We spoke with veteran Sue Hann about tackling common challenges in a new public works environment. Hann, 55, spent 25 years in public works and county government and was city manager of Palm Bay, Fla., before assuming her current post as planning and project management director for Brevard Public Schools in Florida.
A new employee is hired to help implement changes but runs into resistance from the old guard. What do you do? It’s important to understand the culture and figure out how you fit. Show respect, ask questions, and learn why they do things that way to begin with. Engage more experienced people in evolving processes.
How can an inexperienced employee handle the inevitable irate constituent? It sounds like a lecture from Mom, but put a smile on your face, be nice, and let it go. I’ve found that if I have a positive attitude it helps the other party get there eventually.
Let’s say as a new employee you answer the phone or meet a resident in the field and don’t know what to do about his problem. Don’t say you need to call someone else. Take ownership and find the answer. This develops good skills and your boss will love you.
Pre-empt difficult encounters by investing the time to build good relationships. Become involved in the community. Go to chamber of commerce lunches. It’s harder for people to crab at you if they know you.
What are some strategies for handling ethical questions? Know your parameters and live within them 100%. Understand the rules in your organization, but if you have a good ethical foundation, the rules are ancillary.
Little decisions start building your reputation the moment you step on the job. Decide early on that you will buy your own lunch and then it’s easy. Later in your career, everyone knows you as the person who won’t even accept a lunch.
As you move up, ethical questions become more difficult. Get used to people judging you based on their ethics. Even a decision like where to locate the new sewer plant will be viewed through an ethical lens.
If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, don’t be afraid to get out, even if that means leaving the organization. This doesn’t mean one city is better than another. There are different cultures along the continuum, and not every culture fits everyone’s ethical parameters.
Find the right fit and those questions won’t come at you quite so often.
If someone witnesses a suspicious situation, is it their duty to report it? Some things are obvious, while others are less so. You might not have a full understanding of what you’re witnessing.
If you talk about ethics with peers and supervisors, the picture becomes clearer. Just discussing things that are over the line can improve a group’s culture and discourage that behavior.