How to Attract & Maintain the Next Generation of Public Leaders

Employee engagement is one of the biggest challenges facing the public sector. As agencies’ missions continue to grow increasingly complex and many senior staff prepare for retirement, the public sector must place an emphasis on recruiting and retaining the next generation of public leaders. This crucial topic was the basis of Tuesday’s Governing webinar, Engage, Motivate, Retain: Attracting and Maintaining the Right Talent in the Modern World.

We heard from some excellent speakers including Kim Burgess, Chief HR Officer, CO; Gary O’Bannon, HR Director, Kansas City, MO; and Bob Lavigna, HR Director at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who acted as moderator. There was a ton of excellent material covered, but I’ll focus on some of the main takeaways.

To begin, what is employee engagement? Lavigna described it as an employee’s heightened connection to work, organization, missions, and/or co-workers. Engaged employees take personal pride in their work and feel valued by their organizations. As a result, they are much more likely to go above and beyond their minimum work requirements.

Why does employee engagement matter? Well, according to Gallup, organizations with a more engaged workforce enjoy a myriad of benefits such as greater productivity, less turnover, and less absenteeism. Furthermore, according to a Governing poll, engaged public sector employees are:

  • 2x more likely to stay in current job
  • 2.5x more likely to feel they can make a difference
  • 2.5x more likely to recommend their workplaces to others
  • 3x more likely to report being very satisfied

The benefits go beyond ensuring that your workers are bright-eyed and bushy tailed, however. There are significant economic gains to be made as well. More collaborative and innovative work environments decrease the costs of employee disengagement – which Gallup estimates results in upwards of $550 billion in lost productivity per year.

How do you build employee engagement?

There is not a one-size-fits-all strategy, Lavigna explains. Organizations need to communicate with employees through surveys or focus groups. This will help get an idea of what is working, what’s not, and what changes are desired. Also, it is key to ensure that engagement is a strategy driven by top leadership, not just some temporary HR initiative. This also relates to the on boarding process, which Lavigna argues should begin right when a new employee accepts his/her job offer, all the way through his/her first year.

From a supervisor’s view, Lavigna offers the following advice:

Manage performance effectively

  • Make expectations clear, clarify how work links to mission
  • Meet with employees regularly
  • Provide opportunities to grow and develop
  • Hold employees accountable, deal with poor performers

Select supervisors who can actually supervise

  • Find supervisors who can build engagement, not just those who perform well in their job
  • Provide training, resources, and support
  • Make engagement a competency, hold supervisors accountable
  • Build and maintain high engagement work units

Recognize employees’ contributions

  • The power of just saying thanks, good job every once in a while
  • Make sure opinions count and are heard
  • Create positive work environment, especially re: work/life balance
  • Emphasis on communication

Another useful (and catchy) strategy to promote employee engagement comes from Kim Burgess, Chief HR Officer for the State of Colorado. It involves the three R’s: Recruit. Reward. Retain. The basics of this approach:


  • Understand and update the recruiting process. Be nimble!
  • Brand government work better. Market your agency as an “employer of choice.” Most people want to make a difference, so inform them how public service can allow them to do that.
  • Express the unique nature of government work and impact on communities


  • Reinvest in your workforce. Personnel is key to 21st century government innovation and success. For example, Colorado is required by statute to complete an annual report comparing state employees’ compensation and benefits to the market.
  • Launch a wellness plan. To date, around 50 percent of Colorado’s workers have signed up for their wellness plan, CafeWell.


  • Conduct strategic workforce planning – if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you need to go.
  • Project what your workforce will need – consider future demand and vacancies.


Hopefully these strategies can help your agency as it prepares to hire its future workforce.

For more information on engagement, click here!

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Hannah Moss

Your comments on supervisors are spot on, Matt! You have to hire supervisors because they have good leadership skills… not just because they are good at their own jobs. And then, of course, keep training them to be better leaders!

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great points! This is even more critical because millennials are leaving as fast as we can hire them! (http://www.federalnewsradio.com/520/3717814/OPM-Millennial-feds-like-their-jobs-but-dont-stay-long)

We need to seek ways to retain and engage our millennials! One little-used technique for getting at the heart of retention is using Stay Interviews (http://www.amazon.com/Power-Stay-Interviews-Engagement-Retention/dp/1586442341). I’m a fan of this technique!