Monthly Archives: August, 2014

Bridging the Generations in Local Government – 4

Cookingham Connection - Cal HWelcome to week four of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we hear from Cal Horton. He’s the former town manager of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Cal is an International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Credentialed Manager. He has served as assistant city manager for Decatur, Georgia and director of public safety for Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Guidepost #4

Remember that the average fellow with whom you talk, whether he is a member of the council, one of the city’s staff, or a citizen, does not know as much about the job of municipal administration as you know now or will know in the years ahead; so don’t get too far beyond him, for he will not be able to follow you.

I had the good fortune to spend a few hours with Mr. Cookingham in a small seminar at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when I was in the Master of Public Administration program. He was advertised to us in the advance material as a city management hero, the man who cleaned up Kansas City after the Pendergast machinethe “Dean of City Managers.”

He wore a well-tailored dark suit, highly polished shoes, white shirt, a repp tie with a little color, and a closely-trimmed mustache. He created a presence simply by walking in the room. Over the next few hours, he was charming, intelligent, witty, and surprisingly inspirational to a group of students who, consistent with the vogue at the time, did not trust anyone over 30.

Now, as then, I hold Mr. Cookingham in high regard as an exemplar of excellence in local government management and a role model as an ethical public servant. There is much to admire and embrace in his guideposts, many of which still have the strong ring of truth.

The hubris found today in guidepost four probably was not so evident in 1956, when it was published in PM by ICMA. Perhaps his assertion was true in 1940 when he was appointed City Manager of Kansas City. Guidepost four might have been good advice in the late 1920s when he began his career in city government. After all, Mr. Cookingham was trained as an engineer, and engineers certainly know and understand things that the rest of us don’t (e.g., they take math courses as electives!).

Today, however, I cannot recommend  guidepost four as a guidepost for local government managers.

You may think that my opinion is shaped by my experience as Town Manager in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the home of UNC; and, perhaps it is. I worked in a city where my teachers lived. Donald Hayman knew more than I did about human resource management. Deil Wright knew more than I did about intergovernmental relations. Milton Heath knew more than I did about water and wastewater management. Bob Stipe knew more than I did about city and regional planning. And the list goes on.

The Town Council Members with whom I worked often had PhD’s, MA’s, MS’s, MPA’s, or JD’s. Nobel Laureates lived in our town and occasionally argued issues at Council Meetings. The Town’s department directors were highly educated and recognized as leaders in their respective fields.

Chapel Hill is a university community where good ideas and sound argumentsregardless of sourceare prized above authority and position. As a practicality, guidepost four would not work in Chapel Hill.

But, I think the greater influence on me came from the teachings of the MPA program, particularly about the ethical practice of local government management and the importance of understanding my own values. One of my teachers, Bob Daland, helped me appreciate that my most important skill set would be the ability to discern, evaluate, apply, refine, articulate, and consistently exemplify a set of personal values congruent with the needs and requirements of a life in public service. My philosophical difficulty with guidepost four grows out of this notion.

One interpretation is that guidepost four is not about the role of the manager, but solely about how the manager communicates with council members, staff, and citizens; in essence, an admonition to speak plainly and avoid assuming without evidence that others are as familiar with a subject as you are. If this was Mr. Cookingham’s purpose, I would agree; but, I think he would have plainly said so, if that was his intent.

Another interpretation of guidepost four presents the manager as The Manager, the expert, the one who always knows best, the one who knows and understands things that the rest of us do not. It presents council members, staff, and citizens as uninformed at best and ignorant at worst. This kind of thinking separates the manager from the council, the staff, and citizens; it seems to make the manager “better” than the others. I do not accept this idea. I think it is not a good foundation for the kind of facilitative leadership that I believe managers should practice.

Managers are not better. They are not the only experts, they do not always know best, and they are not the only ones who understand community problems and possibilities for mitigating them. Managers who assume the old role of “expert” will predictably fail to provide the leadership and support necessary in contemporary local government management. Their values will blind them to the knowledge and wisdom of all the others around them.

The role of the manager has changed substantially since ICMA was founded 100 years ago, since Mr. Cookingham began his career in the late 1920s, and since his guideposts were published a half-century ago. If he were with us today, I think he would agree that the era of “Manager as Expert” passed long ago.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

What You Need to Do with the Elephant in the Room

Every few months or so, there’s a shocking or controversial occurrence that headlines every popular newscast or talk show in the nation.

