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Executive Development: Beginning on Day One

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
April 30, 2021

When discussing employee development, images of developing front-line employees and supervisors springs to mind. The reality is we need to begin developing people for executive-level positions earlier. When working in leadership programs for those already in executive-level positions, it is not uncommon to hear people say they had never seen a budget spreadsheet until they were the “boss.” This is just one example, but it is emblematic of the need to begin developing executive leaders proactively, preparing them for future challenges, rather than promoting them into a position based on past performance, hoping it will translate to the new skill set.

Traditionally, non-supervisory employees have been broadly divided into front-line supervisors, mid-managers and executives. This is a helpful framework, but within this discussion an executive is anyone within the leadership-management hierarchy responsible for a department- or community-wide function, which is often the case when tasked with managing a project or program. Such roles require new skills, such as budgeting, community engagement, project/program management and employee development. These individuals, our agencies and our communities would be well served if we began to develop these skills long before they are needed.

Budgeting: Most agencies have budget specialists handling the details of financial matters, but it is vital for executives to develop a broad understanding of the budget process. They must understand budgets are a financial representation of community priorities. They must understand the laws and policies limiting or empowering leadership in the use of public funds. Perhaps most critical, they must understand how to address potential budget shortfalls. It is unnecessary to understand technical differences between types of taxes or fees or the projected economic growth of the community, but executive leaders must understand the concepts and how to apply them. The goal is not to create budget experts, but to create executives who might effectively engage with others to develop resources to fund their activities, or to plan on activities achievable with available funding. Funding does not simply appear to meet our service needs.

Community Engagement: Public agencies exist to meet the needs and expectations of the community, not those of the agency. Often, those entering public service do so with a narrow, technical view of problems, seeking to apply their technical knowledge to specific technical challenges. These are necessary skills, but executives must appreciate the paramount requirement to meet the needs and expectations of the community. They must understand and be capable of using differing approaches to ascertain those needs and expectations. They must learn to develop an external focus, shifting from the internal focus more common to technical problem solving. This does not happen spontaneously.

Project/Program Management: Leadership in the public sector is about problem solving, continuously moving from one challenge to another. Short-term problems require project management skills, while long-term challenges require effective program management. The skill sets are similar requiring an analysis of the challenges present, consideration of alternative approaches to resolution, acquisition and coordination of resources, and the use of objective metrics to assess progress. These are technical skills which might be easily taught, but too often people are thrust into positions with the expectation that they will succeed. To be effective problem solvers, future executive leaders must be introduced to these skills, mentored in them and carefully prepared to assume the mantle of project/program manager for ever increasing challenges over time.

Employee Development: Ineffective executives focus on operating the current system. Effective leaders create the organization of the future, and a key aspect of this is developing future executives. On-going efforts must be made to develop and nurture the leadership skills of the current workforce, or to recruit from outside those with necessary leadership skills, to take the organization into the future. We must not simply hope these leaders will appear spontaneously. Instead, we must embrace the challenges and opportunities of leadership development at all times, in all situations. Perhaps most importantly, we must continually model appropriate leadership behaviors. Paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi, “We must be the leaders we wish others to be,” if we are to create successful, effective, efficient and responsive public sector leaders for the future.

How is all of this to be done? There are many opinions on this. Experience suggests there is no single best approach to achieve success. It is analogous to chess, where every game starts with a standard set-up, but where the game develops differently in each setting dependent upon the consequences of previous moves. Chess masters are not those who consider the current move alone, but those who consider the collective consequences of their actions and others, developing grand strategies to achieve success within a complex, evolving framework. Executive leaders should approach the development of new executive leaders in the same manner, considering the potential consequences of all their decisions to contribute to long-term development of executive leaders. In chess, this means winning the game, while in public service it means creating an organization with leaders capable of providing public services valued and valuable to our communities.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych) is an independent scholar and HRM Consultant. Previously, he served in local government for over 30 years, and taught in various areas of public administration for over 15. He currently serves as President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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