Category Archives: Cookingham Blog Series

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.

Bridging the Generations in Local Government – 21

We’re in the 21st week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Pete Olson. He is the Assistant Town Manager for the City of Yorktown, Indiana,  a position he has held since July 2009. Prior to that, he was the city’s Deputy Town Manager. He holds an MPA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.


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.    

I thought I had the writing of this article finished. Then I read the latest PM magazine on my way to Michigan for some quality in-law time and I had to go back and reflect on life in the fishbowl. Specifically the “On Point” feature asking four current managers the question, “What’s one thing your job doesn’t allow you to do that you wish you could do?” Three of the four individuals spent their time discussing the very public nature of our profession and how that impacts personal time, personal life, and the guarded nature of personal relationships that managers may build. I don’t think any of the individuals meant it to be negative, but yet, as I read the responses, I wondered aloud, “are we too connected to our communities?” It is true our names appear in the papers, are heard on the radio, or our neighbors see us on TV. I, like most managers, realize that being known is a simple fact of life; it’s also important to remember that sometimes that incidental contact is the only contact an individual or family will have with their government.

In my fifteen years of professional management I have always chosen to live in the community in which I work and would not change that. The people I work with and work for are my friends and neighbors; they are people that I respect and love. I have chosen communities that would be considered rural or suburban by most people’s definition. Perhaps you gravitate toward those types of areas when you grew up in a place where the rival football team was a two hour bus ride away and you counted more cows than houses on the trip. But it also could be that smaller communities have a family feel. You are able to sympathize and empathize with people and their struggles as well as celebrate their victories and accomplishments.

There are both positives and negatives in being a part of a community, whatever the size. A quick trip to the store might mean an extended visit with a citizen or two. A bike ride to the local ice cream shop might mean an encounter with an individual or family that is having an issue.  It also means that the drive to work could offer opportunities to notice problems in town that can be dealt with before they become public issues. Living in your community is a clear sign that you are in tune with the day-to-day small issues that can sometimes get lost when dealing with policy decisions, budgets, and the like. In today’s world of social media notification, Google alerts, and constant connectivity, there are tools that may not absolutely require the necessity of living within the confines of your city or town in order to manage it. However, connecting on a personal level with issues affecting your neighbors is critical to gauging the pulse of the community. You can’t get that solely from a text message or Facebook post.

Now that being said, I won’t lie, my wife and I go grocery shopping at 7:00 AM on Sunday morning. It is quality time for us and even more amazing is how empty the store is at 7:00 AM on Sunday morning. The point being that there are times when I choose to try to act inconspicuous—avoiding interaction to save time or to minimize risk of chance meetings. While I don’t advocate arranging your schedule to always avoid interaction, I believe most people would understand and appreciate your need for space.

I will also tell you that we have chosen not to have kids and therefore my attendance at school events is limited. In the communities in which I have chosen to work, the school is a focal gathering point for the town. I can appreciate that managers who are parents may get questions or become the point of an unsuspecting “we’ll ask the Town Manager, because they know all the rules or laws off the top of their head” type questions. I believe it is in most public servants’ DNA to help, but is there a way to provide direction in your interactions in these situations that might pay off huge dividends in the long run? As we all know, government has many facets. If during these interactions we are able to educate folks on the proper department for answering questions, the public becomes more educated and able to solve the problem directly. Again, my point is that you are the face of a town or city government, but you aren’t the end-all to government questions. Sometimes people just need a little nudge in the right direction to deal with issues.

Being involved today can have many different meanings. It can mean volunteering as a coach/official, raising funds for the local charity, sitting on a church board, or just being out and visible at various community events. The important part is the feeling that your city is indeed “your city”. Your friends and neighbors will feel your commitment in whichever causes you choose to involve yourself. Your time is limited. I don’t believe there is an expectation that you need to be involved in every cause or issue, but being involved at any level in any cause leads to a stronger and more vibrant community. And, after all, isn’t the betterment of communities why we chose to be municipal managers in the first place?


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.

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 20

We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what Assistant City Manager Michelle Crandall had to say about Cookingham’s 20th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Ben McCready. Ben is the Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Rock Island, Illinois. He holds an MPA from Northern Illinois University.


Guidepost #20:

Keep your personal contacts with other city managers. The greatest compliment you can pay them is to ask how they handle a certain problem.

