An effective public works manager...possesses oral and written communications skills

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee
Presenter, 2005 APWA Congress

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 sixth 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

The buzz-phrase "possesses oral and written communications skills" is on every job description for every manager in every organization. This would lead you to believe that these skills are very important to the health and success of an organization. And, if every organization is looking for these skills, does that mean they are usually missing?

Think about your own organization and the people you would credit with having excellent communications skills. Most likely, if you think about it, these are the people who talk less and listen more. Yes, the skills to speak and write correctly, clearly and succinctly are extremely valuable, but the back side of communication, listening, is really where the best communicators excel.

It may seem odd, but the best way to practice and enhance your communications skills is to stop talking and focus on what the other person is saying to you. Look at their body language. Is what they're saying consistent with their facial expressions and demeanor? Ask a few probing questions. Make it your responsibility to ensure that you understand what is being communicated to you.

Of course, the primary listening skill is to focus on the other person. If you are multi-tasking while someone is speaking to you, then you are sending the message that their communication is not important to you. In effect, you have just communicated a very significant and very negative message, without talking or sending a memo. If you have no choice but to multi-task, give them the option—"I'm busy now, I have to work on this while you're speaking, but I can be free in about 30 minutes and give you my full attention." This ensures that they know they and their message are important to you and gives them the choice as to how to proceed.

Communication style is also very important. As a manager, your success hinges on your ability to mobilize a team and "get things done." Evaluating how people best process information and communicating accordingly are skills that will help you become a better manager. Maybe your boss is a "yes or no" guy. If he asks you "Will the road be paved by Tuesday?" he probably doesn't want a seven-minute, mile-long explanation of the vagaries of weather and contractors. If he cared about weather and contractors, he would be managing the project, not you. In these situations, you can watch his body language when you give an answer. If he's answering e-mail while you're talking, he's not listening to you and he's giving you important non-verbal clues that you are not communicating effectively. If, on the other hand, you answer "no," he may then proceed to inquire as to when or why—giving you an opportunity to elaborate, but on his terms.

You may have other people in your organization who want the nth degree of detail. These are folks who want as much information as possible and appreciate it when you take time to fill them in on the minutiae. Again, if you look for those non-verbal clues, you can often tell if you are getting your message across effectively. Is the recipient fidgeting while you're talking? Is the recipient engaged, looking at you and asking questions? Watch people's reactions to your words and adjust your communication style accordingly.

Sometimes, if I'm talking and I'm reasonably sure the recipient is not listening, I may ask if I should come back at another time, or if they would prefer I prepare a memo or if they would like me to "just handle it." This type of approach allows you to informally ask the recipient if they would prefer another style of communication.

Generally, as a manager, your informal communications skills (talking and listening to employees, bosses and customers) are the foundation of your professional success. However, as you move forward in the organization, you may find yourself presenting at public meetings and dealing with the media. If those phrases cause your heart to flutter, I would suggest that you practice in a non-threatening environment (such as Toastmasters) and start building your skills and your confidence. But, the basic foundation is the same: Listen more than you talk and watch for non-verbal clues. Always consider your audience. If you've been trained as an engineer or tend to talk in jargon and acronyms, make sure your audience can understand you. (When the nice guys from tech services try to "help" me with my computer skills, I always walk away feeling like the queen techno-moron—in fact, I'm pretty sure that's what they mean when they say the QTM is DUM—but I'm not positive.)

For all public and media presentations, I always suggest a high level of preparation. Anticipate what can go wrong and be prepared to deal with whatever comes your way. Also, find your personal style. I've always been impressed with speakers who open their presentation with a joke. I wish I could do that, but I just can't, so I don't try to be "Seinfeld"—I present in a manner in which I'm comfortable. Mostly, I talk like the room is on fire, but you won't miss cocktail hour because I droned on. It's not textbook, but it's me.

When dealing with the media, I would simply suggest you portray the responsive, straightforward, honest public servant that you are each and every time. Even when, or especially when, the sky is falling, the citizens expect their leaders and managers to professionally and confidently handle the situation. If you practice good communications skills in a non-crisis situation, you will be much better equipped to handle the more challenging communication opportunities. When the microphone is shoved in your face—take a moment to think about the audience, the question asked, the information the public needs to know and how you can best represent your organization. Then, talk with confidence and good diction.

In addition to verbal communication skills, a manager needs sound written communication skills. If you have ever used "irregardlessly" in a sentence or if you did not have the benefit of a superb eighth-grade English teacher or mom-the-grammar-wizard, then find yourself a good grammar class, a great secretary or call my mom to proofread your letters. Your professional written communications should not be an illustration of run-on sentences, sentences with no verbs, misspellings, creative punctuation or other grammar gaffes. The reader may lose confidence in your public works abilities if your ability to write a letter is suspect.

The reason I am so emphatic about this topic is that I have discarded resumes and rejected proposals because the message that is communicated to me in a sloppily written document is that the writer does not care enough to proofread properly. This is not the message you want to send prospective employers or business partners. You may be a great engineer, but if you can't write a sentence and won't make the effort to learn, I will hire somebody else.

This is the key message about communications skills. You may be sending me your proposal, but how it's organized, the number of spelling errors, the degree to which you followed instructions and the style of writing all tell me more about you than the words written on the paper. Remember, you should always be aware of the message you're actually sending whether you're speaking, writing or just adjusting your facial features.

So, I challenge you to browse through this article and find the grammatical errors. If you're the first to find five, I'll send you a Mr. Potato Head.

Sue Hann will present two educational sessions during the 2005 APWA Congress in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her first session, entitled "Survivor—Local Government! Tips for Job Security in a Political Environment," takes place Sunday, September 11, at 3:00 p.m. Her other session, entitled "Strengthen Your Core; Exercise Your Leadership Potential," takes place Monday, September 12, at 10:00 a.m. Sue can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or

"The basic building block of good communications is the feeling that every human being is unique and of value." - Unknown

"Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can't get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn't even matter." - Gilbert Amelio, President and CEO of National Semiconductor Corp.

"Leaders who make it a practice to draw out the thoughts and ideas of their subordinates and who are receptive even to bad news will be properly informed. Communicate downward to subordinates with at least the same care and attention as you communicate upward to superiors." - L. B. Belker

"You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your ideas won't get you anywhere." - Lee Iacocca

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