This time, it’s Michael Brown and Robin Williams. One tackles the issue of race, the other about suicide.

We often express our views on these stories with family or our closest friends; but when we get to work, not a peep.

I can understand why. Those issues are tough to talk about. It’s easier to just place those topics in the “taboo” pile with religion and politics. However, every “hot topic” item can’t be pushed to the side as if it doesn’t exist.

I’m not suggesting getting into heated debates about who or what is right and wrong. That’s a waste of time. (And yes, religion and politics are still off limits for the workplace.) However, leaders do need to turn these instances into a learning opportunity for the whole team.

The story of the teenage Michael Brown being shot by a police officer is a good segue into real discussions about how your organization can proactively embrace diversity. Ask questions like: “How can our organization avoid being put in a situation that would question our fairness regarding race/gender/lifestyle?” and “What could we have done the same or differently in this situation?”

Robin William’s tragic death can be a wake-up call to make sure your employees are doing okay emotionally. (Remember that leaders need to be “heart smart.”) Remind your team that depression is real, and they should seek help if they start showing early symptoms. You can also let them know that there are free mental health resources available.

Instead of turning a blind eye to the current issues going on, turn the situation into a chance to better your team.

So, the next time you see that elephant in the room, introduce it.

Hope Boyd
Written by:
Hope Boyd
Director of Communications, Strategic Government Resources

Getting Things Done… in the Right Way!

Highly respected leaders develop reputations for being able to execute in the midst of seemingly overwhelming odds.

They don’t become known as “great leaders” because they had easy assignments, unending resources, and complete support from everyone around them. They became known as great leaders because in spite of the difficulties, the scarce resources, and the opposition from others, they succeeded.

It will often be the case that the more important the issue, the more obstacles there will be to overcome. If you feel like you are in an important “against all odds” kind of struggle, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Expect negativity to increase with progress.
    Just because you have a great dream doesn’t mean that some people won’t consider it a nightmare! Often their opposition becomes increasingly aggressive and hostile. There are three levels of negativity:

    • Ridicule
    • Anger
    • Hostile Actions

    Leaders sometimes complain that resistance doesn’t decline in spite of the good that is being done. Don’t be surprised if it escalates. That may just be a positive signnot a negative one.

  1. Maintain balance between conquering new ground and preserving the gains.
    It doesn’t matter how many new horizons you conquer if you are losing ground that you previously conquered. Great leaders develop plans that not only allow them to make progress, but they also develop systems that will preserve the positive changes that have been made. This requires balancing resources. It may mean that some of your best people have to concentrate on preservation. It may mean that your timetable has to be slowed down so that you can give things (and people) time to adjust. The truth is that if it’s really important, it’s probably a marathonnot a sprintand if it’s not that important, you probably shouldn’t be focusing on it anyway.
  1. Help people feel like a part of something bigger than themselves.
    The camaraderie that people feel with their colleagues is one of the most important parts of developing a great team. People are more likely to sacrifice, remain loyal, and give their very best when they feel a special bond with each other. It may take time, and it certainly isn’t something that you can manipulate. However, you can nurture an environment where people feel connected. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Professor, says that introducing people to one another is the most radical thing we can do. Relationships become the glue that keeps great teams moving toward achieving great goals.
  1. Take care of the people taking care of you.
    That seems simple enough, right? People who sacrifice for great causes should be rewarded through fair pay and appropriate amounts of time away. Don’t use people up. Strive to make sure that those who have sacrificed to help your goal become a reality are rewarded generously. They become your spokesmen, your brain trust, and your legacy. Leaders are not just judged by what they accomplished. Leaders are not just remembered for what they accomplished. They are equally remembered for how they treated the people who helped them do it.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Chief Operations Officer, Strategic Government Resources

Have You Learned to be an Early Adopter?

“His parents were simply early adopters of what will become an essential learning tool for the next generation.” (speaking of a three year old in Sweden working “on his music” on an iPad). – Michael Saylor, The Mobile Wave

Here’s a short but important thought for today.

My younger brother, Mike, the business genius of the family (CEO of Novotus), explained to me why MySpace was left in the dust.

MySpace tried to keep current with a too-soon-obsolete platform. He understands this stuff, and I don’t. But I get the idea.

