THE BAKER'S DOZEN

An effective public works leader...is deliberate

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 eighth 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 adaniels@apwa.net.

Webster* defines "deliberate" in the following ways:

  • ...characterized by or resulting from careful and thorough consideration
  • ...characterized by awareness of the consequences

This is the essence of a public works leader—careful, thorough and aware of risks.

As a public works professional, you most likely have encountered a manager with a "reactionary" style. This is someone who responds to most issues in a "Chicken Little" fashion. (For those of you who are younger, Chicken Little was famous for yelling "the sky is falling" when nothing at all was amiss). Put another way, some managers are "amplifiers"they respond to a crisis by amplifying what they have heard, making it seem even worse that it is. A good manager is a "damper," a public works professional who will listen to the problem, quickly absorb the data, and calmly make a decision, in effect, damping down the crisis. In public works we are frequently faced with real crises, so a manager who creates crises teaches the staff to act with minimal thought and to treat every situation as if it were a crisis.

In most organizations, public works staff is committed to responding to any crisis with great enthusiasm and professionalism. However, if a manager plays the crisis card too frequently, staff starts to feel abused and is less likely to respond appropriately. If crisis becomes your staff's only mode of operation, then it is simply business as usual, and your staff will lose the ability to respond to a real crisis. Consequently, it is important for a public works leader to establish through words, actions and body language what situations are critical and what situations are not. If a leader has established the respect of the public works team, the staff will respond when extraordinary effort is necessary.

In contrast to reactionary management, it is also possible for a public works manager to be too deliberate. This type of manager is characterized by indecision. A manager plagued with indecision will keep an organization from accomplishing its goals and achieving its mission.

In both cases (too much deliberation and too little deliberation), the best way to move forward is to analyze risk, seek input from knowledgeable sources (especially including your subordinates), and act accordingly with all due speed. A leader must be prepared to quickly consider consequences of various actions and/or inaction and then make an informed, careful decision. Even if a decision is wrong, if you can substantiate your decision-making process, the outcome may be less severe. If you have properly analyzed your risk, you should also be well prepared for any consequences and have a plan of action to address them. In those cases where a decision is not optimal, a learning and character-building experience is often the result.

An important part of analyzing risk is anticipating outcomes. A public works leader who views a situation with forethought as to likely consequences can often avoid problems through judicious planning. For example, if you are proposing to install speed humps in a neighborhood, have you considered the impact of the diverted traffic on a different neighborhood, have you engaged this group in the speed hump discussion, have you given your manager and elected officials a "heads up" that this project is pending, have you talked to the fire department and the trash service, have you considered what happens if this is successful (every neighborhood wants them), have you budgeted for success? This list of possible consequences of even a relatively small action such as the installation of speed humps is quite lengthy. A deliberate leader has considered these outcomes and planned accordingly.

If you consider public works leaders that you respect, you will most likely find that they occasionally make incorrect decisions. How they react to their mistakes is what characterizes them as leaders to be respected. When one of your decisions goes well, give credit to your staff. When one of your decisions goes badly, take responsibility and move quickly to correct the problem.

Another aspect of deliberate decision making is to view decisions in the context of your organization's value and mission statements and in the context of your (and your organization's) ethical standards. A leader is focused on the mission. Sometimes the mission may be general, such as "provide top quality customer service." Or, the mission may be very specific, such as "complete the roadway construction by the end of the calendar year." Sometimes the mission may not be clear or may be in conflict with other organizational direction. In these cases, the leader must either seek clarification from their organizational hierarchy or make a judgment call as to the correct course of action. Once again, communication is the key.

There may be occasions as a public works leader where you are responsible for establishing the mission and vision for others in your organization. As a leader you must be able to clearly articulate the mission and steadfastly work towards accomplishing the mission. Your words, your actions and your body language will all be carefully observed by your staff to measure how committed you really are to the mission. If you don't "walk the talk," you will have difficulty recruiting and retaining an enthusiastic team.

Focus and commitment are also traits of a deliberate leader. As a manager, you may have constant distractions, but as a leader you must find the time to demonstrate your focus and commitment to your team. This is not something that happens every Monday at the staff meeting; this is something that must be constantly visible. For example, when your staff encounters a problem that needs your attention, do you make that problem your priority or do you put them in the "to do" pile? As a deliberate leader, you should, in most cases, provide guidance as soon as you can. In this case your staff will see your commitment and respond accordingly. If, in contrast, their problem is just put in the queue, it sends a message that their mission is not as important as you might have led them to believe.

If you are unsure as to your skills as a deliberate leader, ask. Ask your manager, ask your peers and especially ask your subordinates. During performance evaluations is a perfect time to ask your direct subordinates what you can do to make their work easier. Ask them if they can articulate their mission. Ask them if you are making decisions quickly enough. Discuss your management style and its effect on their work. If you have gained their trust and respect, they will likely give you some helpful insight. Similarly, discuss with your manager how they view your leadership skills and inquire if you are pursuing the organization's vision and mission appropriately.

Developing your skills as a deliberate leader takes practice and experience. Knowing when there is a crisis, knowing when to take risks, and knowing where to focus your efforts all come with experience. But experience doesn't always have to be painful. Keep in mind Webster's definition of deliberate: careful and thorough consideration coupled with awareness of consequences. Practice these traits with every opportunity and you will find they become a very welcome habit.

One of the keys to sound public works leadership is to strike a comfortable balance between rash decision making and no decision making. A deliberate leader will find this balance and inspire the team towards great accomplishments.

"Look twice before you leap." - Charlotte Bronte

"Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility." - Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift." - Septima Poinsette Clark

Susan M. Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or at hanns@palmbayflorida.org.

*Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

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