An effective public works manager...involves others

Gary Strack, P.E.
Director, Structural Engineering
Shafer, Kline & Warren, Inc.
Overland Park, Kansas
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. The series of articles in the APWA Reporter based on these competencies—entitled "The Baker's Menu"—is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. Included in this issue is the fourth in the series of competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

A public works manager has the responsibility of performing tasks using a number of resources to assist in completing these tasks. Some resources will be equipment or machines. However, the majority of a manager's resources are the staff members who operate equipment or machines, supervise others, or coordinate efforts outside of the organization. These staff resources are the heart and soul of your organization and the more your staff likes what they are doing and who they are doing it with, the better they will perform their duties.

My fellow committee members have presented articles in the preceding months on "resolving conflict" and "building trust and respect." In many respects, their articles addressed how to deal with staff issues which are part of "involving others." Involving others includes many other Core Competencies such as team building, setting realistic goals, helping others to succeed, managing workload, developing staff and anticipating future needs. When you involve others, conflict will be minimized and you will build trust and respect among your staff.

Most people like to have a say in how their work is to be done. If a manager tells them how to do each and every step (micromanaging), then employees don't feel a sense of pride or accomplishment. As George Haines wrote in his article on "builds trust/respect": "We have to be willing to let our staff have the opportunity to learn from successes as well as failures." This is difficult to do because we all want to be successful. However, people learn more from failures than they do successes. To share an example from the Boy Scouts program: Troops in which the adults plan and lead all of the activities and meetings will last for a few years until the boys are in their teens. On the other hand, troops in which the adults provide guidance and support for activities and meetings which are planned and led by the scouts, will last for decades. Why is this? When guidelines and goals are established, the scouts create a fun program to reach those goals with a sense of personal ownership. They experience firsthand what works and what doesn't in "their" program. Do you suppose your staff would create a fun way to successfully perform their tasks if given the opportunity?

Why is it so important to involve others in the decision process? Involving others builds team strength and a feeling of accomplishment. What matters is that you have respected the opinions of others and their knowledge about a task or goal for which you are responsible. You must trust your staff to implement ideas and go through the learning experiences without doing it for them. This process not only builds trust and respect between you and your staff, it also builds self esteem which may enable them to take on more responsibilities in the future.

"You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit." - Harry S. Truman

One key to involving others is communication. Real two-way conversations give each person the opportunity to speak and the duty to listen when the other speaks. Effective communication involves active listening and clear speech. Active listening, as presented by Scott Hunter at the 2004 APWA Congress, is focusing on the speaker with all of your attention. This includes listening with the appropriate body language and not looking at or thinking about anything else. Clear speech means using normal everyday language which everyone can understand without acronyms or big words. There is much more to effective communication; however, there isn't enough space here to cover this topic as well.

So how do you know when you have successfully involved others? In Just Add Management by Farzad and Rhonda Dibachi, they indicate there is a critical corporate goal which they label as "transparency." This important concept is defined as: "When every member of an enterprise understands his or her role in the greater scheme; understands how his or her work influences the success of the enterprise; makes good decisions based on priorities set at a high level; and taps into the knowledge assets of the company in order to achieve corporate goals." Involving others requires this transparency, but to successfully move your organization from good to great it is critical that your staff have your support, trust and respect.

Now here's your challenge. Loosen the reins and allow staff the freedom to choose their own way to solve problems. Be willing and available to offer guidance when needed, but encourage others to develop confidence in themselves. Then sit back and watch as they continue to take on more responsibility. Just pretend you are the Scoutmaster providing the guidelines and establishing the goals for a group of scouts on the path to the rank of Eagle, the ultimate goal of scouting. Your task is to determine what your staff's equivalent goal should be. When you have established these goals and involve others in attaining them, your life and more importantly your staff will benefit from the opportunity!

Gary D. Strack, P.E., can be reached at (913) 888-7800 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflict
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible