Leadership Competencies: A summary of the "Baker's Dozen" series

William A. Sterling, P.E.
Port Angeles, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

"The challenge of mastering leadership is a skill like any other, such as improving your golf game or learning to play slide guitar. Anyone who has the will and the motivation can get better at leading, once he understands the steps." - Marcus Buckingham, author, Now, Discover Your Strengths

The APWA Leadership and Management Committee published the brochure "Public Works Leaders' Core Competencies." The brochure was 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.

In 2003, the committee developed the "Baker's Dozen" series and began to introduce the leadership competencies to the APWA membership. Committee members volunteered to write a series of articles to be published in the APWA Reporter. The articles were developed to give further insight into the skills leaders need to be successful in their organizations. One thing you might notice about these core competencies is that, except for the two knowledge-based competencies, they are all behaviors that successful leaders exhibit.

Starting with the December 2003 issue, Susan Hann wrote an article entitled "An Effective Public Works Leader is Decisive." This article mentioned that the public works profession often demands quick decisions in an environment of uncertainty. The effective public works leader must have the confidence to accept the risks and responsibilities of making decisions. Decision-making is a lifelong learning process. Experience, both good and bad, will only make you a more effective leader and decision-maker.

A second article, "An Effective Public Works Leader Maintains Balance," was written by Andrew Lemer, Ph.D. This article indicated that balance is about recognizing that an individual's work is only a part of life and demonstrates through his/her actions that all aspects of one's life merit time and energy. Maintaining perspective, staying in the game and personal renewal will help you be a better public works leader and a better person. Do the important things first, because where you are headed is more important than how fast you are going.

The third in the "Baker's Dozen" series was written by William Sterling and published in the March 2004 issue. This article, "An Effective Public Works Leader is Accountable," stressed that an effective public works leader takes responsibility for his/her individual actions. Doing your job as expected demonstrates dependability; doing your job better than expected demonstrates commitment. Make and keep promises, practice persistence and patience, don't expect others to do what you won't, and have your behavior be in sync with the organization's values are only some of the important traits of accountability.

Article number four, "An Effective Public Works Leader Empowers Others," was written by Patricia Hildebrand, and was published in the April 2004 issue of the APWA Reporter. This article talks about having an organization that allows you to provide better customer service through the empowerment of its employees. Keys to an empowered organization include maintaining open communications, keeping an atmosphere of trust, having a belief that power is shared, and seeing that employees are given the tools and authority they need to do their job more effectively.

The next article, appearing in the May 2004 issue, was written by Susan Hann. This article, "An Effective Public Works Leader Shows Respect for Others," focused on a key issue—the key to getting respect is giving respect. Respect demands a long-term commitment and requires consistent demonstration by your words and actions. Demonstrate respect through common courtesy such as undivided attention and being on time. Make respect an everyday habit.

The article "An Effective Public Works Leader Is a Communicator" was written by Ron Hellbusch and appeared in the June 2004 issue of the APWA Reporter. The main points of this article included the observation that individuals must have the basic elements of Source, Message, Channel and Audience. Source means you must prepare with the right facts, verbiage and material. Message means it must have clarity, simplicity and details. Channel means to be prepared by brainstorming questions in advance. Audience relates to the target audience to whom you are presenting. Technical information must be presented in a way that is understandable to your audience.

With the July 2004 issue, the series of articles based on the "Baker's Dozen" reached the halfway point. An article written by William Sterling, entitled "An Effective Public Works Leader is Public Service Oriented," related that no other position in city/county government depends so completely on a wide variety of experience. Some compelling reasons for working in the public works area include: variety, challenges, decision making, project/program development, interaction and the ability to make a difference. Every decision you make affects your employees, the everyday life of your citizens and the credibility of your department. A public works leader has the ability to make a difference, perhaps our main reason to be in public service.

The August 2004 issue followed up with an article written by Susan Hann. The article, "An Effective Public Works Leader is Deliberate," defines the term "deliberate" as characterized by or resulting from careful and thorough consideration and is characterized by awareness of the consequences. The essence of a public works leader is being careful, thorough and aware of the risks. An effective public works professional will listen to the problem, quickly absorb the data and calmly make a decision. The article also points out that it is possible to be too deliberate, which leads to indecision. Finally, the article points out that you should anticipate the outcome, view your decisions in the context of the organization's mission and values, and demonstrate your ability to focus.