You don’t win Wimbledon with a tennis racket made of wood when new technology leaves those now-obsolete rackets behind.

So, here is the thought. You really do gain an advantage by being an early adopter. And you face certain failure by being a too-late adopter.

So, have you learned to be an early adopter in your organization?

Randy Mayeux

Contributed by:
Randy Mayeux
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 3

Cookingham Connection - Noel BWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 3rd guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Noel Bernal, the city administrator for Falfurrias, Texas.

Guidepost #3:

You have to “give and take” all along the way, but when you must give ground to the “left,” be sure that when you return toward the center, you go to the “right” as far as possible. In “giving,” never do anything that may be illegal or that is contrary to the basic principles of the plan of government with which you are working.

As I approach my fifth year in local government, with four of them as a City Manager, I have practiced in the geographic region in Texas mostly associated with being “blue” while the State has been dominated and is synonymous with the “red” political affiliation. Deep South Texas has traditionally been known for volatile politics in the various levels of government that intersect in the region, especially City and County; but over the years, cities have become more progressive.

This has led to an even more challenging climate for professional local government management since this political behavior has conditioned the public to consider partisan politics as the norm. Elected officials at times appear to embrace the perilous politics.

The result is elected officials being programmed at running in slates that lists the multiple candidates vying under the same platform and agenda. With the battle lines drawn, the City Manager is set to take on an environment of tension that is irrelevant to being “red” or “blue” or what each respective political ideology represents.

As a professional local government manager in this region, my political affiliation takes the back seat since it becomes more important that I assure the governing body of the City that is considering selecting me as their City Manager, or is in the middle of an election cycle, that my policy recommendations are apolitical, professional, and what I feel is best for the community.

I was appointed on a 3-2 vote in each of the first two cities that I have served, but I have successfully gone through three election cycles between both cities that involved changes in the governing body. Furthermore, I am the first City Manager in one of those cities. My effectiveness can be linked to my approach in working with all council members. I have emphasized that I work for the “majority,” which involves working across party lines. Respect, honesty, integrity, and strong communication between myself and each elected official has allowed me to work on planning and policy-making and not extracurricular issues.

Cities in South Texas are deserving of professional city management, but it does take a deep understanding of the political culture and history to be effective. There have been tough decisions that I had to make at each city due to the organizational and infrastructure challenges I inherited. To make matters worse, my decisions led to an increased political involvement by candidates who supposedly ran due to the actions being made by the City Council because of the City Manager.

One City faced a wastewater treatment plant exceeding capacity, while the other had an organizational divide since the City-owned water, wastewater, and gas utilities systems were operated by an independent board that provided limited oversight to the City Council. Doing the right thing in each situation was especially difficult since City Council action had to be politically justified in some way. In my view, my recommendations were based on fixing an infrastructure breakdown to avoid a State takeover on one hand and to eliminate a major organizational inefficiency on the other.

Dealing with the issues facing each City was not as difficult as working with the public. Each time, the public responded in a skeptical manner due to them only knowing of politically-motivated decisions and not necessarily based on professionally-oriented decisions that addressed the underlying problems in the community.

I have not faced situations where members of the governing body have questioned my political affiliation, but I have been labeled by members of the public as being Republican since my recommendations involve financial analysis to support decision-making. While I may have been associated with being Republican, I am proud to say that I have not been associated with a group of political candidates. There have been times where I have made unpopular recommendations where I show no partiality. At times, they were against members of the governing body who hired me.

A mentor who introduced me to City Management advised that I become active in the State association for professional managers. This has helped me in understanding the role of a city manager, personally and professionally. Not only should City Managers aim at being unaffiliated voters, they should aim at showing that they do not push the agenda of any group of elected officials by their actions “on and off the court.”

I know of some City Managers who have fallen prey to the partisan politics due to them picking sides for job preservation or whose career has had limited success since their reputation has been tainted by them being known as “being political” and not professional.

My approach has been to remind the City Council that I am to always be a value-added to their community through my professional management and leadership ability. As far as the politics, I have adopted a philosophy I once read that stated, “By not wasting mental energy worrying about what might happen to you (even if it means your job), you can put all your effort into making things happen”

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

Bridging the Generations in Local Government – 3

Cookingham Connection - Roger KWe’re now in week three of the Cookingham Connection. Today, we hear from Roger Kemp, a consultant, adjunct professor, and former city manager. Roger is an International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Credentialed Manager. He has served as city manager for Oakland, California; Clifton, New Jersey; and Meriden, Connecticut.

