An effective public works manager...encourages team building

Patty Hilderbrand, P.E.
Planning Group Leader
City of Kansas City, Missouri
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

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 second 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

What were the biggest accomplishments for your department over the last year? Were they the result of one person's actions or a group of people? Chances are that they were the result of a team of employees focused on one goal. We all know that a collaborative group working together can accomplish more than one person working in isolation. And we usually say we know how to work as a team, but true teamwork is a challenging proposition.

What makes a team different from just a group of people? Groups tend to have little organized communication, offer no support structure and often are formed from office "cliques." Teams, on the other hand, offer a supportive environment with open and honest communication between members.

The next question, then, is how do you build a team rather than just a group? Team building should be seen as a journey, not a destination. It is a continuous way of work, not a short-term fad. Team building:

  • Is goal and result oriented
  • Develops a clearly-defined team identity
  • Recognizes the unique contributions of each member
  • Addresses the needs and aspirations of each member
  • Is the responsibility of every team member, not just the boss

There are numerous philosophies on how to build a team. One of the most popular and longstanding, Bruce Tuckman's Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing model, was developed in 1965 and is still very relevant today. His model explains the team's development of maturity and ability as it evolves through four stages of growth:

  • Forming - at this point there is a great deal of dependence on the leader because the individual roles are still unclear. The leader must be prepared to answer a lot of questions and should be able to direct the teamwork.

  • Storming - the team begins to clarify their purpose and style, but many uncertainties still exist. Members seem to vie for position and may need to focus on their goal to avoid being distracted by relationship issues. The leader now assumes a coaching position and compromise may be necessary to enable the team's progress.

  • Norming - agreement and consensus become the norm for decision-making because team roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and accepted. The leader now facilitates rather than directs and team leadership becomes shared among several members.

  • Performing - the team is now a cohesive unit with a shared vision and able to stand on its own with no participation from the leader. The leader's role evolves to delegation and oversight rather than assistance and facilitation. There is now a high level of autonomy and most decisions are made against established criteria.

Teams, in their basic form, are nothing more than a group of people working toward a mutual goal. This doesn't sound hard, but when communication is necessary and diverse personalities are involved it becomes one of the most challenging tasks a manager can embrace. Realistically, we use teams every day for almost everything we do, but do we really understand how they function and how to maximize their effectiveness?

Beyond the theories and philosophies, there are the real issues of how to establish and sustain a true team environment. Over the past two years we've discussed the Core Competencies for Public Works Leaders and many of them are an integral part of the team dynamic. A work environment that empowers staff members has open lines of communication, promotes respect for all employees and will be most conducive to team excellence.

Most processes in public works generally require a team of people focused on that task. Problems like filling potholes, plowing snow or constructing a bridge bring a certain group of people with defined skills together to accomplish a common goal. The definition of team, though, often varies. In the case of building a bridge, who would be on your team? Some would say that the designer, ROW agents, contract administrator and construction inspector are all part of one team. Others would define them as separate but related teams where communication at each transition and a common, defined goal would be imperative. In street preservation, different team challenges arise. Often, the team involves members from multiple levels of the organization. Superintendents, supervisors, crew leaders and equipment operators with varying years of experience all work side by side throughout the process. Respect for all team members and employee empowerment become critical competencies for all team members, not just the leader.

For public works, teamwork is the very foundation of providing quality services to the citizens and traveling public of our communities. Our accomplishments and excellence are directly proportional to our ability to work together toward a common goal...because with a TEAM, Together Everyone Achieves More!

Patty Hilderbrand is a member of APWA's Leadership and Management Committee and is the former chair of the Kansas City Metro Chapter's Awards Committee and Engineering & Technology Committee. She received APWA's Young Leader Award in 2003. She can be reached at (816) 513-2576 or at

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