Leading a Culture Shift

Mark Rohloff


Guest Blogger:  Mark Rohloff–2013 Newsmaker of the Year!

Mark Rohloff is the City Manager for the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a position he has held since 2008.  During his time in Oshkosh, he has helped transform the city into a customer-oriented service organization through strategic planning and continuous improvement initiatives.  Oshkosh Northwestern Media recently named Rohloff, its 2013 Newsmaker of the Year, saying he is responsible for “empowering staff to get moving on plans and projects across the city, changing the culture at City Hall and spearheading a proactive approach to everything from the city’s role in economic development to basic infrastructure improvements and improved customer service.”

Mark has over 30 years of experience in local government management, in areas as diverse as public works, economic development, finance, organizational development, and long range planning. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty in the MPA program at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.

When I first accepted the position as City Manager of Oshkosh, Wisconsin five years ago, I was faced with addressing Oshkosh’s reputation as an organization that was not customer oriented.   Upon my arrival, I could see that our employees were equally concerned about this reputation.    Outside perception was one thing, but I also had to contend with a collective inferiority complex that had filtered into the organization itself.

The first sign came when department heads asked me in front of their peers if I planned to sweep the place clean with a big broom.  I responded that I was more likely to tidy the place up with a dust broom.  My intent was to assure everyone that this was a fresh start and that I would fix things that needed to be fixed and not interfere with things that were otherwise operating well.

As I looked into customer service complaints, I discovered that they existed in small pockets and not throughout the organization.  Meanwhile, I was also observing some outstanding examples of customer service, in some cases right alongside the problems areas.  It seemed so unfair that the old adage, “A few bad apples spoil the whole bunch” had taken hold.

How would we overcome this unfair reputation?  The problem areas were going to take time to correct, so while I worked on those, I made a conscious effort to highlight the many positives that existed in our organization.  I identified metrics demonstrating some high performing areas that deserved recognition.  I acknowledged the problem areas, and in many cases, used self-deprecating humor to assure the public that we knew our shortcomings and would continue to work on them.  Meanwhile, I would point out, look at the cool things we’re doing here in Oshkosh!

With the assistance of some great community partners, we shared testimonials of excellent customer service and highlighted collaborative initiatives that were going on at all levels of the city.  The positive highlights  also had the benefit of transforming employees.  Instead of hiding our high performers, we celebrated them and gave them a voice to be proud of their work.  As we initiated continuous improvement programs, employees were now being recognized for their contributions and became leaders within their work groups.

We still have many areas of improvement, but creating a culture in which employees have become proud of the work they do for our community has enabled Oshkosh to believe in itself.   That culture shift will enable us to more effectively confront our future challenges.  As leaders, believing in our employees and giving them the tools to succeed is a powerful first step.

Mark Rohloff

Check back tomorrow for Part Two of “Leading a Culture Shift”  by Mark Rohloff

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