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The Latest Management Concept or Basic Management Principles?

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

By James Bourey
January 20, 2023

For professionals who have been around as long as I have, you have seen a virtual smorgasbord of different techniques touted as innovations in the management of public agencies. Each new technique has been introduced as a way to gain a more productive, effective and/or efficient way to the bring the best out of public employees. This column is in no way intended to be critical of these approaches which indeed have added valuable contributions to the public management profession. Many of you have been through these, at the time, new approaches such as:

  • Management by objectives
  • Matrix management
  • One-minute management
  • Management by wandering around
  • Total quality management
  • Business process re-engineering  
  • Lean Six Sigma

This is but a partial listing of the management theories or approaches that have been written about over the past few decades. All of the practices in this listing and many more, are truly valuable concepts and have helped managers lead their organizations. While not being critical of these and other programs, we need to ask ourselves if we would be great managers if we chose to follow only one of these paths. Do anyone of them offer the “holy grail” to leading people? My belief is that while each one offers some insight towards being a good manager, we should focus on a distinct set of principles that encompass the essence of each of these and other theories. I believe we can all be great managers if we incorporate all the following principles into our daily practice.

  • Engaging with employees
  • Delegating responsibilities and authority
  • Establishing and articulating a vision, goals and objectives
  • Fostering teamwork
  • Measuring performance
  • Holding people accountable
  • Promoting emotional intelligence

Engaging with employees

Many of the management programs that have been developed over the past two to three decades have engaging employees at the heart of the practice. I think this was a reaction to the traditional top down management practices that stifled employee initiative and creativity. We clearly understand that management doesn’t always know best and there is so much to be gained by employee input. In order to achieve that input, management cannot just pay lip service to listening to employee ideas but rather be truly engaged with staff at all levels and actively seek ideas.  

Delegating responsibilities and authority

I always told my management team that I am a total believer in delegation. As a city and county manager, particularly with a very large staff, I felt it was critical to delegate everything I possibly could. It was a matter of survival. However, when a manger delegates responsibility, granting the authority to take action is vital. The key is for staff to understand when they should visit with the manager about what they are doing. Managers must also avoid staff utilizing what has been referred to as the upward leaping money syndrome. This is when staff comes to you with a problem, a monkey they want to get off their back. You cannot let them put it on yours. I was always willing to talk with them but they needed to work through the problem and come up with a solution.

Establishing and articulating a vision, goals and objectives

So much has been written about developing a vision, goals and objectives that it does not warrant a lot of comment. What is not emphasized enough is the needed clarity and frequency in articulating those statements and incorporating them into the work that is done and measuring the success in achieving them as identified below.

Fostering teamwork

Rarely are tasks accomplished by individuals. Building in a value for teamwork is vital, especially in the evaluation of individual performance. The childhood grading of how well they play with others should be a lifelong measure.

Measuring performance

Those of you who read my column on performance measurement know I am a strong advocate for outcome based measurement. Focusing on results and not activities is key to driving the outcomes that are desired for the organization. Measuring the amount of activity can give a false picture of what is actually accomplished.     

Holding people accountable

Holding people accountable is not part of an “I gotcha game.” The most important thing I constantly sought was to catch people doing things right. Accountability really is most successful when people hold themselves accountable. People need to fully understand what is expected of them and constantly work toward those objectives. Staff evaluations then become a conversation of how they believe they have measured up or where improvement is needed.

Promoting emotional intelligence

In a past column I wrote about the value of emotional intelligence training. In that column I said that the most important program, with the biggest impact, I have instituted in the organizations I have managed is emotional intelligence training. While the training was predominantly focused on individuals, the impact on the organization working relationships was huge. The interpersonal skill gain greatly enhances the working relationships among managers.

I firmly believe that if managers work hard at each of these principles, they will indeed achieve outstanding results.

    Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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