About one-third of the 150 students making their way into the classroom on a Sunday afternoon in October are not sure what to expect. They’re immediately separated from co-workers and seated among strangers at round tables. The name badges don’t tell them whether their fellow participants are public works directors or aspiring crew leaders.

Some of the newcomers may be skeptical, but they quickly catch the enthusiasm of the other two-thirds of the participants: those entering their second or third year at the Illinois Public Service Institute (IPSI). The Basic Institute is a three-year leadership training program for city and county employees of all experience levels. The program runs one week annually, each session with a different focus: leadership development, service excellence, and personal supervisory skills. Students may begin the cycle in any year.

One of the rules from the brief orientation sets the tone for the rest of the week: Late arrivals must pay a $1 fine or tell a joke.

“It’s serious business but they make it fun,” says City of Decatur Forestry Foreman Mark DeVivo, who graduated last year. Savvy second- and third-year students come prepared with anecdotes to tell or sell. The money collected goes to charities the students choose.

Within minutes the instruction is hands-on, as students huddle with their neighbors to make a list of supervisory dos and don’ts. A panel discussion on the subject follows. They’ll work through dinner and return on Monday to put in a 12-hour day.

“They get their fingerprints on it very quickly,” says Lewis Bender, who serves as facilitator, lead instructor and, many would say, the heart of the program. Known for his candid approach and casual style, “Dr. Lew” creates a forum where participants draw on their own know-how to solve problems. “We have to translate concepts and theory into best practice, and they’re the ones who have to say, ‘How does this affect my way of doing things,’” says Bender. “There’s more knowledge sitting in those chairs than there ever will be at the front of the room.”

Benefits for all positions

Although designed to provide mid-career development and training for supervisory employees, the program has value for public works personnel at all levels.

“You don’t have to be a supervisor to get something from the training,” says Rob Horne, who’s worked for the Village of Lincolnshire almost 20 years and is currently engineering supervisor. “The public works hierarchy has a broad scope, from the line guy to the director, and you learn about all their jobs and needs. The training translates to every position.” For example, pointers on dealing with problem employees also apply to contractors and residents.

The Village of Plainfield has participated since the institute was launched in 2002, says Allen Persons, who’s been public works director for 16 years and serves on the IPSI Advisory Committee. After all superintendents had attended, Persons enrolled in 2008. Plainfield continues to send employees of all job levels.

“It’s not just management training but also leadership training,” he says. “Having superintendents, crew leaders, and me participate gave us the tools to communicate better, to understand each other’s position and experience better.”

Village of Libertyville Public Works Director John Heinz sends employees who’ve had little or no supervisory training, or newly appointed supervisors, but agrees that top management has as much to gain. “I’m an engineer. And like most engineers, I never had any formal management training,” he says. “This program is the best education I’ve had, bar none, in my entire career. Every example has relevance.”

The City of Danville considers the program a resource in its management advancement and succession plan. “We’re always thinking about how to keep things rolling,” says Service and Operations Manager Bob Scott. “The institute plays a key role in ensuring we’re all on the same page. People can step into a position and carry on with consistent philosophies and management styles.”

Both Heinz and Persons employ graduates who have advanced through their department’s ranks.

“IPSI gives them the tools to work with as their careers expand,” says Heinz. “They not only succeed in the organization, they become engaged in the association.” For example, a utility locator in Libertyville who started the training in 2010 is now streets and utilities superintendent and vice president of Chicago Metro, the Lake Branch of the American Public Works Association’s largest chapter.