Monthly Archives: October, 2014

Thinking Straight in the Age of Overload

Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting, and at the same time, we are all doing more.
The standard account for many years was that working memory and attention hit a limit at around five to nine unrelated items. More recently, a number of experiments have shown that the number is realistically probably closer to four.
One American household studied had more than 2,260 visible objects in just the living room and two bedrooms.
– Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind

The quotes above are just a small sampling of the insights from Daniel Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Overload.

The book is not quite a “how-to” book. It’s more like a “think about your own how-to strategy book. He gives principles and guidelines, which I tried to capture in my takeaways.

Here’s what I perceived as his overview of the problem that we all face:

The problem: too much stuff!

  1. We have too much actual stuff.
  2. We have too much “cognitive” stuff
  3. We have too much “digital” stuff.

The problems:

  • Encoding (input) — so much wrong, or unnecessary; and Retrieval – the bigger problem

Some overall “organization rules” proposed by the author:

  1. A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  2. If there is an existing standard, use it.
  3. Don’t keep what you can’t use.

And here are my lessons and takeaways:

  1. Information overload is a genuine problem. And growing – rapidly.
  1. To survive information overload, you need a system (that works for you). Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, “categorize,” and be easy to retrieve.
  1. Thus, to survive information overload, don’t forget the basics, like: to-do lists and 3×5 cards. (Maybe, beware of “technology” only).
  1. To survive information overload, you may have to become much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices.
  1. To survive information overload, give up on multitasking. Instead, become fanatical about focused work. Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  1. To survive information overload, organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is exhausting, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Randy Mayeux

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

Keep Your Cool in a Crisis—It Makes a Difference

It was a slow news day at my old station a few years ago, and the 5 p.m. newscast was about 15 minutes from starting. The producer went into the control booth, but came out as if he had seen a ghost.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The console isn’t working,” he answered in disbelief.

“What do you mean it’s not working?” I responded.

A bit panicked, he said, “The director says that no videos will play and no graphics will show up, and I have about 10 minutes until my newscasts starts!”

He then took a deep breath, walked back into the control booth, informed the on-air talent about the issue, and said, “I know this isn’t ideal, but we still have to broadcast a great show.”

I watched the show on one of the TV monitors. For a newscast that had absolutely no added visual elements, it went pretty well.

Months later, the console went down again. (Technology is great, isn’t it?) This time, a different producer was affected. He started cursing, yelling, and complaining about the station’s faulty equipment. The thought of a show that had no visuals repulsed him. His show didn’t go so well. In fact, the channel stayed on black for a good two minutes, and the whole crew left the studio completely frazzled.

It’s amazing what having a calm attitude can do in the midst of a crisis.

You’re able to breathe and think about the next actions to take, you can communicate better, and you can maintain a professional demeanor.

Besides, have you ever tried working for a supervisor who loses it at the first sign of trouble? It’s hard to have confidence in a person like that.

The true makeup of a leader comes to light in difficult times. So, no matter how chaotic you feel on the inside, pull yourself together and put up a strong front for your team. Your strength will empower the rest of your team to pull through.

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm. – Willa Cather

I agree with Willa 100%. But I would tweak the quote a bit and say:

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm. But even when you’re in the storm, keep calm.

You can quote me on that one…

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

4 Warning Signs No Leader Should Ignore

In the first couple of leadership positions that I held, I saw firsthand how detrimental it can be to an organization to reward dysfunctional behavior. Because of those experiences, I developed a bias against over-reacting to employees or stakeholders who seemed oversensitive.

For good or bad, I am pretty task-oriented as a leader, and my default response to office gossip or veiled complaints has been to note them internally, but ignore them externally. Like a fire without oxygen, the issue will usually resolve itself and fade out.

Overall, that’s been a strategy that has worked well. However, like anything else, if taken too far, any strategy can become unproductive. In other words, there are times when you need to respond with more than mere acknowledgment.

Here are four things that every leader should address when he/she sees them.

