An effective public works manager...manages workload

R. Kevin Clark
Editor, APWA Reporter
APWA Kansas City office

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. This series of articles, collectively called "The Baker's Menu," discusses these competencies and is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. "Manages Workload" is the eleventh 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

Everyone's workload is increasing these days. Yours, mine, the guy's down the hall...everyone. In my case, it's easy to see where it's coming from. The APWA Reporter has grown since I joined six years ago. New columns, new features, and new advertisers just seem to have that effect on a magazine. I wouldn't have it any other way, and I hope our magazine keeps getting bigger and better every year, but I'm telling you, it's hard work. Every day we face the publisher's "trifecta" of challenges: maintain quality, stay on schedule, and (yikes!) bring it all in on budget. Fortunately, your humble editor has come up with some pretty effective ways to manage that workload, and I hope that they might be of value to public works managers facing similar hurdles.

1. Develop a mantra. You'll need it.
I was very lucky to have stumbled upon mine almost twenty years ago. As defined by my beloved Webster's, a mantra is "An often repeated word, formula, or stock phrase." As defined by yours truly, it's a simple way to keep up your courage and determination when tackling obstacles. Your challenge might be running a company, raising teenagers, achieving global peace, or maybe just cutting out the bacon cheeseburgers. For me, it's the expanding workload and constant deadlines associated with the APWA Reporter. Well, that and the bacon cheeseburger thing.

I discovered my mantra in a little "page-a-day" book of quotations that my wife brought home in 1986. The book is called Heart Warmers (yes, I know...we're geeks...go ahead, have your fun...she's my wife and I love her). I'll admit that most of these were cheesy as a plate of Texas nachos. But some were really memorable nonetheless. In fact, I think most of us have experienced that moment when some 2,000-year-old proverb seems custom-tailored to our current-day dilemma. Mine was on page 326:

Command yourself, and make yourself do what needs to be done.

That particular thought went into my brain, took up lodging, and became a battle cry for the next 20 years. Luckily, it only comes out when I need it—at that critical moment when the workload grows larger than I think I can handle.

By simply repeating "Command yourself, and make yourself do what needs to be done" (occasionally in a drill sergeant kind of voice for effect), I'm able to do exactly that: start and finish the project, no matter how challenging or downright miserable it may be. It's not magic, but it helps.

To be honest, relying upon my mantra is the only way I could produce a 100-page issue (such as our September '05 "Congress" issue) and stay on schedule and under budget. You might note from our bylines that we don't employ a host of associate editors, assistant editors, or copy editors. In fact, we employ precisely none of those. But by "commanding" myself to stay on our authors about their deadlines, to proofread each issue at least five times, and to communicate nonstop with my designer, ad reps and printer, I can always send a high-quality issue to our members, and usually a day or two ahead of schedule. Besides, I have no idea what I would do with all that extra editorial help, and they'd probably take all the good parking spots anyway.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you adopt my personal mantra to meet your own demanding workload. I'm simply doing what the other contributors to "The Baker's Menu" series have done: offer my own suggestions and insight on how to get the job done. This one works for me, and I think it will work for you. And, hey, it's all for the price of a cheesy quote book.

2. Managing your own workload means managing your team's workload
But enough about using mantras to help manage my own workload—this series is all about helping public works professionals become better managers, isn't it? Well, I'm also a big believer that "commanding yourself, and making yourself do what needs to be done" applies equally well to working with your staff.

Back in 1995 I worked for Black & Veatch, a large engineering company, as supervisor of their 25-strong Power Division proposal team. And if you've ever been involved in proposal work, you probably already know where this is heading. It's tough stuff, folks. Late nights, cancelled weekend plans, frayed tempers, and a general sense of "one more rewrite from management and I swear I will beat them with their own binders." Like I said, it was tough work, and my staff leading the major efforts were mostly young, and new to the corporate proposal world. None had truly understood what they were walking into when they applied, and my job in large part was to make sure they didn't walk right back out once they saw the big, overtime-laden picture.

So, once again, I commanded myself to simply do right by my staff in order to keep them positive, engaged and even happy. That effort took many shapes and sizes. A bowling alley for pizza and a few games. A weekend hayride. A "Trivial Pursuit" marathon stretching over several lunch hours (note previous "geeky" admission). Perhaps most importantly, when they worked extraordinarily long hours on a project, I gave them a couple of hours off at some unexpected time. Sometimes that hour or two, given at the right moment, yielded more impact than my whole bag of corporate motivational tricks.

