We’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 7th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Anthony Hooper. Anthony is the support services supervisor for the City of Lake Oswego, Oregon. Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) also credits Anthony for the organization’s continued growth.
Don’t let any problems frighten you, for there is a logical solution to each one you have to face. If they seem too tough for today, let them go until tomorrow whenever possible, for then they will seem simpler. The problems that concern you today may be completely forgotten in a week or two.
L.P. Cookingham was a City Manager during the Great Depression. It is in this context that guidepost seven carries so much weight with me. Mr. Cookingham urges everyone to not let any problems frighten them. This surprises me because the Great Depression vignettes contained within The Grapes of Wrath were far more terrifying than the clowns, dogs, or cars that scurry in any of Steven King’s classics; and those problems certainly frighten me. As Allen Barnes mentions in his guidepost response, “We must accept the problems and face them head on.” Sometimes that may require that we take the cowardly lion’s medal of courage out of the desk drawer, dust it off, and tackle the problem ferociously—even if the problem happens to be a supernatural clown.
While we are certainly not at Great Depression levels of poverty, there are still plenty of problems that face cities today. I recommend logging on to YouTube to watch the documentary American Winter. This 2013 film explores poverty issues facing Oregon families. As stated in the documentary, 26% of Oregonians live in a condition of asset poverty, which essentially means that one out of four people are living paycheck-to-paycheck and will run out of things to sell after three months of trying to survive while not working. As government leaders, I think it is particularly helpful to know that a sizable portion of our citizens are living on the edge financially. This lack of financial security for citizens usually manifests itself to city managers in bite-sized problems. One area that seems to be a boiling point is utility billing.
One example of a citizen’s financial troubles bubbling over at the utility billing counter was illustrated quite well in Scott Lazenby’s response to guidepost five where he describes a story that he heard from another city manager. In this story, a citizen was recently laid off, did not pay her utility bill, and her water was turned off. The citizen vociferously refused to pay the “turn on” water fee and it caused a lot of consternation for a number of staff members. In the end, the problem was solved by the city manager who paid for the fee out of pocket. In my opinion, that was a simple and compassionate solution. I strongly believe that compassion is a very important ingredient to problem solving. One other YouTube video that I recommend watching is This is Water, which is nine minutes long and based off of a David Foster Wallace speech. I learned of this video from Kirsten Wyatt, co-founder of ELGL, and it has been very helpful in reminding me to be compassionate when approaching problems and when interacting with the people who sometimes bring those problems forward.
In this guidepost, Mr. Cookingham suggests that we let problems sit if they seem too difficult. In Mr. Barnes response, he states “There are a relatively few number of problems that present themselves that cannot be put off.” I agree. If the problem is not easily solvable, then I let whoever brought it to my attention know that I will get back to them in a certain time frame, and I take at least one day. I do my very best problem solving between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., which is the first hour of the day after I wake up. One of the reasons for this is that while I am sleeping, my subconscious is hard at work. There is science to suggest that by focusing on the issue before you go to sleep, you can enable your subconscious to act similarly to a city recorder. Your are basically taking the large pile of experiences and facts surrounding a particular problem and considering each one as it is sorted into a filing system in your brain. Before this occurs, we are more likely to only look at the facts and experiences that are at the top of the pile.
In Mr. Barnes’ response, he also states that his professional network of colleagues are essential in providing insight into a potential solution. I would add that talking with employees and co-workers within your organization is key because they will offer up a unique perspective. As Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I have solved many of my most difficult problems by gaining input from multiple angles because my perspective is only one of many. Plus, the added benefit of talking about solutions with your supervisees and co-workers is that you may gain buy-in.
Lastly, I try my best to view problems as a good thing. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive that signed Jackie Robinson, once said, “Problems are the price you pay for progress.” Here is hoping that my career be always filled with problems.
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.