  1. Perplexing Priorities
    It’s been said that the organization that has “many” priorities doesn’t really have “any” priorities. While each item’s urgency and importance may be very clear to you, it’s not a given that it is that clear to everyone else. So, when your team starts to feel that everything that comes along is of equal importance and equal urgency, you have a problem that only you can addressand you need to do it quickly.
    Your team needs you to keep the focus clearly fixed upon the priorities. There will always be new ideas, new problems, and issues; and at times, the new thing will rise to the top of the priority list. However, if every new idea immediately goes to the top of the list, it won’t be long until your team not only feels overwhelmed, they will also be reluctant to give it their all because they know it is only a matter time before that priority is replaced by the next one.
  1. Fatigue
    I’m not talking about the kind of fatigue that comes from staying up too late every night. I mean the fatigue that comes from the energy it takes to work hard on something that is urgent and important, but not easily nor quickly completed. Usually the more important or impactful a project is, the longer it takes to complete it, the more complex it is, the more “uncontrollable” factors there are to address, and the more opposition there is to it from others.
    After a while, it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. That’s why one of the key things a leader must do is encourage people’s hearts. Leaders put courage into people’s hearts, and they do it individually, creatively, and repeatedly because courage leaks out of even your most ardent supporters.
  1. No One Listens to Me
    Here’s where a leader needs great discernment. You have to be careful to distinguish between chronic whining and genuine frustration. The former is dysfunctional; the latter is a warning sign. No one gets their way every time in any organization, and mature people don’t have to get their way every time. They still give their all even when the team goes in a different direction than they wanted.
    However, every person needs to be heard; and when devoted team members begin to feel that their views aren’t even considered, you have a problem. A lot of leaders tell me that listening to others is one of their worst flaws. My guess is that this is one of the main reasons why such a large part of the American workforce is not engaged. Leaders must listen to their team.
  1. Us Against Them
    At first, this may seem like a rather benign issue, and maybe even a beneficial attitude for motivation. The media loves sports teams who play with a “chip on their shoulder” because they don’t get respect or they want revenge. However, it’s not a good approach to cultivate or tolerate this in the workplace. Today’s business world, in both the private and the public sector, calls for collaboration and cooperation.
    Successful organizations need collaboration within the team—as well as with customers and other stakeholders. Fostering an “us against them” culture is poisoning to the team’s chemistry. Also, it is not sustainable for long-term health because the definition for both “us” and “them” is always changing. Here’s what I’ve noticed happens: some who start in the “us” get moved to the “them,” but those who start as “them” never become “us.” Eventually, the numbers just don’t add up.

Mike Mowery

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

A Valuable Leadership Team Meeting Exercise

There are a lot of meetings that waste a lot of time. And they feel like a waste of time. And, maybe they are, because little is accomplished in far too many meetings.

But, the evidence is cleareffective meetings can really lead to progress.

So… what to do?

There are a lot of “approaches” to reach the goal. That goal: for a team to have an effective meeting. A meeting that moves the group, and the organization, forward.

And what is an effective meeting? How about this? An effective meeting is a meeting that identifies the “what’s next” very effectively, and then provides clear marching orders to accomplish “what’s next.”

Those “what’s next” conversations are critical. And, there are a number of ways to arrive at the “what’s next” that a group needs. Here’s one approach. Frequently, the “what’s next” is the idea that:

  • We need to START DOING – something we are not yet doing.
  • We need to STOP DOING – something that we are doing.
  • We need to CONTINUE (KEEP) DOING – something we are doing (but maybe, with some improvementsor maybe among more people and groups throughout the organization.).


(Here’s a Gazelles worksheet to help you work through this leadership team meeting exercise).

Whatever your situation, I suspect that well-run, purposeful meetings will help you make progress.

How are your meetings going?

Randy Mayeux

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

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 12

Cookingham Connection - John MWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what the city administrator of Gardner, Kansas had to say about Cookingham’s 12th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of John McCarter. John is the Management Assistant for the City of Sugar Land, Texas. He earned his Master of Public Administration from Oakland University.

Guidepost #12:

Work hard to gain and keep the full confidence of the council and the respect of your department heads, and your job will be easier. The confidence of the council is of utmost importance in doing a successful job.

This is solid life advice from Cookingham. I have always seen confidence and respect as a result of not only growth and positive action, but also from conducting yourself and your organization in an honest and genuine fashiontrust being the glue that holds it all together. Even if you get incredible results, you won’t gain anyone’s confidence or respect if they cannot trust what you’re saying or trust that you’re running your organization with integrity.

