time, I like reading and I love movies. If I had more time, I'd swim more often—I absolutely love swimming.

Role Model: In high school they always made us write an essay about "Who do you admire?" or "Who is your role model?" My first three years I hated writing that essay, because it seemed like everybody always chose to write about sports figures like Michael Jordan or political people like Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan.

But during my senior year I looked up a few of those key words in the dictionary, and I figured out that my role model was my father. My dad was City Manager in the small town where I grew up, Bonner Springs, Kansas. I learned from him how to treat people right, how to respect people, and that people just want others to listen to them and care about their problems. I spent my entire childhood learning at his knee what it is to be a city servant, and to work for an entire population rather than for just one supervisor. I learned that you have an important responsibility, and it truly is a calling. It's not so much about what your salary is or what your title is, but what you can do for other people. And as a kid I took that to heart. 

I always saw my dad out there working with people, never afraid to stop and talk to somebody. There were a lot of holidays and vacations when our plans changed a little because he was checking back in with the office, helping somebody who was stuck on the highway or there was a fire in town. It didn't matter that the fire department was there; he felt a need to be there to help them, too. And I just felt like that was something that I wanted to do. He cared about people and how he could make their lives better.

He was the one who saw the meticulous and engineering side of my personality when I was very young.  He chose my "elective" classes during high school—drafting and engineering design. It was definitely my dad who not only helped me figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life, but how I wanted to do it. I wanted to work in the public sector, and I wanted to work for a city where you could have contact with the citizens and not just the staff. And that's why I'm at Kansas City, because that's the kind of work environment that we have. Everyone is very family-oriented here, we care about each other and we care about the citizens.

Career Accomplishments: The first one would be getting my professional registration. Getting my P.E. license was a challenging road for me. I was not a 4.0 student. I was an average student in college and understood that there were other things to life than just studying and just your job. I still live by that rule, but finally getting my professional registration was a big highlight.

This year's Young Leader Award is just...I can't even put that into words yet. It's just an incredible honor. Then there's the work that I've been doing here at the city. I've had an opportunity to be a leader in changing the way we do program and project management, not just my staff, but for the entire department, as well as for the other operating departments here at the city such as Parks and Recreation, Water Services, and Aviation. We've spent the last four years studying and evaluating how we do business, how we can do it better from our customers' perspective, and how we can be more accountable. We have worked with a consultant to develop a new software system called i-INFO that we're really proud of and we're taking great strides to manage our projects more efficiently and consistently.

As with any city government, we are asked to do more with less. It's the old adage of "work smarter, not harder." And that's literally what we've had to do—we've had to put tools in our people's hands. I've been fortunate to be one of the leaders and coordinators for that effort, and it's really rewarding to see something start from as complicated as any large governmental agency can be and try to find a way to streamline it and make everyone's lives easier.

Another accomplishment that I really take to heart is last year's "Supervisor of the Year" award for the Engineering Division. It's quite an honor, especially when you realize that you're being selected by the people who you supervise and by your peers. These are people who actually work with you every day and still like you. If they can work with me forty hours a week, through ups and downs and stressful situations, and still like me, I guess that's not too bad.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? APWA gives me a great opportunity to network with other public works employees and professionals. I guess I'm not your stereotypical engineer. It probably sounds like an oxymoron, but I'm a planning engineer—planners like to talk, engineers like to do, and I like to do both. I also would have to thank Larry Frevert [Acting Director of Public Works; APWA board member] for helping me get active. He gave me an invitation one day to work on a committee for the KC Metro Chapter. That was all it took—just one person being willing to say, hey, could you help out with this? And I found out that there were a lot of really great people in Kansas City.

I've also had the opportunity to serve on a national committee. So I've been able to meet some incredible public works people from across the country. And I look forward to my monthly conference calls and to going to Congress, because it takes you outside of what you do every day—you get the opportunity to stretch a little bit and learn different things. APWA has really offered that to me.

I'm also a member of several other professional organizations, but you can't be really active and participate in all of them at the same level. So I had to choose one and I chose APWA because I felt it was more focused on what I do, not just my job title or my degree. It wasn't just about civil engineers, it was really about everybody, and everybody brings a different perspective to the table. I liked that you're able to meet so many different kinds of people and talk about so many different issues, all in one organization. And any organization that could find a way to mesh all that together was probably worth my time.