Emerging Generations in Local Government – 21

We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what Town Manager Pete Olson had to say about Cookingham’s 21st guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Ryan Adams. Ryan is the Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Irving, Texas. He holds an MPA from the University of North Texas.


Guidepost #21:

Always think of the City in which you work as your city.  Participate in civic movements for its betterment and, above all, live in your city.

In the time I’ve taken to reflect on L.P. Cookingham’s 21st guidepost, I’ve had to reconcile the fact that I’m not in strict adherence to its instruction. I do not live in the city in which I work. The last part of the guidepost sticks out more than any other, giving almost direct instruction, and indicating this is what Mr. Cookingham felt was the cornerstone of the tenet.

If you don’t live in your city, can it truly be your city? I also have to wonder if the directive to live in your city is relevant for the current state of local government management. Is it relevant for this generation of managers? Is it applicable to the new context of urban, suburban, and rural governments?

It stands to reason that emerging leaders could find this advice difficult to follow. Those new to the profession understand that even in the best of circumstances, a one-city tenure as long as Cookingham’s (19 years in Kansas City) won’t be the norm. In a thirty year career, an up-and-coming manager could reasonably expect to change organizations 4-5 times, perhaps more as opportunities to grow arise and new professional challenges emerge. The manager would be well aware of the effects that uprooting a home and a life so often could have on his family for instance.

Spouses being forced to changes commutes or careers, children changing schools, a close network of friends and family growing distant. In many cases, moving won’t be avoidable when a new position is taken. In other cases however, moving is avoidable, and in those cases, one is forced to balance the needs of the job versus the needs of the family.

Finances may also weigh heavy in making the decision to live in “your city.” There are several small communities in Texas where the median home value is 5-6 times the annual city manager salary. The city managers are simply priced out of their own towns. As a profession we also have to recognize the fact that during Cookingham’s tenure as City Manager of Kansas City, city managers were typically men, and typically the breadwinner of the household. Gender changes in the workplace, leading to greater salary equity in the household, have had the logical result that city managers may not be the highest household earners. Though I’m not yet a city manager, I am a walking testament to that fact. As an accountant, my wife knows that the bacon I bring home won’t quite match up to hers in the near future.

A final thought: given that there is an expected change of 4-5 organizations within a career, it makes sense for emerging managers to remain flexible in determining where to live. This sentiment is compounded if the emerging manager lives within a large metropolitan area.

Given the growth of not only 1st tier, but 2nd, 3rd and Nth tier suburbs since the time of Cookingham, a person could spend a career in different cities, all within an hour’s drive of each other. Furthermore, many people within large metropolitan areas live in one city, work in another, and spend their free time in neither of the first two. In the metropolitan ecosystem, a person’s attachment and affection isn’t tied to the city where they sleep or own a home.

Should the evolution of the family, the workplace, and the metropolitan dynamic change how we view this guidepost? My response is wholeheartedly yes. It should change how we view the guidepost, how we apply the guidepost, but not the guidepost itself.  Cookingham knew, just as we all know, that we form attachments to those things that are near to us. The ideal circumstance for each of us is for the cities in which we live, work, and play to be the same. The ability to live in your city is desirable, perhaps the most desirable circumstance for a manager. However, making the decision to live in your city will always be weighed against a myriad of other factors.

Up to this point, I’ve not spoken on the first portion of Cookingham’s 21st guidepost. This portion directs you to make the city yours and give more than just your professional efforts in its progress and improvement. At the heart of the guidepost, I think we are instructed to connect to the soul of the city. Do this even if you aren’t fortunate enough to live there.

  1. Foster a connection to its people. Instead of calling a resident to address an issue, visit them and see the problem from their eyes. Shop locally before heading home and meet the businesses and business owners outside of an official capacity.
  2. Be involved. The first post on this guidepost had great advice—coaching youth recreation, fundraising for charities, serving on a civic board.
  3. Make commitments that tie your wellbeing to the wellbeing of the city. Ensure that as you thrive, the city thrives and vice versa.
  4. Participate in significant events. Significant events tie the members of a community together though a common experience.  When you were a kid, your grandparents likely didn’t live with you and very likely didn’t even live in the same city or state. But they were there for all of your life’s important events. They were there for your birthdays, recitals, football games, kindergarten Christmas performances, graduations, etc. Did you ever question that grandma and grandpa weren’t invested in you? The same is true for your residents. Celebrate the successes and suffer the challenges with them and you will be one of them.

Even if you can’t reside in the city in which you work, by being present when it’s important, connecting to its people, and understanding the soul of the city—you can certainly live there.


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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