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Keys to Success in Public Management: From the Mouths of New and Experienced Managers

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

By Tom Barth
April 8, 2019

I recently had the good fortune of taking a group of MPA students to the North Carolina City County Management Association’s winter conference. The conference included an excellent featured panel of six young local city/county managers sharing their experiences and advice about their first few years on the job.  As academics and practitioners conduct research and dialogue about the competencies required for successful public management, the following three overall themes from their comments (with some personal elaborations) are instructive:

Relationships

  • Building rapport with your elected board is key. You must constantly work on building communication and trust. It’s easier to have hard conversations when you have a relationship with the board.
  • One of the best classes in the students’ MPA program was organization theory. Understanding what motivates people is essential.
  • It is also key to understand that you rarely can make people do anything. However, if you listen and let people know that you care about them they are more likely to follow you.
  • The key to building relationships is integrity and trust. People will respect you and it will be easier for you to stand by your positions if your motives are solid.
  • Find some member of your team who you can confide in; having a support system is important.
  • Get involved in the community by participating in events and speaking to groups, etc. This takes a great deal of personal commitment, but you need to be visible.
  • Get out of your bubble of professionals and people like you. You need to be aware of all the diverse members of your community so you will know who is missing from the table during key discussions.
  • People want to be around other people who look like they enjoy what they are doing!

Leadership

  • There is not enough focus on leadership in MPA programs; you need to meet people where they are and adjust your leadership style accordingly. Locking yourself into one leadership style does not work.
  • Leadership and management are different things. Leadership is empowerment, letting people grow and knowing when to get out of the way. Management is more directive.
  • Leadership is what ultimately determines success, and a key aspect is having empathy or an ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand what they are experiencing.

Humility

  • You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to be a leader; be secure enough to surround yourself with other talented people.
  • You need to pay your dues and learn all aspects of an organization before making decisions; be smart enough to know what you don’t know.
  • Be humble enough to ask questions.
  • The age gap in organizations is real. A young manager can overcome the challenge of supervising older employees by being respectful of their experience and institutional knowledge.
  • Take the time to learn from those around you, and don’t be fooled by someone’s looks (e.g., the mayor in jeans and sandals can be brilliant and passionate about his or her community).
  • Don’t fake it; you don’t have to know everything.
  • You’re going to make mistakes, but must learn from the experience and move on. People appreciate the willingness to take the lead on things and put yourself on the line.

Those of us who teach, conduct research and practice public management would do well to heed the perspective of these young public servants:

Moderator:
Patrick Niland, Manager, Town of Wingate

Panelists:
Snow Bowden, Manager, Town of Erwin
Matthew Christian, Manager, Town of Mt. Gilead
Elton Daniels, Manager, Town of Selma
Michael James, Assistant to the Manager, Union County
Rachel Kelley, Assistant Manager, City of Burlington

Significantly, these insights were reinforced at ASPA’s Annual Conference this past March during a Presidential Panel entitled, Looking Ahead: What the Public Sector of the Future Must Look Like. This panel, comprised of seasoned federal executives, trainers and consultants, echoed similar themes:

  • To attract the best employees in a competitive recruiting environment, a manager needs to build a reputation of their agency as a progressive, inclusive workplace.
  • Agencies must work on their brand, communicating that government work is exhilarating and worthwhile public service that makes a difference.
  • We need to teach adaptability and leadership as well as technical skills (especially the capacity to cope with rapidly changing technology). 
  • Soft skills for the workplace of the future also include the ability to take initiative, engage your community and deal with difficult people. The panelists also stressed developing soft and hard skills that you can use in different settings, as jobs are rapidly evolving.
  • Harder skills in demand are risk management and organizational resiliency (i.e., managing systems that can respond and adapt to change).

     Thanks are also in order to these presenters:

Shawn Skelly: former Director of the Office of the Executive Secretariat at the U.S. Department of Transportation

Bill Valdez, President of the Senior Executives Association

Heidi Voorhees, President and Co-Owner, GovHR USA

To summarize the lessons from these two panels, the message is clearly the importance of a balance of soft and hard skills. Also key is the overarching passion for public service and the ability to deal with a rapidly changing organizational environment.  I would suggest that this is the power of generalist degrees like the MPA and MPP. It is also a reminder to continue to foster that delicate balance between a leadership and management focus, relational and technical skills and a long-term career orientation instead of training for a specific job.


Author: Tom Barth is a Professor and MPA Director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organizational behavior, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics.  He is a member of the National Council of ASPA representing District III. [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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