Having never sat in the manager’s seat, my thoughts can only come from what I have observed from managers I have worked for; all of whom I believe have exemplified this guidepost.

A few years back when I had my first internship in a city manager’s office, I remember being surprised at how city council communicated with the manager’s office. Everything requested by one council member went to every council member. Everything from e-mails to reports to the all-important weekly Council packet was shared with everyone. I’ve seen this, in varying degrees and forms, in every Manager’s Office since. At the time, I saw it as unnecessary. You know that most of the time the only person interested in the information is the person asking for it, so why give it to everyone?

As time progressed, I began to see the dynamics of working with Council, and I saw the power of this shared information. Sure, addressing questions outside of council meetings saves time and can shorten up meetings; but more than that, when the entire body is operating off of the same information, they can move forward as one. No one is privy to information someone else does not have. This open and honest communication, to me, is the fundamental basis confidence and trust are built on.

Cookingham also talks about the importance of respect from department heads. I would even take this one step further and apply it to the entire staff. Different people approach relationships in different ways; everyone has their own management style, but trust remains a key component. I’ve been lucky enough to work for managers who have had excellent relationships with their departments heads built on trust. Disagreements are inevitable; but at the end of the day, we are all playing for the same team. Having faith in management to make important decisions is crucial.

Respect and confidence are built on trust, which comes from being open, honest, and genuine in your everyday interactions. When I first started here in Sugar Land, I was given the advice, “Dishonest people might shoot to the top quickly, but they are always found out and rarely last long.” The dynamics between managing staff and Council relations are very complex and something I’ve enjoyed observing and learning about over my career. The only solid conclusion I have drawn thus far is that the whole thing can fall apart if no one trusts each other.

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 – 12

Cookingham Connection - Cheryl LWe’re in the 12th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Cheryl Harrison-Lee. She is the City Administrator for the City of Gardner, Kansas and started her career in municipal government in 1984. She obtained her master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of South Carolina.

Guidepost #12

Work hard to gain and keep the full confidence of the council and the respect of your department heads, and your job will be easier. The confidence of the council is of utmost importance in doing a successful job.

Do you have a minute? What an innocent question, and one that invariably always lasts so much longer than 60 seconds.

Do you take the opportunity for what it isa chance to build relationships and cultivate trust and communication? Or do you see it as just another interruption in an already over-committed day? I think we’d all have to honestly answer it can be more often the latter than the former. But we can turn these tugs on our time into productive and meaningful investments in our relationships with both elected officials and senior management staff.

L.P. Cookingham served for three decades as a city manager and was president of ICMA in 1940. He set forth his philosophy of management for the guidance of administrators in a 1956 PM article, offering 22 “guideposts.” Cookingham’s 12th guidepost may be nearly 60 years old, but it applies at least as much, if not more so, today.

As we all know, technical skills are only part of the toolkit of an effective city manager/administrator. Blending relationships, needs, personalities, competing agendas and limited resources can be more than challenging. One of the ways to keep everything moving smoothly and seamlessly is to create an environment of trust and competence. And the first step toward creating that environment is listening.

Endless conversations, meetings and phone calls feel like such a drain on our productivity, but we must remember that these contacts and interactions build the bedrock of effective relationships. Elected officials and senior management staff alike sometimes just need to be heard. Fostering an environment of communication and interaction builds a foundation of trust and honesty.

Take that minute, or two or ten, and just listen. Then, cut off the interaction with an acknowledgement of what was said and an offer to circle back later if the issue merits continued discussionat a scheduled time, rather than as a drive-by meeting. Once your audience feels heard, they may not need resolution, or may be more willing to wait until resolution is possible. “Just listen” is such an easy thing to say. But we all want to fix and improve and respond, which isn’t always possible in those two-minute conversations, and isn’t always necessary.

Practice just listeningit’s one of the most important communication tools we have, and can lead to confident and respect-filled relationships.

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.

4 Things You Must Do When You Fail (Not If, But When…)

What goes up must come down, right? We just don’t want to be the ones “it” comes down on.

But as much as we try to avoid it, failure happens.

