An effective public works leader...delegates

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 thirteenth 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

As a public works leader, your plate is full of challenges and opportunities. Almost everything is a priority to someone, so you are continually faced with a barrage of too much to do. Some mornings I look at my desk and equate it to Mt. Everest. Many days, I go to meetings all day, just to collect more work. When I do get a moment at my desk, the phone rings constantly. If you're middle-aged like me, you've probably seen the "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy and Ethel are working on a chocolate candy assembly line. Initially, the belt moves at a reasonable pace, but soon the pace becomes overwhelming. The chocolates keep coming faster and faster. Lucy winds up juggling chocolates not too successfully. The episode is funny, and is analogous to our life in public works. The rate of incoming work vastly exceeds our ability to handle it.

Finding ways to effectively handle the avalanche of work is a critical skill for a public works leader and manager. Many of us try the "Superhero" method first. We use logic like "I can do this faster and better myself rather than taking time to explain it to someone else." A common trait among public works professionals is our intrinsic desire to hoard work. We know we can do the job well and do it right, so why not do it all ourselves?

The answer is because you can't do it all yourself! You can try—but the result will most likely be an exhausted, ineffective manager. As an individual, even a very talented individual, you are limited by the number of hours in a day in what you can accomplish working alone. If you engage your team, you can dramatically increase your effectiveness as a manager. Remember that as a public works manager, you are tasked with managing work. Your agency expects you to "get things done." However, the volume of work is such that you cannot accomplish all that is expected of you by being a "one-person team." Consequently, the ability to delegate effectively is an essential skill for the public works leader and manager.

Effective delegation requires a combination of several of the core competencies previously featured (see box on page 33). For example, communication skills are absolutely essential to effective delegation. The importance of clearly articulating your desired outcome cannot be emphasized enough. If your team misunderstands the mission, valuable time and effort are lost, when the result is not what was intended. Unfortunately, this can cause some delegators to revert back to "See, I should have done it myself" behavior, when, in reality, the delegator's poor communication caused the failure. As the delegator, communication is one of the two key responsibilities that you have and one area where you should invest your time and focus.

The other key responsibility of the delegator is accountability. Delegation is not synonymous to passing on your work to someone else and never thinking about it again. Delegation requires monitoring and review to ensure the task is progressing as directed. Even though you have delegated work, it is still your responsibility to ensure that the work is done effectively and correctly. As the delegator, it is important that you occasionally check in with the delegatee as to progress and identify any mid-course corrections that might be needed. You also need to keep track of what you have delegated. There is a variety of tracking software options that you can use to track not only tasks that you have delegated, but also your own tasks. This method (or using the more traditional handwritten list) helps you to focus on what needs to be done and when.

As a leader you must take responsibility for what you have delegated. It is not acceptable to "pass the buck." When your boss asks you the status of a project or task you have delegated, you need to know the answer. "I gave that to Bob" is not an acceptable response. As the delegator, you have a duty to touch base with "Bob" occasionally to ensure that you, as the responsible party, are aware of the status.

Delegation is an aspect of managing resources. As a public works leader and manager you are leading and managing a team of human resources. Managing your team effectively is an essential role of the public works leader. Whether you are a public works director or a crew leader, the ability to effectively manage a team of people is critical to providing quality services to your community. Empowering others through delegation builds your team with every success they achieve. Delegation is also an indication of trust. By delegating to a subordinate or peer, you are also sending the message that you trust them to do a good job. Over time, this helps the person to whom you are delegating build confidence and become a more skilled member of your team.

Through delegation, public works leaders can hopefully maintain balance among their many responsibilities at home, at work and in their communities. Delegation is an awesome tool to help you be a more effective manager, build the skills and confidence of your staff, and free up time for you to spend with your family and friends. However, learning to delegate is challenging. The ability to "let go" and the wisdom to know when to "let go" are important skills that take practice and perseverance. I'm still working on my delegation skills, and someday I hope to get home for dinner on time.

"Delegating means letting others become the experts and hence the best." - Timothy Firnstahl

"If you don't know what to do with many of the papers piled on your desk, stick a dozen colleagues' initials on them and pass them along. When in doubt, route." - Malcolm S. Forbes

"You can delegate authority, but you can never delegate responsibility for delegating a task to someone else. If you picked the right man, fine, but if you picked the wrong man, the responsibility is yours—not his." - Richard E. Krafve

Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or at

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