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The Critical Competency for Local Managers — Networking Skills

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tricia Nolfi
February 23, 2018

“Networking that matters is helping people achieve their goals.” ~ Seth Godin

Networking is something most professionals recognize they must do to be successful in their jobs, yet it may be a skill they fail to develop. Developing other leadership competencies or technical skills can take priority; however, for the local public manager, networking skills are critical and should be a focus for professional development.

The Need for Networking Skills

The roles and responsibilities of local government managers have expanded significantly in recent years as they facilitate community strategic planning, negotiate shared services agreements and public-private partnerships, contribute to public policy and meet the demand for greater citizen engagement, in addition to daily management duties. They are often seen as the “go to” person in many communities. The local manager is in essence, an information broker who connects government organizations, citizens, elected officials and for-and nonprofit enterprises.  John Nalbandian, Robert O’Neill, Michael Wilkes and Amanda Kaufman noted in “Contemporary Challenges in Local Government: Evolving Roles and Responsibilities, Structures, and Processes,” that local managers face increasing leadership challenges which require them interact and network with a broader range of stakeholders. Effective communication helps the manager meet those challenges.

Several communication competencies are required by managers, especially those who manage projects, that allow them to be effective in their jobs. Various scholars — among them Jennifer Brill, M.J. Bishop & Andrew Walker; James Garnett and Alexander Kouzmin; and Brent D. Ruben — note that managers need to build a distinct set of communication competencies including credibility, influence, listening, interpersonal orientation, public speaking, intercultural orientation, role modeling, writing, information technology application and networking. Certificate and graduate programs and professional development workshops focus on the development of these areas with significant attention on those that are easy to teach and learn such as public speaking, interpersonal and intercultural orientation, and technical applications and less so on those that that require individuals to possess strong social skills, such as networking. There should be an emphasis on helping local managers understand the benefits of networking and strategies for building an effective network. Those who possess effective networking skills reap many benefits, including:

  • Greater knowledge sharing and improved organizational understanding
  • The ability to generate new initiatives that garner more support and buy-in
  • Access to diverse skill sets
  • Removal of planning roadblocks through organizational bridge-building
  • Enhanced recruitment efforts
  • A strengthened power base by delivering support to others in their network

Most importantly, the benefits of networking positions the local government in a positive light. As Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap point out in “How to Build Your Network,” information brokers such as local managers, are powerful in their communities because they connect silos, stimulating collaboration and leveraging resources among otherwise independent organizations.

Developing A Network

A professional network is a set of connected relationships with individuals within and outside of an individual’s’ organization that they rely upon to accomplish goals. With local managers, networks can extend to other professionals in neighboring municipalities, community groups, businesses, schools, and state agencies, to name a few. What’s important to keep in mind is that a professional network is based upon the building of relationship and alliances where both parties can provide benefit to the other so that organizational and community goals can be met.

Developing a strong and effective network is not easy. In the past, networks were built by exchanging business cards at meetings and conferences, but now, many professionals rely on personal introductions or social networking sites to build their networks. These approaches can be fruitful, however, having several hundred connections on LinkedIn or followers on Twitter does not constitute a true network. Local managers need guidance on how to develop an effective professional network. Specifically, education, training and mentoring activities should focus on the development and enhancement of the following abilities:

  • Understanding and leveraging one’s own personal style
  • Asking open-ended questions that demonstrate interest and listening without interruption
  • Awareness of nonverbal communication and how cues may be interpreted
  • Creating meaningful interactions with those in the network
  • Assessing opportunities for the network to assist in achieving organizational goals
  • Highlighting and sharing experiences while not appearing to be boastful
  • Identifying ways to deliver value to individuals and organizations

These skills require managers to be strategic in their communication, being intentional with messages and actions that can help them achieve specific goals. Developing these will enhance a manager’s overall communication competence.

Being an effective local government leader not only requires the development of communication competencies, but specifically the development of relationships with others. These skills should come naturally as local government managers, as are in essence community builders, yet for some, developing networking skills can be a challenge. Working with mentors, supervisors, and training providers, local government leaders can become more impactful in their organizations and communities as they help others achieve their goals.

Author: Tricia S, Nolfi, as Program Director and Assistant Professor II of Organizational Leadership at Rider University and is an Instructor for The Center for Executive Leadership in Government at Rutgers Uiversity. She may be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @TriciaNolfi

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