Thirsting For Knowledge

Consider three vignettes:

Scene 1: John, parks supervisor, visiting Joe, maintenance staff, at his home for a holiday reception

John: “Nice tea garden, Joe! I wasn’t aware you knew about landscape architecture.”

Joe: “You never asked!”

Scene 2: John, speaking with Mary, a fellow supervisor

John: “Hey, Mary. You’d be a great director. Are you going to apply for the job?”

Mary: “Heck, no! You couldn’t pay me enough to be a director.”

Scene 3: John, to Sam, who is submitting his resignation

John: “Gosh, Sam, we’re sorry to lose you. We were hoping you’d be with us for a long time.”

Sam: “Sorry, John. Sometimes you have to move out to move up. I don’t see a chance to improve myself here.”

Was John paying big bucks to a landscape architecture firm when Joe could have supplied the expertise for “free?” If Mary was as good as John believed, what was it about his organization that Mary disliked, and in what other ways could she be motivated? Why did Sam feel stifled in his career? Did John’s organization have a succession plan in place, tied to an explicit policy of promoting from within?

Although the vignettes differ in details, they share the fact that John’s co-workers--for a variety of reasons--are not reaching their potential. Underutilizing or losing good people can only hurt an organization.

A Common Goal

Successful managers support the staff’s ability to achieve full potential by optimizing three critical factors--Skill, Motivation and Opportunity (SMO)--and by specifically customizing them to fit individual circumstances (see Figure 1).

Efficient organizations have a well-defined structure designed to ensure essential functions are completed. These jobs typically are described in terms of duties to be performed and the skills necessary to perform them. At minimum, organizations publish these requirements when searching for new employees, hire in strict accordance with the requirements, and conduct performance appraisals using the same requirements as criteria.

Nevertheless, the Skill axis in Figure 1 refers to more than existing skill levels; it serves as a reference for skill potential as well. Better organizations supplement employees’ initial orientation with periodic training--often mandatory--which either maintains an employee’s performance level, or upgrades an existing skill to keep up with incremental changes in technology or techniques, such as annual CPR or Water Safety Instructor recertification.

However, the best organizations develop their staff by encouraging employees to identify areas about which they would like to learn more, and then by providing the means to facilitate that development. For example, some parks and recreation organizations offer tuition reimbursement programs and discretionary personal development funds. It is at this level that John would know of Joe’s interest in landscape architecture; he and Joe would have had a conversation about it when Joe requested support to attend a workshop or conference.

The Motivation axis operates in similar fashion; it’s not simply a matter of degree, but also of method. In Mary’s case, for example, the amount of money (degree) doesn’t seem to matter; something else presents a formidable barrier. Is the political climate--internally or externally (or both)--unbearable? Is the length of day expected (10-12 hours), or weekly schedule (evenings and weekends) “anti-family”? Would flex-time make Mary more interested in becoming director? High-performance organizations strive to be flexible enough to match the proper motivation to the needs of key personnel.

Embracing Opportunities

Opportunity is composed of at least two dimensions--vertical and horizontal--if not three (internal-external). The more familiar dimension is vertical--moving upward within an organization’s typical hierarchical structure from part-time activity facilitator to, eventually, full-time vested parks and recreation director. A path less taken, perhaps because it is perceived as “staying in place” when viewed in relation to the vertical dimension, is the horizontal step--from recreation supervisor to aquatics supervisor, for example.

What is gained from a “sideways” opportunity, though, is a breadth of knowledge about an organization, the gaining of an additional skill set, and the application of managerial concepts within a new context. The lateral move actually is quite common in fields such as hospitality, for example, where a prospective hotel manager trains as a housekeeper, bellhop, wait staff person and front-desk personnel.

The least-taken opportunity is the “externship,” probably due to the level of planning and coordination--and trust--required. Where is the most appropriate “outside” place for your employee? Is that place willing to take on your employee? Who will pay the salary or other associated costs? Will it be an even exchange: your employee for another? Will your employee return to you, or be “poached” by the sponsoring agency? Could John have retained Sam with one or more of these opportunities?

A Common Goal

Of course, the three SMO dimensions work in tandem--a more skilled employee creates more opportunities, and an increased number of choices serve as motivation to do what it takes to reach the next level. Ideally, a manager initially creates a balance among the SMO dimensions tailored to each employee, and then a pathway that leads all employees into the “high-high-high” quadrant of Figure 1.

By asking employees where they hope their careers will take them, and by offering the means to complete the journeys, a parks and recreation manager will always have SMO’s to give, and your satisfied, dedicated employees will have SMO’s to give you in return.

Kim Uhlik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at San Jose State University, where he coordinates the Leadership and Administration emphasis. He can be reached via e-mail at