Guidepost #3

You have to “give and take” all along the way, but when you must give ground to the “left,” be sure that when you return toward the center, you go to the “right” as far as possible. In “giving,” never do anything that may be illegal or that is contrary to the basic principles of the plan of government with which you are working.

My staff recommendations to elected officials were always “professional in nature,” and had no political influence in their preparation. After all, I’m a professional city manager, and my (our staff’s) recommendations are professional in their nature, and in the best interest of our taxpayerswhom we all serve.

During my city management career, I had some “conservative” city councilors say that they thought that I was “liberal” because of my/our city’s staff recommendations.  On the other hand, in another city, I had “liberal” city council members tell me that I was a “conservative” due to the fiscally conservative staff recommendations made by me or our staff.

I told these city council members that I’m politically neutral and do not favor one political party/philosophy over another. I respect all of the elected officials since they were elected by the citizens, and they are my bossregardless of their political affiliation, which I do not care about administratively or professionally.

My job, as a professional city manager, is to make “professional recommendations” that are in the best interest of the taxpayers and are administratively responsible and fiscally conservative. No politics involved!

They had my respect, and my goal was that I would obtain their respect. This philosophy of a professional city manager worked well in those communities that I served on both coasts of the United States, in cities ranging in population from about 30,000 to over 300,000.

After all, city managers are “professional” and not “political” in their nature. I would always tell elected officials, “Doing the right thing means more to me than my job.”  It has to do with professionalism, honesty, and integrity.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

Seek to Understand, Then to be Understood

There’s a reason why Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has sold over 15 million copies. If you want to be a better coworker, leader, and overall person, there are seven points easily spelled out for you.

Recently, I was reminded about a particular point in the book that stood out to me. Habit five: seek first to understand, then to be understood.

We’re often reminded to speak clearly, concisely, and get our point across. But if everyone is focused on making others understand, there’s no one left to do the understanding.

When you seek first to understand, your point will be better received because you’ll have an important ingredient a lot of conversations are lacking—empathy.

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” – Stephen Covey

People are more open to hearing your point once they realize that you also understand their viewpoint.

It’s not just about listening—that’s only the first half of it. After you listen, you have to place yourself in the other person’s shoes to determine why the speaker feels the way he or she does, and then respond in the appropriate manner.

When I tell people that I was on the debate team in high school, they usually say, “I can see that. You can argue your point.” But that’s not the makeup of a great debater. The best debate teams have members that are able to say their point, listen to the opposing view, and rebut the main points made by the opposing speaker.

In other words, you can’t make a solid point if you don’t know where the other side is coming from.

Yes, you should speak in a way that makes your message stick. Yes, you should listen attentively. But before you reply, empathize and seek to understand.

Hope Boyd
Written by:
Hope Boyd
Director of Communications, Strategic Government Resources

4 Keys to Successful Organizational Communication

Listen to almost any discussion about how an organization can improve and the topic of communication will come up as one of theif not the biggestproblems. It seems that no matter how much technology improves, the real question is, “How can people improve at communicating?”

Here are four ways that you can improve as a communicator:

  1. Stick to the Same Message.
    Most leaders unintentionally dilute their message by having too many messages. Find the right message for your team. Choose your wording carefully. Say it in a memorable way, and then stick to it. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that your team can remember 37 things because it’s in the team’s “DNA.” They can’t. The more messages you have, the less impact your real message has.
  1. Use the Power of Story.
    The whole world loves a story, and great leaders share great stories. Stories should not be confused with epic marathons. Less is more. However, don’t underestimate the power of a story to communicate your core values, your expectations, and your aspirations. Stories, not slogans, will do the most to inspire your team; and the more technical and “data-driven” you are, the more important it is that you learn to tell great stories.
  1. Speak with Your Own Leader’s Voice.
    The whole world may love a story, but we all despise a fake. As a leader, if you don’t have enough confidence to be yourself, how do you expect others to have enough confidence to follow you? Authentic leaders can spot someone who is just imitating someone else from a mile away. It’s important to have mentors and heroes, but it’s equally important to differentiate yourself from them. Be yourself and speak from your own experienceeven the painful ones. Sometimes it’s your pain that results in the most gain, so find your own voice and use it.
  1. Create a Culture that Values Robust Dialogue.
    Any good idea can become a better idea if it’s subjected to robust dialogue. A leader is responsible for communication to the team, communication from the team, and communication within the team. Of those three, communication within the team may be the most important because dynamic communication within the team will create better leaders and more emotional buy-in. It also shapes the communication from the team to others. Not only that, but if you aspire to have a culture where everyone engages in honest dialogue, that premise will influence the way and the frequency with which you communicate to your team. Communication is not a one-way street. It’s a web of interdependent avenues. At the core of any organization that excels in communication, you will find this principle: they value participation over edicts.

Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Chief Operating Officer, Strategic Government Resources

Multitasking is an Urban Legend

“One frustrated psychologist has argued that the case for multitasking is on a par with ‘urban legend’; that is, it’s a story we like the sound of but that is really nonsense.
– Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril

So, here’s the problem. We think we can do two things at once.

We can’t.

I have written through the years that when we read something in one place, it is worth paying some attention to. But when we read it time and again, maybe there really is something to it.

Well, it is now being written about seemingly everywhere, so pay attention to this!

You cannot do two things at once.

As Margaret Heffernan builds her case about how we simply do not see some pretty important stuff that we should see, one problem she describes is that we only see what we are focused on. “We just do not have enough mental capacity to do all the things that we think we can do.” No, we don’t.

In one chapter of her book, she writes a lot about the famous “Can you Count the Passes?” video. You know, the one where you are intent on counting the passes of a basketball, and you miss the person in a gorilla suit walking through the scene. You are focused on one thing; you miss the other thing, even though it is quite prominent.

Why? Because we do not see much of anything when our focus is on something else. This is true for TSA agents at the airport; this is true for drivers texting on their cell phones (You either focus on your phone or on the road. You can’t focus on both!).

And, it has interesting business implications. If you focus on doing your current task well–and you should–then you can’t focus on what task to do next. You either focus on what to do now, or you focus on what to do next.

One focus at a time.

That’s all you can do. You really can have only one focus at a time.

So, what are you focusing on?

(And by the way, here is Ms. Heffernan’s point: if you focus on one aspect of anything, you miss the other aspects. That leads to blindness–blindness that leads to big, big problems.)

Randy Mayeux

Contributed by:
Randy Mayeux
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 2

Cookingham Connection - Rafael BWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 2nd guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Rafael Baptista, an intern for Catawba County, North Carolina.

Guidepost #2:

Formal acts of the council become public policy, and you as city manager must always do your best to translate these policies into action. You should do this in a manner to best realize the intent of the council. In some cases, you may not agree with the policy, but it is your duty as city manager to carry out the policy to the best of your ability unless it is illegal or fraudulent.

Over the years, the role of the City/County manager has evolved. While the position perhaps was once more of an implementer of policy, I believe that the modern-day manager has to take on a much more active policy role.

The crux of LP Cookingham’s guidepost that the manager is not a policy maker remains true; but I believe that in this day and age, the manager must take on a heavier policy advisor role due to the increasingly complicated nature of local government issuesall while striving to maintain political neutrality and implement the will of the council.

The issues that local governments have to address are more complicated and technical than ever before. Councils are dealing less with ideological issues and more with decisions of which Internet provider to work with or what technological programs to invest in for improvements in efficiency.

Since the manager works closely with staffmany of whom are subject expertsthe manager has a unique base of knowledge and perspective to share with the council. The manager should not make policy, but rather advise the council on the implications of different decisions and help guide them through a process that allows them to make the decision they deem best. On more technical issues, the manager may want to be more involved in policy advising then in other issues.

However, the manager must completely respect the will of the council and remain politically neutral. The manager needs to know his/her council and how they view different issues. While not avoiding the important issues and potential solutions, the manager must be careful to work with the council in a way that allows him/her to be a sound policy adviser while developing and maintaining strong council relations.

Once the council makes a decision, the role of the manager is implement the policy in a way that most closely reflects the will of the council. They have to be careful to ensure that even if they disagree with the council decision, any disagreement remains professional and as private as possible.

In summary, the crux of this guidepost remains, but managers are increasingly taking on the role of policy adviser in addition to policy implementer.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

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