I wasn't always in the mood for this stuff, but by commanding myself to do what needed to be done for my staff, the workload was better managed and our morale stayed high. I say "our" because the supervisor is typically the biggest factor in creating and sustaining workplace morale. If you're down, apathetic, or clearly just plain beat, you can expect your staff to quickly join you. If you're motivated and confident, more often than not, they'll join you there as well. For us, the payoff was two-fold. First, our proposals went out on time and we won a lot of work. Our hit rate was an unusually high 30% (hey, like the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, "It ain't bragging if you done it"). And secondly, we retained solid staff that knew hard work and good fun didn't have to be mutually exclusive. Over nearly two years, only one person out of those 25 left the group to join another company.

The point of all this is that "managing workload" is just another way of saying this: Give yourself and your team the time, tools and motivation to do their jobs well. Take them out to lunch once in awhile. Respond to their e-mails and phone messages quickly and mute your own ringer when they come into your office. These days there are literally thousands of people vying for our attention at any given moment. Giving your attention, undivided, to your employee for even a short while sends a very real message: I respect you, I value what you bring to my group, and I'm serious about addressing your issue.

Success in public works won't always come from a bigger budget or new equipment. But it will always, without fail, come from satisfied and motivated employees. Their positive attitude strengthens what they do internally, and shines in their interactions with your customers. Sometimes it's not how quickly you fix the pothole, but how quickly you return a citizen's call, or how respectfully you treat them. Motivated staff who know they are valued members of your team will build goodwill with the public, and they will get things done whether you're in the office or a thousand miles away on business. In my mind, keeping your team proud through respect and simple rewards is the best possible way of managing your department's workload, and your own as a result.

3. Make a game out of it
Okay, we're down to the simpler ones now, so hang with me. Another way I handle my increasing workload is one I learned years ago from the source of most really useful life mother. (I know you probably haven't met her, so you're welcome to substitute your own mother's wisdom if you like.) Anyway, she always had a fascinating way of making a game out of the projects on her to-do list. Nothing fancy, just simple little rules that blurred the lines for us between work and fun. When the game was over (i.e., all the goals were checked off the list) there was a brief celebration or reward before the next one began. At first glance, this approach may seem suited only to kids, but you'd be surprised. Even adults in coats and ties like to play a little now and then, and you shouldn't underestimate the competitive fire burning in the men and women of the public works industry. We all like to win.

4. Scratch those suckers off your list
You know the feeling. It's satisfying. It's cathartic. It's ego-boosting. It's that uniquely good feeling you only get when you can scratch something off of your "to-do" list. Maybe it's a pile of work at the office, or the always popular (and never-ending) "honey-do" list at home, but man, there's just nothing like it. So for me, anyway, the "scratch off" method helps me keep up with the workload. I keep my to-do list right next to my computer and refer to it every day. It might say "Get January issue to the printer by December 14" or "Touch base with contributing authors for February issue by Friday." It's simple and it's right in front of me, so there's no way to lose my focus on the goal. And as I complete each item, I scratch through it and breathe that sweet sigh of relief that you only get to breathe when your work is done. Like I said...cathartic.

5. Limit your priorities
You can't be all things to all people. I'm telling you, I tried it once. No dice. But you can be who you need to be for the people that really matter. I've found that by clarifying and limiting my priorities, I can keep my personal and office workload balanced and appropriate. Balanced, meaning that neither work nor family gets short shrift. And appropriate, meaning that if I'm using up my very limited time, I'm using it on the things that matter. I now have a grand total of two priorities: take care of my family, and publish the APWA Reporter at the highest level of quality. Everything else takes a backseat, every day. It's not always easy, and I'll warn you in advance that many of you will have to relearn a specific, critical skill. It's one that you were proficient at when we were two years old: How to say "no."

When the going gets tough...
While I'm sure you have your own ways of managing your ever-expanding workloads, I hope some of these techniques might prove of value to you. None are perfect, but all have their place. Now, it's off to complete the January issue and deliver it to the printer on time. This month's issue is going to be a tough one. Not to worry, though—I've got my cheesy quote book at hand, and I will command myself, and make myself do what needs to be done.

Kevin Clark can be reached at (816) 595-5230 or

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