Emerging Generations in Local Government – 17

We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what ICMA Senior Advisor Kurt Bressner had to say about Cookingham’s 17th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Brian Southey. Brian is a Management Analyst for Elk Grove Village. He earned his MPA from the University of Illinois at Springfield .


Guidepost #17:

Never put in writing anything you can’t prove. Someday someone might embarrass you with it.

In Mr. Bressner’s piece discussing L.P.  Cookingham’s 17th Guidepost, he explained the impact of Cookingham’s “Food for Thought: Guidepost for City Managers” on his career. Mr. Bressner carried, as he describes, a yellowed 1975 paper edition with him for over 33 years throughout his multiple career stops.  On the other end of the career spectrum is where I stand; in roughly the past 10 months, I have been introduced to the Guidepost for the first time and watched my local government career move from a Management Internship to a full-time Analyst position. Throughout those 10 months, I have had the chance to read about L.P. Cookingham the person, his accomplishments, and study his Guideposts.

As an emerging local government employee I am always eager for the opportunity to learn new theories and perspectives about local government leadership. The ELGL Cookingham Guidepost series has been one of those opportunities. Every week has been a new chance to compare my views on a Guidepost with the fresh perspectives of both an established and emerging manager’s views. It has been exciting to read Guidepost reviews that differ from the principals and examples I had originally formed. I approached this week no differently. I decided I would study the Guidepost and form my own beliefs before I read the thoughts of the established manager, Mr. Bressner.

After originally reading through all of L.P. Cookingham’s Guidepost and eventually focusing on the 17th Guidepost—Never put in writing anything you can’t prove. Someday someone might embarrass you with it—I began to consider the stories I’d heard about individuals working in the government arena either lying or bending the truth on resumes, reports, speeches, memos, and more.  All the instances I was associating with the 17th Guidepost were those of unethical people performing in unethical ways.  Each example of what I had believed illustrated the 17th Guidepost was an instance where someone performed in a manner to further their own careers, agendas, or policies ahead of the betterment of the people they served.  I began thinking back to the classes I took on ethics during graduate school and especially about the importance of following the ICMA Code of Ethics. Then I read Mr. Bressner’s take on the Guidepost and my perspective on the core principals of the 17th Guideline were changed for the better.

Focusing on the ethical issues I perceived to be the core principals of the 17th Guidepost I missed the brilliance of L.P. Cookingham’s work. Mr. Bressner perfectly demonstrated the transcendence of the original “Food for Thought: Guidepost for City Managers”. Tying the 17th Guidepost to social media showed that even as the Guidepost gets ready to turn 60 years old, it remains as relevant today as it did in 1956. With the help of Mr. Bressner and Mr. Cookingham, I recognized three areas I need to pay close attention to as I continue to grow my career.

1)“Brevity does not offer structure for including an extensive recap of facts and contexts.”
I am guilty of occasionally communicating in short messages and not conveying my full thoughts on subjects, policies, and projects. When using e-mail, text, or Twitter I too often focus on quickly creating a short message and fail to gauge the effectiveness of the message in conveying my ideas. As digital communication becomes a bigger part of the workplace around me, I need to ensure that I treat digital communication techniques with the same level of professionalism I would a personal meeting, formal letter, or memo.

2)The Importance of a facts cabinet
I will not always have the time to write a 1,000 word e-mail or memo with cited facts and I also cannot ignore the fact that there is a time and a place where text and Twitter are effective forms of communication. When using a short form of communication, I need to be sure that the message I am conveying is thoughtful, honest, and supported by evidence.  When evidence is not supported directly in a message, it still needs to be available to my audience in a transparent manner.

3)Credibility as a Manager
Ignoring an effective communication process is sure to guarantee my time working in the public sector will be brief. The less effective I am at communicating with my coworkers, supervisors, council members, and the community I serve, the less likely I will be to succeed.

Mr. Bressner did a tremendous job displaying principals we can all follow for the rest of our careers.  With help from established leaders like him and guidance from documents such as L.P. Cookingham’s “Food for Thought: Guidepost for City Managers” I hope to one day reflect on my own decades of service in the public sector.


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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