Building depth in your leadership team

Gregor G. Meyer
Deputy Director of Public Works
City of Woodland, California
Presenter, 2007 APWA Congress

In this day of crisis management, short deadlines, tight budgets, and doing more with less, how can anyone find the time to train their organization's mid-management and first-line supervision leadership—the very people expected to lead their teams into the future? Not only can timely training not be found at a reasonable cost, but the specific type of training that addresses the precise set of requirements for the organization always seems to be outside the domain of what is being offered. What is needed is an extensive, focused and inexpensive training effort that provides each organization an opportunity to instill their own public/customer service philosophy, personnel and management attitudes, ethics, and site-specific supervision skills. In addition, this training is needed to be presented in short directed segments that are all building blocks of the overall program objectives.

The place to start this type training is for the persons leading the training effort to look at themselves first. Are they willing to learn too? Is "their way" the only way, or is there room to make changes that will fit the needs of everyone and still accomplish the goals and objectives of the group? Is the intent of the training to give direction and tell everyone what the expected response is, or to build a cooperative cadre of leaders, able to apply the principles outlined creatively and proactively, who will, in turn, pass those ideas and concepts on to the rest of the organization?

One of the basic tenets in this style of effort is having open dialogue with everyone involved, and where everyone is able to learn—including the training leader(s). The first four rules for this open dialogue are:

  • During each session everyone has the same rank, status and/or privileges.

  • Everyone has the right to speak and express their feelings, ideas and beliefs.

  • There is nothing forbidden to bring to the table, except personal attacks.

  • Everyone will be shown basic respect, no matter what their position or what kind of history they may have with the group. (What happens in your leadership meetings will set the tone for the entire organization.)

It is quite probable that the leader will learn just as much as the participants, if not more. This is the goal of this type of training. It is a group experience opposed to the "Exalted Boss" allowing others to see their "great wisdom." The leader has to go into the process with the idea that they want to know what their staff thinks, not just what they should think. If they know what their staff thinks about an issue they will be better prepared to address, correct and fashion the ideas and philosophies being presented into the culture they are trying to build or redesign. Each small short segment is used to fashion the next one being presented.

To start the process the leadership staff needs to:

  1. Meet on a regular basis: the weekly manager's meeting, the monthly leadership gathering, or some format where a regular attendance is expected and the staff can get used to having consistent open dialogue sessions that are non-threatening, informative, and non-retaliatory. (Anything longer than a month loses effectiveness and cohesiveness. Weekly is best.)

  2. There must be more than two people in the room (four or more is preferred), and less than 14. (More than 12 starts to become unmanageable and allows people to hide and not contribute.)

  3. Everyone is expected to actively participate. No one can choose to not to be involved. (Remember, this is your leadership team and they are held to a higher accountability standard that the average employee. Non-participation is a performance issue that needs to be dealt with outside of the training effort.)

Start each meeting with a short 15 to 30 minute open dialogue session on a chosen topic or an assignment given out at the previous meeting. For example: "What does the term 'customer service' mean in this organization?" "Are we providing this type of customer service?" "If not, why not?" Another easy way to start is to print out one of the APWA's "Baker's Dozen" Leadership Competency essays (/About/TechSvcs/Leadership/) and have everyone read it for discussion prior to the next meeting. At that meeting talk about what it means and how it might work for the team. These are simple ways to:

  1. Start an open dialogue culture within your organization where discussing issues and difficult subjects is the norm.

  2. Help your leadership team develop the open dialogue skills that they can then take back to the groups they are leading and continue the process.

  3. Use these sessions to help your team understand how you think and feel about subjects and give them a chance to input their concepts. This creates buy-in by your team and gets everyone on the same page as to definitions of terms, i.e., "What do we mean by customer service?"

  4. Establish a platform where members of the team can request a dialogue session on a particular subject so they can get the benefit of everyone's experience and suggestions (i.e., "I've got an employee who is late every other Friday. I want to be fair so I was wondering how is everyone else handling our attendance policy?"). This could lead to, "What is our attendance policy and how do we want to administer it across the board?" These kinds of discussions are always enlightening and often lead to finding gaps in people's awareness of process or other complications that no one suspected were operating out where the "rubber meets the road."

Once these training sessions become just another part of daily life in your agency, the members of these groups will find that one of the best uses of these meetings will be group dissection of mistakes. Mistakes will always be made, but a disciplinary response is not necessarily to the advantage of your agency. These sessions can turn mistakes into priceless learning opportunities. It encourages your staff to examine their and others' mistakes for the value that is hidden in the experience, and then create a positive affirmation of the lessons learned rather than an event that should be hidden and the culprit punished. (Remember to focus on the incident and solutions rather than who did it.) These lessons learned are an education that cannot be purchased. There is no school or course that will have the same impact as working with the actual mistakes that happen in the everyday working environment of your workplace. It is better to gain something from a mistake than to make the chastisement of the guilty party the center of attention. This can only create, at the very least, hesitant, fearful, uncreative individuals, or, at the worst, dishonest and irresponsible employees. Of course, if the mistake keeps occurring, then it becomes a performance issue and it gets dealt with through the agency's progressive discipline process.

By looking for the hidden good in those errors that are made every day, you encourage all of your staff to learn from the mistakes and move on. These short sessions teach them to seek a constructive resolution to difficult situations, rely on the synergy of the team, make the workplace a creative experience, and build their self-confidence. If a disciplinary response is the organization's norm, people will hide accidents, not report situations, and/or look to place blame somewhere else. This is not conducive to building a cooperative team environment and you lose the opportunity to comment and discuss important safety, procedural and/or ethical issues.

Don't forget to ask, and to ask often, how the members of the leadership team plan to "drill down" this information into their workgroups. Discuss how others are doing it and explore new ideas for making sure the lessons learned in your leadership group are making it down into the ranks of other employees.

By developing your leadership team through this simple yet effective training tool, you can increase their capabilities, maximize their skills and abilities, encourage confidence, create a new sense of camaraderie and solidarity, and build depth into this essential group of people that will continue to lead your organization long after you are gone.

Gregor G. Meyer will give a presentation on this topic at the 2007 APWA Congress in San Antonio. His session is entitled "Building Depth into Your Leadership Team" and takes place on Monday, September 10, at 4:00 p.m. He can be reached at (530) 661-5953 or greg.meyer@cityofwoodland.org.