That massive campaign wasn’t executed properly. Or maybe you bombed your presentation. Perhaps you’re the one who dropped the ball and missed deadline on that team project.

Whatever the circumstance is—big or small—failure is going to happen. So instead of living as a paranoid perfectionist trying to escape the inevitable, prepare yourself with the four things to do when that time comes.

  1. Accept it.
    This isn’t the time to make excuses and point fingers. You messed up. Own it. If apologies are in order, give one (or two… or three). The sooner you take responsibility for your shortcomings, the sooner you’ll be on your way to making this mistake a thing of the past.
  1. Learn from it.
    After you realize that you failed, analyze how so that you don’t do it again. Should you have set a reminder on your calendar? Maybe you realized a weakness in your teammate and won’t assign them to certain tasks anymore. Either way, mistakes will happen. But as the saying goes, “You can’t make the same mistake twice. The second time you make it, it’s a choice.” Equip yourself with the information to not become a repeat offender.
  1. Move on.
    Don’t be a prisoner to your mistake for too long. That will just foster unnecessary guilt and pressure inside of you. You may have had to ask for forgiveness in the “accept it” stage, but you really need to forgive yourself also. Let it go, and don’t be so hard on yourself. Life is a learning experience, so add this one to your “experience bank” and keep on striving for greatness.
  1. Share it.
    This is the step that separates leaders from mere managers. Now that you’ve been through a failure, pass on the knowledge to someone else that needs it to prevent that person from making the same wrong move. As a leader, it shows that you’re open about your experiences and you care about the well-being of others. Only an immature person in a position of power would sit back and internally snicker in hopes that someone else will make the same mistake.

“The only failures are those who fail to try.” – Lester Pearson

Failing doesn’t make you a failure. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes—just know how to deal with them appropriately when they happen.

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

How to Build Your Team

Whether you get to “build” your team or if your team is given to you, every leader has to build his/her team. In fact, leaders who have the privilege of choosing their team, but who neglect to build their team, will be less successful than the leader who inherits a team that he or she faithfully builds.

So, how should you build your team?

  1. Expose your team to extraordinary leaders.
    Whether that’s through books, TED Talks, blogs, or personal appearances, it can inspire your team when they have the chance to interact with accomplished leaders. They may or may not be leaders in the same industry in which your team operates, but your team can translate the principles into their own areas. It builds creativity, and one of the side benefits of seeking out leaders for your team to learn from is that it keeps you, as a leader, learning too. Remember: learners are leaders, and leaders are learners!
  1. Give your team the opportunity to do the hard things.
    You may not find things to be difficult, but remember that there was a time when you didn’t know how to operate as easily as you do now. Someone probably gave you a chance. Maybe it’s time you gave someone else that same chance. No matter how many advances we make in technology, there will always be a place in good organizations for a leader who can develop other people’s talents.
  1. Share your experiences and perspective.
    Don’t be arrogant, but if you have reached a position of leadership in your city or organization, it’s likely that you’ve had some experiences, and you’ve learned some things that would be helpful to share with your team. Don’t be afraid to share what you know. Some leaders think that keeping information to themselves is like an ace in the hole. On the other hand, having a well-informed team of leaders is like holding four aces. Which would you rather have?
  1. Develop the team’s camaraderie.
    That may sound like something that’s too “touchy-feely” to be worth your time, but you might be surprised at what a difference team camaraderie makes. Research indicates that if you want employees to be fully engaged, there are three relationships that must be healthy and positive. Leave one of them out, and engagement drops dramatically. The first is that they must have a relationship of mutual respect with their supervisor. Second, they must have a sense of pride in the work that they do. Third, they must have a sense of camaraderie with their fellow employees. If you want fully engaged employees, it’s foolish to look at building camaraderie as being beneath you.

Mike Mowery

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

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 11

Cookingham Connection - Will NWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what the county manager of Catawba County, North Carolina had to say about Cookingham’s 11th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Will Norris. Will is the Special Projects Coordinator for the City of Long Beach, California’s Police Department. He earned his Master of Business Administration from Willamette University.

Guidepost #11:

Never forget that you are a servant of the people, and instill that philosophy in each of your employees. If you find one who cannot understand this philosophy, remove him for he will be no good to you or to the city. If you ever get the idea that you are ruler, you, also, will be no good to the city or to the form of government.

