Leading from the Front Lines

The City of West Kelowna is a young city in British Columbia that incorporated on December 7th, 2007.  As the Public Works Manager for the City of West Kelowna (CWK), I have been fortunate to have been with the city from almost day one, and through this time I have seen our team work through many positive and challenging situations.

Recently, I was ‘voluntold’ to represent the Engineering and Public Works Department as a member of the CWK’s Customer Service Committee.  At first, I must admit that I was initially slow in my buy-in and skeptical about the intent of this important committee.  During this stage of my career, I wasn’t in a leadership role for the city, and I remember thinking “what am I doing here?”.  However, I found myself getting engaged rather quickly as I began to realize the importance of what the CWK’s leadership team was hoping to accomplish. Our Committee was tasked with setting the service standard for our young municipality.  Over the course of a few months it became clear to us that we wanted to establish a set of service standards by which all CWK employees are to guide their day to day actions and activities as a part of the municipal team.

So, after a few months of honest discussion, consideration, review, and debate, the CWK’s Customer Service Committee was pleased to roll out “Our Commitment to Customer Service”.  Posters outlining this commitment have been put up at strategic locations throughout various CWK locations to make them visible to both internal and external clients of the City of West Kelowna.  Here is the “Our Commitment to Customer Service”:

City of West Kelowna Staff Will
Welcome our Customers

Be Respectful and Courteous
Be Responsive and Accountable
Make it Simple
Strive to Continuously Improve

When thinking about these 6 commitments, it’s easy to draw the link between the commitments that we make as a team member of CWK and how they affect our team of Public Works professionals who are leading from the front lines in the community daily. For CWK, this team includes Parks, Utilities, Roads and Drainage, and Facilities.  From our welcoming front desk staff, to the qualified and professional operators in the field, right on through to the responsive and accountable supervisory and management team these 6 commitments are what drive CWK Public Works as customer service leaders in the municipality.

When thinking about “leaders from the front lines” however, how can this statement not be true for the millions of public works professionals working on the front lines of all municipalities throughout North America?  These dedicated team members on the front lines are the faces of our organizations who have the challenging yet rewarding job of leading our cities and municipalities through the ups and downs of providing our citizens safe, enjoyable, and reliable services and spaces that everyone should be proud to call home.  Yes, of course, there are always the typical clichés of Public Works: the tap turns on and water comes out, then that water disappears down the drains without question, the roads are plowed in order to get to work safely, garbage cans are emptied regularly, parks/trails/pools/libraries are clean and safe, the list goes on.  But my point here is that all of this doesn’t happen without our front line public works leaders who help navigate our cities through the day to day needs of the communities we serve.

As it relates to the City of West Kelowna’s “Commitment to Customer Service”, let’s take a quick look at the 6 commitments and how they can link to the CWK’s front line leaders in Public Works:

Welcome our Customers:

How simple is this one?  A simple “Hello, nice to see you!” or “Hi, I’ll be right with you” can go a long way in easing any possible tensions or welcoming a client back.  What a great tool for our reception staff to be using daily, for any public works professional heading into a meeting, or an operator in a park.  Say “hello”! This is the simplest thing that one can do as a leader on the front line.

Be Respectful and Courteous:  

Can you hear your mom with this one?  “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. It’s so true though.  Our front line leaders in the office or out in the field are expected to behave in this manner and do so excellently.  What’s great about this the CWK is our corresponding policy, in that we all have the right to walk away, hang up the phone, or take whatever means we see as reasonably necessary when not being treated in a respectful or courteous manner.  This is one of the most basic soft skills any leader should possess.


It’s amazing how easy it is to listen.  After nearly 15 years in local government in public works related challenges, listening to someone, no matter how frustrated they are, and letting them vent might be the single most important tool I’ve learned.  Listening, really listening and trying to understand their perspective can go a long way.  Ultimately, you may agree to disagree with the person you are listening too, but our leaders on the front lines should recognize the power of listening.

Be Responsive and Accountable:

If you’re going to do something, do it.  If you’ve made an appointment to be somewhere, be there.  As a leader on the front line, your client’s time is just as important as yours is.  So be that leader by standing behind your words and actions.  If you can’t make your commitments, let your client know that something has come up and you need to reschedule.

Make it Simple:

One can’t argue that part of working in local government is enforcing red tape.  But while leading from the front line in whatever public works setting you find yourself, do what you can to make things simple for both your internal and external clients.

Strive to Continuously Improve:

This may be one of the more difficult commitments to work towards given the tendency of relying on the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and the corresponding mentality.  But as leaders on the front lines, and considering how times and technologies are constantly changing, striving to continuously improve is as important as ever.  This is not only true for all of us leading in the world of Public Works in our day-to-day work lives, but in a perfect world, this same commitment should be true in all our personal lives as well.

In closing, leading from the front lines = what we do as public works professionals every single day of the year.  Our Public Works teams are what makes our communities tick, we are the lifeblood of what makes your city the place you want to call home and where you are happy to serve.  But our communities could not be these vital places and healthy spaces without the dedicated hard work of our Public Works professionals who are Leading from the Front Lines.

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