An effective public works leader...empowers others

Patricia Hilderbrand, P.E.
Planning Group Leader
City of Kansas City, Missouri
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has published the brochure entitled "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure is based on a survey of public works officials and those who employ them to determine the most important characteristics of an effective public works leader. These "Baker's Dozen" core competencies help public works professionals recognize and develop leadership talent. Included in this issue is the fourth in our series of core competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

"The leader grants authority and acts to allow subordinates to make decisions and act independently, providing support as necessary to encourage responsible independent action." - Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies brochure

"As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others." - Bill Gates

"Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results." - George S. Patton

So often we hear the term "empowerment," and most say they believe in it and do it. But what does it really mean? It has become a catchall term for a wide variety of ideas on employee power and responsibility. At its broadest definition it means giving employees the power to do their job, but do we really know how to do that? And, perhaps more importantly, are your employees ready to be empowered?

To effectively empower your staff, first create an environment of support and open communication. Their career development and success is the cornerstone to a successful department. Do you have confidence that your staff has the right knowledge, ability, experience and resources to do the job? If so, make sure they know how confident you are. Guiding their work without micromanaging or completing their tasks for them, establishes a positive working environment.

Also inherent in that support is the concept of trust—"giving permission to fail." Managers need to trust that an employee will always do his or her best. Equally, the employee has to trust that if and when things go wrong, the manager will stand behind the employee in support of their effort. An organizational climate that neither allows for mistakes nor embraces the learning opportunity will discourage taking risks and cripple creativity and initiative.

Managers should ensure that required department processes are well documented and that performance expectations are clear. When changes occur, make certain to share them in a timely fashion, so everyone feels "plugged in." Empowered employees understand their responsibilities as well as the limits of their authority to get things done. Which decisions can they make and which their supervisor must approve? Delegating the authority as well as the responsibility is critical to empowerment.

And, at the end of the day, the employees should be held accountable not only for their failures, but for their successes as well. If the goals were not met, you are there to provide perspective and guidance, but not to take over and solve the problem. An important aspect of empowerment is employees learning to take responsibility for their actions, solve problems and learn from their mistakes. When things go well, and they will, you are there to praise their work and provide appreciation and recognition for a job well done.

Do you embrace these principles of an empowered organization?

  • Believe that leadership belongs to all employees, not just a few
  • Know that the department will be successful when employees have the tools, training and authority to do their best work
  • Understand that information is power—and share it with all employees
  • Value employees enough to build an environment that supports and encourages individuals
  • Understand that empowerment is a continuous process—not an endpoint to be checked off a list of objectives

In high-performance organizations, leaders enable their employees to do their best work. They have the right tools, systems, policies, and procedures. They are incredibly well-trained. And, ultimately, they are trusted.

In the end, when employees are truly empowered, you will have created an atmosphere that encourages responsibility and decision-making, requires personal accountability for actions and outcomes, and establishes an environment of trust that allows people to function without excessive oversight.

Patricia Hilderbrand can be reached at (816) 513-2576 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Possesses Integrity
  • Is Accountable
  • Is Decisive
  • Is Public Service Oriented
  • Empowers Others
  • Is Deliberate
  • Is a Communicator
  • Shows Respect for Others
  • Is Technically Knowledgeable
  • Manages Resources
  • Is Resilient
  • Delegates
  • Maintains Balance