Sustaining Leadership Greatness

May 1, 2017, Feature, by Barbara Heller

2017 May Leadership Compass 410

One of the greatest gifts a leader can give to an organization is the creation of a leadership legacy that sustains beyond his or her tenure at an organization. This includes continuously developing one’s competencies. It also includes developing a leadership pipeline for aspiring leaders, creating core competencies, providing succession and building organizational values. Going back in time, John Adams — the first vice president of the United States and its second president — once wrote: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Who knew that John Adams was so prophetic about leadership?

The quality of leadership has profound ramifications for organizations: People stay or leave because of leadership. Good people want to work for well-led organizations, which gives these organizations an edge in the ability to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. An agency’s relevancy in the community is determined, in part, by the quality of its leadership.

Critical Skills for Today’s Leadership Environment
There are multiple skill sets that transcend the entire organization. Leaders set the tone and, ideally, model the desired leadership system. In thinking about leadership, the skills that have always been, and continue to be, important include communication, empowering employees, acting ethically, the ability to forge effective partnerships, and creating a trusting environment. Yet, there are many other significant leadership qualities that are becoming just as important as these tried and true leadership skills.

In today’s rapidly changing times, the following five qualities can largely determine a leader’s success:

  • Creating vision and strategic direction
  • Managing change
  • Driving innovation
  • Using data and technology for decision-making
  • Developing cultural competency

Creating vision and strategic direction involves risk because it is the pursuit of a solution that, because an organization can only do so much, may be accomplished at the expense of other potentially successful initiatives.

If you randomly stopped individual employees in the office hallways and asked them to describe their organization’s direction, would there be consistent responses? In the absence of direction, the answer is “No.” Employees gain a level of reassurance from their leadership when there is a commitment to discussing and identifying a purposeful future direction. In addition, providing employees with the opportunity to provide input into strategic direction is more than reassuring — it’s expected from today’s employees.

The creation of organizational strategy is typically regarded with cynicism. And, why shouldn’t it be? Research has shown that 75–85 percent of strategic planning efforts fail. In developing strategy, organizations emphasize building rather than deploying a plan. Plan implementation requires the ability to operationalize the plan through measurements, sharing of progress reports and the assignment of the plan’s execution to a champion, or team of champions, who are accountable for implementation. It also requires gaining commitment from employees in working toward organizational goals. Many times, organizations have their senior leaders involved in establishing direction. Good leaders understand the importance of engaging employees at all levels of the organization.

As leaders of park and recreation agencies, it’s also important to be transparent with the community about the strategic direction of an agency. What better way to be relevant in your community than providing its members with information about your strategic direction, progress toward goals and commitment to driving accountability? There should be an ongoing reporting system that tracks the plan’s progress. Employees and elected officials should receive strategy updates on a continuous basis. Consider having a resident committee that works with the agency in deploying a plan. This can be even more important when the result of the strategy is to pursue a voter referendum that requires community support.

Managing change is another important leadership competency, given the speed at which it occurs today. There are always employees who prefer that things stay the same: organizations are filled with purveyors of the status quo. The American Productivity and Quality Center completed a study about the effectiveness of change management in organizations and identified four important aspects of managing change for best-practice agencies:

  • Commitment to change from the very highest levels in the organization
  • Alignment to the core strategy
  • A strong model or methodology to guide the journey
  • The ability to effectively and efficiently communicate the strategic message of change and a change culture

Obviously, the director and senior leaders of an organization need to show commitment to the change initiative. Agency strategy should include change management elements; for example, changing the program registration software to a new system is a significant new way of doing business. Technology involves not only software and hardware changes, but also people changes.

The element that typically is missing from change management is the use of a strong model or methodology. Having a documented framework for managing change helps to reduce mistakes and increases the likelihood of success for major change initiatives. The development of a framework assists with the organization’s ability to develop change management as a core organizational competency. It also serves as an element of knowledge management, providing employees with the tools to be successful in future change endeavors based on knowledge from previous change initiatives. The framework can be a simple checklist of actions (see list below) that should be followed during a major change initiative.

Tracking Assessment Framework


Are the purpose, direction and approach defined and documented clearly?


Is the purpose understood by employees?
3. Have you engaged individual or employee groups who can influence the outcome?

Have you acknowledged their input and ideas?

