THE BAKER'S DOZEN

An effective public works leader...is resilient

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

Anyone involved in public service typically has many opportunities to be resilient. Our day-to-day interaction with citizens, elected officials, peers, subordinates and superiors provides a variety of experiences from which one must "recover" their self-confidence and self-esteem.

My initial thoughts on writing an article about resiliency centered around a sports analogy. I play competitive racquetball and usually fill the role of fodder for the better players. Some days I wonder why I keep playing in tournaments. It costs me money and time, reminds me that I'm getting older and reinforces that I'll never be national champion. Yet, year after year, I'm still training and still playing. I think it must be because I love the sport and "my heart is truly in it."

Similarly, most of us give our heart to the public works profession. We treasure our ability to help citizens and our ability to make our communities better. We take pride in what we accomplish and keep our communities functioning. We strive to be responsive to everyone who places demands on us.

So, why is it that we feel so unloved, underappreciated, ignored, and otherwise inconsequential unless things go wrong? Why aren't there any statues in the town square dedicated to public works employees? What is it about the public works profession that keeps us coming back for more?

I would speculate that one of the most significant traits that we have in common is that of resiliency—the ability to carry on with a smile in the face of adversity. When public works employees—at all points in the organization—are faced with difficult situations, we work even harder. We recognize our jobs are challenging and we take pride in responding to each challenge with great enthusiasm.

As a public works leader, you may not even realize the strength of resiliency that you possess. In the course of a week you are likely to be criticized by unhappy citizens, questioned by elected officials, accused of ethical or procedural missteps and generally disrespected with a frequency not often seen in other professions.

How do you handle these often rude, untruthful and belligerent affronts on your character and professionalism? Most of us respond by calmly trying to help the person who is verbally assaulting us. This takes patience, courage and enormous resiliency.

Now, I admit that sometimes when I'm on the receiving end of these verbal assaults, I occasionally envision the response I would dearly like to deliver, but cannot because it would be completely unprofessional and would likely represent the end of my career in public works. But, I frequently share that unspoken response with my peers or my family in a more lighthearted telling of the event later in the day.

Humor is one of the best ways to diffuse the stress that accompanies being resilient 24/7. Many confrontational situations can be amusing once the situation has diffused. Often you will find great sympathy and camaraderie among your peers in the public works profession. All of us have interesting stories about outrageous behavior.

Another way to manage the burden of resiliency is to take a more comprehensive view of the circumstances. Often a citizen may be venting at you only because you are on the other end of the phone. As a recipient of a small portion of their tax dollars, you can also be the recipient of misdirected frustration and anger. Acknowledge their feelings, try to help and recognize that in most cases their ire is not directed at you.

This can be especially important when dealing with elected officials. In some cases it can be politically expedient for elected officials to publicly "blame" public works officials, when privately they acknowledge otherwise. Again, remember that you are part of a sometimes dysfunctional system, and your role is often to be the calm voice of reason.

As a public works leader, you have the tools you need to serve your community and lead your team in a professional manner. Take pride in your accomplishments and don't dwell on those unpleasant circumstances that might erode your self-confidence. If you have a proven track record of quality professionalism, you will easily weather any storm.

Although public works is often invisible to the public, remember that what you do makes our communities safe and provides the essential ingredients for quality lifestyles. Think about what could happen in your community if you and your public works peers decided to pursue a more overtly rewarding profession. How would citizens get water, who would plow the snow, who would collect the garbage, who would fill the potholes? The list of contributions that the public works profession makes to a community is almost endless.

So if you're having trouble remembering why you're in public works, take the time to make a list of the contributions you make to your community. Put it up on your refrigerator or on the inside cover of your calendar. Make sure you look at it every day.

Also, take the opportunity to privately and publicly recognize your peers and your subordinates for their contributions. Take the initiative to write press releases, contribute articles to the city newsletter, go to town meetings and talk about the value that public works brings to the community. This not only publicizes public works accomplishments, it also humanizes public works employees. It is much harder for a citizen to yell at someone they know than an anonymous voice on the other end of the phone. So, do what you can to always keep the good deeds done by public works employees in front of our citizens and elected officials. Be proactive and positive.

If you're reading this article, chances are that you have already had a lot of practice at being resilient. You have a collection of Dilbert comic strips. You have a Styrofoam stress brick somewhere in your office. You have a container of Tums in your desk. My office has a Mr. Potato Head that I can dismember if being resilient becomes overwhelming. I always put him back together with a profound apology, but sometimes it just feels good to yank his arm off. Hopefully, he understands his role in keeping my sanity intact. It's a big job, and he's a pretty resilient guy.

"You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it." - Margaret Thatcher

"The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain." - Dolly Parton

"Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts." - Nikki Giovanni

"We are all in this alone." - Lily Tomlin

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

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