L.P. Cookingham’s 11th Guidepost most directly addresses the philosophy behind the council-manager form of government. Last week, Tom Lundy wrote about what this philosophy says about the privilege, opportunity, and the responsibility inherent in the position of a City Manager. He also noted the increased expectation of transparency since L.P. Cookingham wrote the guidepost. My educational background is in business administration. Because of this, my essay focuses on the similarities and differences of the governance philosophy of public corporations and council-manager municipal governments, and how new managers can adapt these structures to the 21st century.

The governance structure of council-manager cities and publicly-traded corporations are nearly identical and serve similar purposes. The governing board represents a voting membership and directs an executive officer who is responsible for operating the enterprise on a daily basis. This structure was developed to align the interests of the organization with its equity holders and also ensure professional management. The equity holders in a corporation are shareholders. Identifying a City’s equity holders is a more difficult question. In this guidepost, L.P. Cookingham defines who the City serves as “the people.”

Determining how to best serve “the people” is a complex, and in my opinion, more interesting question than how to maximize corporate shareholder wealth. Corporations have clear metrics to organize and direct resources. Sales growth, profit margins, and return-on-investment provide objective measures to evaluate the effectiveness of a corporate executive officer. In local government, there is no yard stick to measure the value of library services against police patrol. A City Council is the best mechanism developed to-date to express the priorities of the community. This week’s guidepost is a reminder that the true “owners” of a City are “the People,” and that is who we as public professionals serve.

The construct of an elected governing board directing professional management is a structure which has withstood the test of time, but is also increasingly challenged by contemporary issues. The council-manager form was developed during the progressive era of the early 1900s and hasn’t changed significantly since. Regional governance, reliance on outside funding sources, and a heightened regulatory environment test the fundamental premise of the structure. Namely “the people” who city management serves is circumscribed by the bounds of their jurisdiction. The mesh of funding sources cities rely on, and the legal mandates which must be met, mean that City Managers have a much larger constituency to consider.

Adapting local government to this changing environment is a challenge facing the next generation of public managers. A recent budget hearing comment encapsulates the issue at hand. During this meeting, a citizen commented, “I don’t know why you always want the public to pay for these services. Why don’t you use your government money?” This anecdote illustrates how the complexity of municipal government financing has far exceeded the original context of the council-manager form. When direct services are funded by sources outside the community from grants, the grantors become important stakeholders. When grant funds end, the community suffers the consequence of either discontinuing valued services, or paying for them locally. Grant funds from other agencies often mask the true cost of services for residents.

Tom Lundy’s guidepost #11 reflection noted that, “Today’s public administrator has to be adept at sharing instead of guarding information, and collaborating across boundaries instead of working in isolation.” I believe this statement is the key to adapting the council-manager form of government for the next one hundred years. Transparency, collaboration, and clear communication are essential to building trust and understanding with those we serve and recognizing that our new constituencies exceed the boundaries of our communities.

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.

Do You Have the Heart of a Leader?

ReBlog Header - How We Lead

I’ve worked with thousands of leaders over the years and the most successful ones achieve results while acting with respect, care, and fairness for the well-being of everyone involved.

Many companies put pressure on leaders to reach or surpass goals at any cost. But wise companies realize that leaders who can achieve results by creating a motivating work environment are the leaders who will sustain future success.

What’s the secret behind this kind of leader? I think truly effective leadership begins on the inside—with your heart.

Leading from your heart is about leadership character and intention, which form the backbone of servant leadership. As a leader, you must ask yourself why you lead. Is it to serve or to be served? Answering this question in a truthful way is so important.

You can’t fake being a servant leader. I believe that if leaders don’t get the heart right, they simply won’t ever become servant leaders.

The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest that looks at the world as a “give a little, take a lot” proposition. Leaders with hearts motivated by self-interest put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of those who are affected by their thoughts and actions.

Leaders with a servant heart believe their role is to bring out the best in others. They thrive on developing people and helping them achieve their goals. They constantly try to find out what their people need to perform well. Being a servant leader is not just another management technique. It is a way of life for those with servant hearts.

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