In a typical week, one million people migrate to call the world’s urban areas home. To think that all this occurs in a “business as usual” environment couldn’t be further from the truth. Just as the buildings and boundaries that define cities are constantly in flux, so too are the organizations and individuals a community relies upon most. As City Manager Michelle Crandall explained in her post last Friday, over our careers we build relationships with mentors, colleagues, and friends through shared experiences. Over time, mutual successes, challenges, and even failures build a foundation of trust and respect, enabling us to communicate clearly and ask the most important questions without hesitation. When well-maintained, this foundation is invaluable, permitting us the benefit of hearing what we need to, when we need to, from someone who has “been there”. When faced with challenges, it is far more preferable to rely on well-established connections than a desperate attempt to rekindle a neglected relationship.

The Mentor:

    Just like a city, the relationship with a mentor is ever-evolving. The mentee must recognize that context plays a role in every response. A mentor is not a static individual, they too learn and are shaped by experience (especially considering the fact that local elections continually change the landscape in which they operate). This, perhaps, speaks most directly to the words of Cookingham, for while an aspiring professional may have many questions, the wise mentor learns from their own responses as well. By maintaining the relationship, we afford those we respect the most an opportunity to share in the continual process of career development. While the willingness to ask is essential to beginning this relationship, the willingness to listen is key to its continued growth. By continually asking the right questions, we truly discover what a mentor has to offer.

The Colleagues:

    In a recent NPR segment the host discussed relationships, specifically how our longest relationships in life are typically those with our siblings. From a professional standpoint, it is apparent that it will be my peers, colleagues, and classmates I share this profession with the longest. Although we share similar motivations, as local government leaders we should not limit our connection to a group project, shared employer, or happenstance. Local government provides the same core services, yet each community uniquely tailors the provision of those services to its own circumstances. Without a willingness to discuss our successes and failures, we do a disservice to those we serve, operating without the benefit of shared knowledge. The connections with our colleagues should never wither at the expense of any hesitation to simply reach out and “ask”.

Friendship:

    Last Friday Michelle Crandall’s words couldn’t have been more spot-on: “The local government profession is one that presents challenges and stresses that often times only those also in the field truly understand”. While I have addressed the relationship with peers, something must also be said for recognizing a friendship. Friendships provide an opportunity to share not only frustrations, but an opportunity to listen. The ability to speak safely without fear of judgment is crucial to maintaining personal well-being in this dynamic career. As friendships form, veteran and aspiring professionals undoubtedly find true value in knowing that our concerns are not our own. There are, in fact, others who ponder the same dilemmas and have “been there” themselves.

In this incredible profession, where success is ever more dependent on our ability to balance the proven and innovative, it’s astonishing to realize how relevant L.P. Cookingham’s Guideposts remain. There are few things in the world of local government that remain so applicable to a veteran and emerging leader. In closing, I would echo Crandall’s call to action—“Start building and keep building strong professional relationships.” They are indeed an investment that not only benefits ourselves, but the organizations and communities we serve. While relationships with mentors, colleagues, and friends are ever-evolving, those we depend upon to help guide us may be one of the few constants we encounter in this exciting career.


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 – 20

We’re in the 20th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Michelle Crandall. She is the Assistant City Manager for the City of Dublin, Ohio,  a position she has held since July 2013. Prior to that, she was the city’s Director of Administrative Services. She holds an MPA from Ohio State University.


Guidepost #20

Keep your personal contacts with other city managers. The greatest compliment you can pay them is to ask how they handle a certain problem.    

This particular Cookingham guidepost has been of great relevance to me throughout my career. Over the past twenty-two years, there have been numerous occasions I’ve benefited from reaching out to a fellow manager for advice when faced with a difficult situation. Oftentimes, the advice I received changed my approach or perspective and ultimately improved the outcome. A few times, the advice has saved me from making a poor decision that could have negatively impacted my career.

Our contacts and relationships with fellow local government professionals are so critical to both our professional success and our personal well-being. Considering this professional and personal aspect, and expanding upon L.P. Cookingham’s guidepost, I would offer that we should strive to build relationships with other managers that include the following three types of “contacts”: mentors, colleagues, and friends.

Mentors:

    All of us, regardless of where we are in our careers, need a good mentor or group of mentors. Early on in our careers we should find someone we can meet with on a fairly routine basis that will offer us candid, constructive feedback. Mid and late career managers should also have someone to turn to as a sounding board, even if they also serve as a mentor to others. A great mentor isn’t afraid to tell us when we are headed off-course and is eager to join us in celebrating our successes.
    A great mentor also has a few battle scars to share and sage advice about what he or she has learned from personal past experiences. On the flip-side, a great mentee is open to receiving feedback and is ready to change behaviors based on that feedback.

