Exceeding our grasp
William A. Verkest, P.E.
Robert Browning once said, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" For those of us in the field of public works, whether in the private sector or the public sector, we are continuously faced with doing more with often the same or less resources. We are called upon to "exceed our grasp" on a daily basis; we are continually asked to provide our services in a most complex, effective and responsive manner.
A recent study concluded that an estimated 40% of all new managers fail within the first 18 months on the job. Managers who choose to rest on their knowledge and skills and who are not committed to improvement are doomed to fail. In today's fast-paced and constantly changing society, managers who are not growing are falling behind their peers in terms of skills, knowledge and experience. The "Comfort Zone" is full of people who do not invest enough time and energy in personal and professional improvement, and are passed by others who make personal growth a priority.
Fortunately, we in public works have an excellent resource in which to grow: the American Public Works Association. The association's mission statement, "The American Public Works Association serves its members by promoting professional excellence and public awareness through education, advocacy and the exchange of knowledge," personifies personal and professional growth. The APWA leadership continually asks: How can APWA make a difference in the development of future public works professionals? What can be done now to assist young professionals to be better prepared, to more effectively serve our communities and our nation, and to have a better chance for career advancement and enjoyment in the process? What else can we do to meet our obligation to provide resources for continuous improvement for the present group of managers in public works?
What does it really take for those of us who have chosen to devote our lives to the field of public works to succeed? I believe it takes dedicated leadership. There is a distinct difference between management and leadership. While both are important, to really prosper and make a difference we must focus on leadership. Management is being able to work within a defined process and move it forward. Leadership, on the other hand, consists of the ability to take people and move them forward to a better future. In order to bring about that change, public works needs better leadership. Sometimes it only takes involvement to show that leadership.
Of the association's nine Technical Committees, there is one whose members devote their energies to assisting in the development of leaders and managers. The Leadership and Management Committee's primary purpose is to "Provide direction and motivation to the membership to foster qualities of effective leadership and management within the profession's responsibilities for the development and administration of public works." The committee's role is to share ideas and its members take this responsibility to our association very seriously. The committee also recognizes that leadership involves more than "technical" skills; it also involves the use of "soft" skills, those skills that really contribute to successful management. Soft skills are better known as people skills (talents) and, in most cases, are harder to achieve than the so-called "hard" skills of knowledge, education and experience.
Members of the committee have continued with submission of monthly articles to the APWA Reporter on the core competencies for public works leaders series: First there was "The Baker's Dozen" (core competencies for public works leaders), then "The Baker's Menu" (core competencies for public works managers), and now the introduction of a new series, "The Baker's Potluck." The new series is designed to give our members some additional tools to succeed and to show the correlation or interaction between managers and leaders and ways to develop these skills when weaknesses are identified. A new APWA publication, Building on the Basics: Core Competencies for Public Works Managers, compiles all of the articles in the first two Baker's series into a single, excellent resource for new and seasoned managers.
Another excellent source for member education is the annual APWA Congress, at which the Leadership and Management Committee annually produces several educational sessions; and, if you are looking for some help in the operation of your public works agency, you only have to review APWA's Public Works Resource Catalog.
Members of the Leadership and Management Committee served as a resource to the Public Works Institute Task Force and were instrumental in the development of the Institute Module. Under the direction of the committee, a new publication (working title: Public Works Administration) is being written and will replace the 1986 ICMA "Green" book Management of Local Public Works, which is no longer in print. Public Works Administration will be another valuable tool for public works leaders and managers.
With the advent of the retirement of the Baby Boomers, it becomes critical to our profession to assist in the development of our new leaders; we need to capture the institutional knowledge of those who are retiring. New people with new ideas, supplemented by training and experience, will then be ready to step into their roles as leaders and managers.
Some of the challenges facing APWA are:
Your American Public Works Association and the Leadership and Management Committee have accepted these challenges.