Wednesday, March 14, 2012

7 Habits of Highly Effective Public Servants


I was lucky to be asked this year to serve on the selection committee for the Sloan Public Service Awards, which are given out to six New York City employees (out of more than 300,000 workers) each year. As Mary McCormick, the president of the Fund, explains, "people take public service for granted." The awards are a way of drawing public attention to exemplary performance by the men and women who teach our children, clean our streets, create our parks, and perform all of the other tasks that keep our city moving forward each day. While there is an element of pain to being on the selection committee (choosing among worthy candidates can be very difficult), there is mostly a great deal of pleasure in being able to honor unsung heroes.

Today, the Fund for the City of New York organized a bus trip to present the six winners with their awards (including a $10,000 check) at their place of work. It is a wonderful way to experience some of the greatness and diversity of New York City. The sites varied from the high-tech command center for the Office of Emergency Management to a gritty bus depot in East New York. The winners were a varied lot too, coming from the fields of science, education, health care, historic preservation, and transportation.

While each Sloan Award recipient is of course unique, it was possible to discern some common traits among the group. I'm not sure any of this rises above the level of cliche, but these were things that I thought the winners had in common:

1. All of the winners communicated a palpable love for New York City.

2. Jefrick Dean, a bus operator who was profiled by Sam Roberts in the New York Times yesterday, talked about the difference between doing one's job whole-heartedly and half-heartedly. All of the winners seemed wholly committed to their work and unafraid of hard work.

3. Donna Lena Gordon, director of palliative care at Coney Island Hospital emphasized her belief in life-long learning, something that was exhibited by all of the other winners as well.

4. All of the winners displayed a remarkable degree of graciousness and humility, taking pains to deflect attention, credit others for their success and acknowledge those who had helped them along the way.

5. The quality of empathy and the ability to listen came up repeatedly in the remarks that others made about the winners.

6. Clare Bauman, a teacher at the High School of Telecommunications Arts & Technology, hailed her principal, Phil Weinberg, for his use of language, talking about how he uses words (including an annual letter of gratitude) to motivate students and create a sense of community at the school. Jefrick Dean is also clearly a master communicator, able to defuse tension on his routes and to minister to his fellow bus drivers back at the depot.

7. Finally, all of the winners seemed driven by their own internal standard of excellence -- their motivation clearly did not come from a desire for public acclaim or at the urging of their supervisors.

So there you have it: seven habits of highly effective public servants. Kudos to the winners and to the Fund for the City of New York for organizing a remarkable program.