Colleagues:

    Colleagues encompass the broader brushstroke of our local government networks. These are the managers in the adjoining communities and those that we have met at state and national association gatherings that we rely on regularly to “share shop” with and exchange ideas and information.
    From a professional standpoint, these connections are critical to building great communities. Our on-going contacts with colleagues allow us to understand best practices, lessons learned, and new perspectives. We should never be hesitant to reach out to another manager. As Cookingham notes in this guidepost, it is a call that will be well-received. In turn, we should always do our best to return the favor when asked for advice or information, giving such requests our full and timely attention.
    From a personal standpoint, these connections are important for career progression and professional opportunities. Your next career opportunity is likely to result because of strong relationships you have built with other local government managers.
    Building these relationship requires that we set-aside time in our schedules to attend area manager gatherings, as well as our state association and ICMA conferences. Beyond these structured settings, we should also make time to meet one-on-one with colleagues.  Some of my greatest ideas and insights have resulted from conversations over a cup of coffee with other local government managers. Don’t let your hectic schedule get in the way of cultivating these critical relationships.

Friends:

    The local government profession is one that presents challenges and stresses that oftentimes only those also in the field truly understand. When our family and friends can’t relate to the issues we face, this is when it is vital to have a small group of fellow managers we consider close friends. These are the relationships that allow us to reach out and share more personally with those we trust and that understand because “they have been there, too”. These are the relationships that provide us with a safe haven to vent when we are stressed, without the fear that we will be judged, and to share our excitement when we have successes, without the fear that we will be viewed as boastful. Of all of our relationships with other managers, these are the ones we should cherish and invest in the most.

Fifty-eight years after the publishing of L.P. Cookingham’s 1956 PM Magazine article, Guidepost #20 still rings true. We are here to support each other in this incredible profession we have chosen. So pick up the phone, get out the calendar, or send a note. Start building and keep building strong professional relationships. It is an investment that pays high dividends to all of us and 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.

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 19

We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what Interim City Manager Ed Wyatt had to say about Cookingham’s 19th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Vanessa Shrauner. Vanessa is the Development Coordinator for Odessa, Texas. She earned her MPA from Texas State University.


Guidepost #19:

Always remember that you will never get in trouble or be embarrassed by doing what is right. You may lose your job for standing up for what you think is right, but you’ll always get another and better job. Besides, you will be able to sleep soundly…

I would like to start by saying we never know what might “get us in trouble” or cause us embarrassment when it comes to working in municipal governments. Therefore, I would like to take a little liberty and rephrase Mr. Cookingham’s statement while hopefully keeping the intent. If you get in trouble or are embarrassed by doing what is right, it will quickly be relieved by a clear conscience. So, while you may lose your job, you will have maintained your integrity and values and typically employers respect that; therefore, you will get another job and it may be better. Good things happen to good people.

Doing what is right is typically aligned with staying true to one’s own core values. Core values are determined in a variety of ways in peoples’ lives, so values differ from person to person; therefore, doing what is “right” can differ from person to person. The best-case scenario in municipal government is that a manager’s core values are in line with decision/policy makers. This scenario makes maintaining a moral path easier in that basically everyone is on the same page. In doing what is right, the manager has the support of the decision makers.

Should the manager’s core values not be in line with the board or council, then staying true to one’s beliefs of right and wrong becomes more difficult. Here’s where the “you may lose your job” part comes in. Each individual must decide for themselves their limits on their integrity. If a council asks you to do something that you believe is not right, you have options. Most of us are members of organizations that protect us in ethical matters. However, there may still be instances where a request goes against one’s values and that leads to the firing or the voluntary resignation of a manager. In other times, the option may be to say/do nothing, depending on the circumstance. If saying or doing nothing does not violate your personal values and can still meet the needs of policy makers, it may be the most viable solution.

Another aspect I think is worth mentioning is being flexible, not with your personal values, but with your view of the values of others. I believe that trying to look at circumstances from the other side may warrant us adjusting or revisiting the limits of our values from time to time. Being that right and wrong can vary from person to person, there is another perspective for us to observe circumstances from. Things are not always as black and white as they may seem in the beginning and a little re-evaluation and introspection may give us the ability to compromise and reach a solution which works for all parties. I find this an integral part of the job I do on a daily basis. Now, not every decision is an ethical challenge, but the practice of seeing both sides of a situation allows me to exercise that skill when the stakes are higher.

Applying this in my career means knowing my values, knowing my manager’s values, and knowing where I can be flexible. I fully anticipate a conflict of values at some point in my career so, should I face the instance of losing my job for doing what I believe is right, I hope I can do so with my values and integrity intact. And I always hope I stay true to my core values because, as Mr. Wyatt said, I have to be able to live with myself.


