Learning practical skills
As people move into management roles, an often dreaded new task is the employee performance review. Institute participants learn techniques for easing the process. For example, one tip Sean O’Dell picked up was to review employees quarterly instead of annually.
“We learned to put together action plans and hold both employees and supervisors accountable for progress toward goals,” says O’Dell, department manager at Baxter & Woodman, a civil engineering consulting firm.
Bender offers students a template for developing those action plans. He advises that the supervisor and employee each list 10 to 15 evaluation criteria, then work together to rank the criteria and combine the two lists. “You now have an instrument that is agreed upon, relevant, and can change as the job changes,” Bender says. “A performance appraisal has to have clarity between the parties.”
“An employee should never be surprised at an evaluation,” says Ken Lange, fleet service superintendent for the Village of Lisle. “Any issues should be addressed throughout the year.”
Lange now makes file notes year round, not only of problems but of positive points he wants to remember to include in the review. “Evaluations shouldn’t be negative,” he says. “They’re a chance to tell employees where they’re excelling and say thank you, and also to show where they can improve.”
An exercise that tailors the training to each individual’s experience is what Bender calls “the eurekas.” After each course segment, students jot down an idea or two that strike them as worth pursuing. “At the end of the week, they look back at their eurekas and translate them into goals,” Bender says.
For Horne, one of these ideas was a simple way to make things easier for supervisors. “When you bring a problem to a supervisor, also bring an idea to solve it,” he says. “This gives them a starting point,” even if it doesn’t turn out to be the final solution. This is helpful with his supervisors and those who report to him.
O’Dell developed one of his eurekas into a goal: When delegating, tell people the reason for the assignment. “Then they’ll understand the vision and the expectations,” he says. “They’ll take ownership and do a better job.”
While much of the curriculum addresses dealing with others, students also learn techniques for making themselves more productive, such as reducing stress.
“We’re all running at 160 miles per hour. Upper management, public officials, employees; everyone wants a piece of you,” says Scott. “We learned techniques for ‘finding your island,’ that thing you love to do that takes you away.”
DeVivo credits the training for finally helping him let go of job frustrations over which he has no control. “I’d heard this before,” he says, “but the no-nonsense approach showed me how to separate those issues from what’s really under my authority.” Rather than ignore the issues, DeVivo keeps notes on how they affect his area and changes he’d make if he were in charge, and then acknowledges that it’s someone else’s responsibility. “Then I buckle down and focus on my own responsibilities. I’ve been so much more relaxed and I’ve accomplished more.”
Graduation and reunion
The week of training ends Friday with a moving graduation ceremony that recognizes each new graduate. Graduates can return under the Advanced Institute program held Sunday afternoon through noon Wednesday in conjunction with the Basic Institute. This provides an opportunity to take refresher courses and reconnect with other graduates.
Lange, who graduated in 2004 and returns for the advanced program every year, finds there’s always more to learn. “When people come back, we hear stories about how they implemented ideas from previous years, and what worked and what didn’t,” he says.
He recalls a report from a returning student on tackling worker frustration that arose when people were pulled off crews to deal with emergencies such as a water main break. The practice left crews unexpectedly shorthanded, causing attitude problems. The solution: Crew leaders asked their teams how they’d fix the problem. Answer: Form an emergency team to which employees are assigned on a rotating basis so crews know who might be called away and can plan for their absence.
Sharing such experiences demonstrates why participants consider lifelong friendships forged during the program one of its most valuable benefits. “Over a three-year period you engage with 250 or 300 colleagues, people you can turn to throughout your career,” says Heinz.
The schedule is balanced to allow time for social interaction. Participants are discouraged from checking phones and email or doing work projects. A full week away from the job is one of the things that makes the training so effective, says Horne. “It’s almost like a retreat,” he says. “There’s no time to do work. You’re either learning or communicating with other people in your field.”
Diana Granitto is a freelance writer based in suburban Chicago. E-mail email@example.com.
IPSI: Behind the scenes
About 15 years ago, Illinois public works leaders started hearing rave reviews about a training program offered by the Michigan chapter of the American Public Works Association (APWA). Representatives from the Illinois Chapter and the Chicago Metropolitan Chapter of APWA attended to see if the program might serve as a model for a similar initiative in Illinois. (Click here for more information.)
“We had a strong education program but no formalized training for up-and-coming leaders— he line people who want to be crew leaders, foremen who want to become superintendents,” says Larry Lux of Lux Advisors LTD in Plainfield, one of the founders of the Illinois Public Service Institute (IPSI) and chair of its Advisory Committee. “We felt the Michigan program matched our needs.”
Dr. Lewis Bender and Mary Bender, facilitator and coordinator of the Michigan program, agreed to reprise those roles for Illinois. A specialist with more than 40 years in training and organizational development for business and government, Lewis Bender facilitated a program for city managers at Central Michigan University before helping to launch the Michigan Public Service Institute in the 1990s. Bender also is Professor Emeritus with Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
The Illinois and Chicago APWA chapters formed a partnership to underwrite the cost of developing IPSI, which launched in 2002 to provide mid-career development and training for municipal and county supervisory employees.
“The ideas for topics and instructors come from the IPSI participants and members of the Advisory Committee,” says IPSI Coordinator Mary Bender, who makes those suggestions a reality by lining up instructors and handling the logistics with Kellers Convention Center in Effingham, Ill.
The Advisory Committee includes representatives from the two APWA chapters and six sponsoring industry organizations: Illinois Association of Municipal Management Assistants, Illinois City/County Management Association, Illinois Municipal League, Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network, Illinois Section American Water Works Association, and Illinois Water Environment Association. Also, each graduating class submits a candidate for the committee.
In addition to long-term planning for the program’s direction, the committee plans specific topics under the three focus subjects—leadership development, service excellence, and personal supervisory skills—which rotate annually. Committee members review the performance of past speakers and identify expert presenters on specialized topics such as legal issues, workplace safety, and union contracts.
Committee members are also active in the classroom.“We assist with the legwork, sit on panels, and lead break-out sessions,” says John Heinz, a public works director who represents the APWA Chicago Metro Chapter on the Advisory Committee and has attended every IPSI session.
The $695 tuition fee for one week of training covers 40 classroom contact hours, for which participants receive continuing education units, and includes several group meals. Scholarships are available through the partners and sponsors. Also, Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University offer up to three hours of academic credit in an independent study format for completion of each year of the Institute and supplementary assignments.