In September, Andrew Lemer, Ph.D., authored an article, "An Effective Public Works Leader is Technically Knowledgeable." This article described that technical knowledge in public works has to do with the way things work with the art of building, operating and maintaining facilities and delivering services. Knowledge is of two kinds: we know of a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information about it. A large proportion of what we learn along the way is knowledge of the second kind. Every successful leader must, from time to time, do some reading or research and rely on others who know a thing or two themselves. Effective leaders will not stop; they will try to find out what they need to know. Having a network of colleagues to ask is a resource for getting answers.

Continuing with the series, George E. (Ed) Wolf authored an article, "An Effective Public Works Leader Possesses Integrity." This article, published in the October 2004 issue of the APWA Reporter, stressed that possessing integrity is about acting forthrightly and honestly, and demonstrating, through his/her actions, how high moral character may be reflected in both the operations of the organization and the delivery of services. It is about being committed and true to yourself. It requires a conscience. Integrity is also about walking the talk. "Do as I say" doesn't go very far these days; "Do as I do" sets the example.

Sue Hann, in her article "An Effective Public Works Leader is Resilient," stated that anyone involved in public service typically has many opportunities to be resilient. Most of us give our heart to the public works profession. We treasure our ability to make our communities better. We take pride in our accomplishments. Our common bond is our resiliency—the ability to carry on with a smile in the face of adversity. As an effective public works leader, you have the tools you need to serve your community and lead your team in a professional manner. If you need a resiliency check, make a list of contributions you make to your community and keep the good deeds done by your employees in front of your citizens and elective officials. Some coping mechanisms include using humor, seeing the big picture, remembering the contributions you are making, and encouraging your peers.

The twelfth article, "An Effective Public Works Leader Manages Resources," written by William Sterling for the December issue of the APWA Reporter, related that a leader focuses on goals, results and such end products as the goods and services to be provided. Labor is the predominant public sector resource, but the management of equipment, materials and space should not be overlooked in the management of resources. As a leader, it is your responsibility to continuously review your organization to ensure continuous improvement. Methods such as: benchmarking, re-engineering, strategic planning, internal/external audits and self assessment through APWA are some of the tools available to you. The delivery of public works services and the planning, construction, operation and maintenance of public works facilities has become much more complicated. The challenges facing public works leaders is as much in knowing what needs to be done as in how to get it done.

The final article in the "Baker's Dozen" series was written by Susan Hann for the January 2005 issue. This article is most appropriate; inasmuch with everything a leader has to do, a leader has to rely on his/her staff to accomplish the many tasks with which the organization is charged. The article, "An Effective Public Works Leader Delegates," stressed that, as a public works leader, your plate is full of challenges and opportunities. Almost everything is a priority to someone, so you are continually faced with a barrage of too much to do. Finding ways to effectively handle the avalanche of work is a critical skill for a leader. Effective delegation requires communication and accountability. The importance of clearly articulating your desired outcome cannot be emphasized enough. The other key responsibility of the delegator is accountability. Delegation is not synonymous to passing on your work to someone else and never thinking about it again. Delegation requires monitoring and review to ensure the task is progressing as directed.

It is hoped that the above summary will give you some insight into the "Baker's Dozen" series. If you would like to learn more about the series, contact APWA in person or online at www.apwa.net. The APWA staff will be happy to help you find more sources of information about this important subject.

This brief summary was prepared with the help of all of the members of the Leadership and Management Committee. They either wrote the articles or provided a summary of the article. The summaries were utilized to create a PowerPoint(r) presentation, under the direction of John Ostrowski. The presentation can be viewed at /Documents/About/TechSvcs/Leadership/LM-Committee.ppt.

William A. Sterling, P.E., is a former Director of Public Works for the City of Greeley, Colorado. A past APWA Top Ten recipient, he can be reached at sterling@publicworksmanagement.com.