5. Are the necessary financial, human, technical resources in place?
6. Is a strong and effective team ready to lead and guide the process?
7. Do systems and processes support the change?
8. Are leaders at all levels of the organization involved and committed?
9. Do those affected by change have access to information and a way of providing ongoing input and feedback?
10. Are systems in place to assess progress?

Change management always includes the need to communicate with employees, and, while this is such an obvious step in the change process, it doesn’t always occur. Furthermore, there are times when someone leading a change feels that they’ve done a great job communicating the change, only to find out that employees do not have a good understanding of the need for the change. It generally holds true that there is no such thing as communicating elements of change too much. 

Closely related to change management is the ability to continuously innovate service delivery processes based on changing customer requirements and industry trends. The level of business sophistication continuously changes as a result of technology improvements and business processes. According to the famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, “Every organization needs one competency: innovation.”

Yet, while Drucker advocates the importance of organizational innovation, it is an elusive aspiration for some park and recreation agencies. Why? It’s because there’s a strong bias toward maintaining the status quo and bureaucratic approaches to delivering services. There are many departments that must navigate through processes that are barriers to efficiencies and improved customer service when having to rely on other city departments responsible for support. In addition, leaders often are faced with the challenge of trying to get unmotivated employees enthusiastic about innovating the way to do business. One way to enlighten employees is to do benchmarking exercises, not only of industry organizations, but of industries in other sectors as well. Leaders committed to innovation drive accountability for positive change.

Innovation in the public sector requires persistence, given the risk-averse environments of many local government organizations. A few of the important requirements to drive innovation in government agencies include:

  • Strategy – There is a concept called “open innovation” that espouses the importance of seeking ideas from everywhere, internally and externally to the department, rather than being insulated from other organizations.
  • Process – This call for enhancing broad and specific scouting of new ideas throughout the agency and integrating innovation within key processes.
  • Roles – This involves assigning a champion, either an individual or team, to facilitate a system-wide approach. However, it’s important to select employees who are held in high regard and have the ability to actively participate in creative brainstorming and develop innovative solutions to challenges.
  • Measurement – This includes the development of compelling methods to determine the effects of innovation: improved service, increased efficiencies or improved customer satisfaction.

Park and recreation agencies are generally good at capturing data, but not as effective in aggregating and using it for decision-making. At the NRPA Innovation Lab in Boston in May 2016, a survey, distributed to the agencies in attendance about their use of data, revealed that the big problem areas that exist with agency use of data include:

  • Lack of workforce skill set related to data
  • Scattered data and information silos between and among divisions and departments within an agency
  • Inflexible financial and budgeting systems that do not provide real-time information about financials
  • Use of on premise, rather than cloud-based, software, which requires expensive IT maintenance, quickly becomes outdated and makes it tough to access information internally, across departments and remotely.

A first step in developing a good organizational culture, the last competency, is to simply measure the existing culture. With the results from this exercise, an organization can then decide how to go about improving the cultural attributes. For example, an agency may aspire to have significant employee engagement and empowerment. Measuring this element is the first step to determining how far the organization is from the ideal. Process improvement teams can then be developed to work on improving various areas of culture.

The organization’s systems should align with the reinforcement of culture. This means having a recruitment process that highlights the cultural elements of the agency. The interview process should address desired cultural attributes in individuals applying for a position with your organization. For example, if there is a desire to have a team-based environment, it’s important to have interview questions that address a person’s ability to work in that environment. Orientation sessions need to include discussion about desired cultural elements, and feedback and reward and recognition systems also need to align with the culture.

The greatest gift leaders can make is to instill deeply imbedded competencies in the areas outlined. In order to achieve success, more than staff training is necessary. The culture of the organization and the way leaders lead must also align with the competencies mentioned. If an employee desires to learn more about innovation, only to return to his or her workplace and go back to reporting to a micromanager, the gift of training is lost.

Leaders everywhere owe it to their agencies and to themselves to continuously grow and adapt to the changing level of sophisticated skills needed to supervise employees today. As a start, take a look at the competencies mentioned and determine what you need to do to become more skilled in these areas. Your employees will thank you for your efforts.

Elements of this article are included in an online leadership certificate program — developed by NRPA and Barbara Heller — that includes four modules: strategic thinking, human capital management, operational leadership, and diversity and cultural awareness. Be on the lookout for more information about the online course and join Heller at this year’s Conference in New Orleans where she’ll dive deeper into the topic of leadership during her session titled, “Creating a Strategy Focused Organization.”

Barbara Heller is the President of Heller and Heller Consulting, LLC.