IPSI – Public Works Management Training that Works!

I just returned from spending a week at the Illinois Public Service Institute – “a three-year training program which provides instruction expressly designed for public service professionals.” Since this is my second year of the three-year program, I thought it would be a good time to share my experiences with others who might be considering attending in the future. I don’t know how other professions handle training of their managers, but in public works, those of us who advance up the ladder rarely receive formal training to prepare us for our new supervisory roles. Some agencies send managers to an occasional class, and some might have personnel who have taken public administration classes. But rarely does this type of training really prepare people for handling the public works industry. It just doesn’t fit the traditional public works place, so if you haven’t worked it, you won’t get it. Fortunately 12 years ago, the Illinois and Chicago Metro chapters of APWA decided to fill this training gap by setting up IPSI. The result has been effective supervisory training for public works managers by public works professionals that just works.

Before I attended last year, I’d heard all the stories about how wonderful and amazing IPSI was. Frankly I was skeptical. You know how it is – you’ve been to all those classes that promise to miraculously transform you into a management superhero. But in the end, most of what you learn just doesn’t work in the public works environment. Not only don’t they understand how we are set up and how we deliver services, but they don’t get the structure within which we work which presents specific types of challenges. IPSI is different because the content is approved by a committee of public works professionals and delivered by Dr. Lew Bender – an educator with extensive experience in training managers in the public service sector (and who is assisted by his amazing wife, Mary).

Last year was my first of the three year program. The focus for the 2012 class was on service excellence. Some of the highlights of the training were:

Performance appraisals – we learned how to conduct them to ensure the maximum benefit for everyone. We also learned how to work within the current appraisal framework we have if we were not allowed to change it.

Business etiquette – Maybe other people get the “Miss Manners” training at home, but my parents were simple folk who never taught us what all that silverware on the table was for and what order in which to use it. Fortunately for me and others who lacked this training, this session took care of filling us in on the details. By the end we were more aware of the entire process of conducting business over a meal along with other business etiquette knowledge.

Communication, law, and the service culture – for the law portion of this group of sessions, we had an attorney visit to fill us in on important laws that affect our work. That’s another aspect of our jobs we are rarely trained in yet are expected to just know and understand so it was good to get this information.

Workplace safety – this was a great session that showed us how to try to avoid and if necessary respond to a threat. Although I’m thinking I’d really rather not have to put any of this training into practice.

So this year’s focus was on supervisory skills – here are some of the highlights I took away:

Supervisory Dos and Don’ts – the committee along with Lew, the instructor, shared about 50 pieces of advice. The top three for me that I decided I need to build on were

  1. ensuring people know and understand expectations
  2. allowing people to develop skills through failure and risk (non-safety related) and remembering to debrief afterwards
  3. developing a vision and a few goals for our team as a group

More legal stuff – the lawyer was back this year to explain ADA, FMLA, and workplace investigations. The scariest thing I learned is for some reason the law makes supervisors personally liable for FMLA if acting in the best interest of the employer and if in violation of the FMLA law. This makes it even more important to understand this confusing law – ignore it, and you can get personally hit by it. Not that this makes it any simpler to understand, but I did find a presentation that shows some of these issues:


Managing Problem Employees (or problem children – PCs) – PCs are always a favorite topic because it seems too many people have some of these folks working for them. Some surprising information I got from the class was that PCs can take up a rough average of 40 to 75% of a manager’s time. It was also uncanny how closely Lew described their behaviors – almost as if he knew the people personally. The most enlightening thing I learned was that PCs think of work as some type of fight for the “pie.” If they actually perform some task you give them, it’s like allowing you to take part of their pie. So they do whatever it takes to make sure they get your part rather than give up theirs. I had always thought everyone was thinking: this is work, we have tasks to complete, and we do them. Now it makes so much more sense – it’s not about work at all to them. It’s all about guarding their pie.

Social media and public works – this session was facilitated by myself and Dave Lawry. We focused on opening discussions over the use of social media in our industry by having the group analyze two incidents related to municipalities that played out on social media. We also discussed the type of messages we typically send out and looked at a few examples of how other agencies are using social media platforms to communicate. This could probably have been an all day session that started out with an introduction to social media. For anyone who is looking for a fun introduction to social media, I embedded something I put together a few years ago – keep in mind some of the sites might have minor design changes:

More performance appraisal information and stress (not necessarily tied together)

Successful communication and employee loyalty – this was a full day session with Doug Cartland. If anyone has seen him talk, you understand how completely motivational and interesting this day was for us.

Strategic Planning – I am absolutely fascinated by this topic and in understanding how teams work together in planning. What was particularly interesting in this session was how I could relate it to conducting this type of exercise in a virtual setting. Most of the issues that hijack a strategic planning session are easily knocked out of the way by instead conducting the planning in a virtual setting. Of course we didn’t have that choice here – totally face to face.

So those were the session highlights for me. But there is one other significant part to IPSI you won’t get from the class schedule – the people. It really hit me this year as soon as I walked in and lasted until the minute I left. There is a closeness and bonding that takes place during the entire week that I’m not sure is obvious at first. It kind of sneaks up on you without you realizing it is happening. All the shared experiences in class, the jokes, the fun, the learning, the sharing of ideas and challenges, and the sharing of meals and time together build relationships and bonds we would not otherwise have. In the end for me, that’s a priceless gift I hope I never take for granted. Because of it, we no longer feel alone or that we have to face our battles without help. We may be urged in class to constantly think “what hill we want to die on,” but once we choose, we go there knowing we won’t be rushing the hill alone.

Lindberg Rd Reconstruction LaSalle IL


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