An effective public works leader...shows respect for others

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
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 fifth 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

"If you have some respect for people as they are, you can be more effective in helping them become better than they are." - John W. Gardner

Imagine trying to accomplish your work with no secretaries, no technicians, no engineers, no suppliers, no contractors and no help from permit agencies. If your team consists only of you, you can't have a very effective team and you won't be a very effective leader.

An effective leader has the ability to motivate and inspire others to join the team and embrace the mission. A public works leader is depended upon to "get the job done." In most public works departments, there are so many jobs to be done that employees and other contributors are scarce, yet absolutely essential resources. Consequently, being the coach that everyone wants to play for is an essential trait of a public works leader.

So, how do you build and lead an effective team? The key ingredient is respect. You must be willing to give respect at every opportunity and in return you will likely earn the respect of others. Keep in mind that this is a long-term commitment and requires consistent demonstration by your words and your actions. Respect cannot be demanded, it must be earned. Respect is earned only by giving it away. Respect is not something you can practice occasionally or ration out depending on the organizational stature of the recipient. Giving respect must be a habit that is embraced and used in all circumstances. If you find yourself saying "no one respects me," you should examine your own behavior to find out why.

Think about people you respect in your personal or professional life. Chances are these people consistently show respect for others. As you think about the people you respect, analyze how many of them are "bullies in the workplace." Most likely the answer is none. Fear can be used to coerce employees, but it is never used to lead employees. The effective team leader is almost always someone who has earned the respect of others.

As a leader, your behavior is constantly viewed by many people in your professional and personal communities. Think about the person they see. Are you the person who handles difficult choices diplomatically, who acts ethically even at your own risk, who shoulders responsibility when situations go awry, who helps others—especially when it's not your job to do so, and who acts respectful towards anyone regardless of their status, problem or demeanor? If so, you should be on the fast track to earning respect. If not, examine your behavior and devise a 10-point plan to make the necessary changes. Write down 10 small behavior changes that you can easily accomplish. They might be as simple as "say thank-you to my secretary at least once every day" or "turn off the cell phone when I call a staff meeting" or "answer the ringing phone if my secretary is already on the phone" or "publicly acknowledge the contribution of a chronic underachiever in my office at least once per month." Once you've made your list, put a copy on your desk, a copy on your refrigerator and a copy in your car. Read them every day. You'll find that implementing 10 small behavior changes will start you on a path to earning the respect you'll need to be an effective leader.

Common courtesy is an easy way to demonstrate respect. If a staff member comes to your office looking for help, give them your undivided attention, or tell them when they can have your undivided attention. Multi-tasking (such as answering the cell phone) when your employees need you sends a message that they are not important, when, in fact, they are critically important to your mission. When you schedule a meeting, be on time and conduct the meeting efficiently. When you are late to a meeting that you called, you are sending a message to everyone in the room that they are not important. When you waste other people's time, they become resentful, not respectful. These seemingly small behavior traits are noticed and resonate throughout the gossip chain of your organization. Often, small gestures, such as meeting an employee at their work site instead of making the employee travel to your office can have a tremendous impact. This example shows an employee that you consider his/her time more important than your own, which indirectly speaks volumes about your respect for their work.

Don't forget that respect is not something to be rationed. Everyone, regardless of their stature or the degree to which they are causing problems for you, should be treated with respect and courtesy. Your behavior should always be consistent. Even if you do not respect someone, it is not justification for disrespectful behavior. Remember, your behavior as a leader is constantly observed, analyzed and reported.

Unfortunately, a common trait among ineffective managers is showing respect to those above them and failing to respect those below them in the organizational chart. You should absolutely show your secretary the same courtesy and respect that you show your boss. If you ignore your cell phone when you're talking to the boss, you should ignore it when you're talking to your secretary too.

As a public works leader, you would rarely want to literally "burn a bridge." This is a bad idea figuratively too. Especially in the public sector, it is entirely likely that the person you disrespect today may be your future council member or future permit reviewer or future boss tomorrow. You never know what relationships may appear in the future, so keep the long view in mind.

One final note—as a public works professional, your behavior should always be ethical. You cannot possibly earn respect if you do not act ethically in all situations. Throughout your career, you will likely have many opportunities to cross or tiptoe near the ethical line. Your best choice is always to stand clear of this line, so that those who respect you never have to question their choice to do so.

Remember, in order to be an effective leader, you must have the respect of those you lead and even of your competitors and detractors. Gaining respect and building respect can only be accomplished through your own behavior. Consequently, you are ultimately in control of the degree to which others respect you. So if you are in the market for more respect, start by giving more respect. The rewards are tremendous!

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 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