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 – 19

We’re in the 19th week of our Cookingham Connection series. Today, we learn from a 34-year veteran of the city management profession: Ed Wyatt, who is currently serving as the interim city manager of Henderson, NC.


Guidepost #19

“Always remember that you will never get in trouble or be embarrassed by doing what is right.  You may lose your job for standing up for what you think is right, but you’ll always get another and better job.  Besides you will be able to sleep soundly….

As I pondered how to address this guidepost, I found myself agreeing with parts of the statement but questioning other parts. My 34-year career in city management was based on the foundation of doing what is right and standing up for what I thought was right. Although this principle never caused me to lose my job, it did often get me in trouble, make me start a job search because I saw the writing on the wall, and definitely caused some sleepless nights. The right path is not always the easiest or most strongly supported way. Yet in the field of local government, it should be what we strive for.

I had only been employed as the manager of one municipality for less than a year when an election markedly changed the composition of the council. The new council expressed informally that I fire two members of the leadership team based on council members’ personal feelings and possible negative remarks they were hearing in the community. From what I had been able to determine, the employees were competent and doing their jobs. I had no reason to fire them. I also knew that if I didn’t stand up to the council, it would set a precedent for other personnel matters. Luckily, the council backed off their position, I didn’t lose a job in less than a year, and I upheld my principles. Sleepless nights, yes, but they weren’t over whether what I had done was right.

It has often been said that every good manager will be fired at least once. This may be viewed as an overstatement but illustrates the hazards of the profession. Being fired is not something to be taken lightly. It comes with economic and emotional consequences. During my years in local government, employment agreements with severance provisions were not prevalent. Today, they help alleviate the economic impact of being dismissed. Some of those who are fired will find a new and/or better job in local government, others will take lesser jobs in the field, and some will decide that the profession is not for them.

Most importantly, however, whatever your career path, it is important to do what you know is right. When all is said and done, you have to be able to live with yourself.


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.

Emerging Generations in Local Government – 18

We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what Assistant City Manager Rick Usher had to say about Cookingham’s 18th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Josh Gregor. Josh is a Revenue and Taxation Specialist III with the city of Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon.


Guidepost #18:

Always take the chip off the complainant’s shoulder before you let him go. This will be a hard task in some cases, but use every resource at your command to make friends out of potential enemies.

My first job out of college was as a representative of the Arts Education and Access Income Tax in the City of Portland. Customer service-wise, it proved to be the equivalent of learning to swim in the deep end of the swimming pool. You won’t find more chips on shoulders or flat-out complaints than working the front-lines of a highly controversial income tax. During the peak time of the program the number of incoming phone calls one representative can experience in a day is in the triple digits. Most calls are informational and/or for the purpose of making a payment over the phone, but on occasion you get someone who is fired up and searching for an outlet for their frustration. In most circumstances, the reason for the hostility is solely based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the program; however, there are inevitably people who are going to contact you with a heavy chip on their shoulder.

It is very hard to take that chip off the complainant’s shoulder, but I believe in, and use, these three guidelines and always strive to maintain them when interacting with others, regardless of the circumstance:

Be Friendly – Try to never deviate from a friendly attitude and tone when you are carrying out a public service. Anything less makes it seem like you don’t care or are bothered by having to interact with them. I have experienced people who are seeking out an argument and if you display any sort of combativeness, the interaction will gradually escalate into something worse.

Be Helpful – Not everyone interprets information in the same way, so actively attempting to find the right solution is the key. There is always a solution. Even if the person just wants to be heard and understood, you can be helpful by providing them that opportunity and letting them know you understand their frustrations.

Be Confident – You have had the training and there are resources available to you. Heck, maybe you created the policy or program yourself. Any way you look at, you are in a position of authority. Sound and appear confident! Even if you aren’t 100% sure, you always have the option to find the exact resources and cite them word for word. Whether on the phone, through email, or in person, I will often place people on hold and locate the exact wording of city code to help me achieve the utmost level of confidence.

Keeping these three guidelines at the forefront of your mind can help prevent negative encounters and achieve what Cookingham was striving for in his 18th Guidepost—making friends out of potential enemies.


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 – 18

We’re in the 18th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Rick Usher. He is the assistant city manager for Kansas City, Missouri. Prior to that, he was the assistant to the city manager. Usher holds a B.S. in Construction Engineering Technology from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana.


Guidepost #18

” Always take the chip off the complainant’s shoulder before you let him go. This will be a hard task in some cases, but use every resource at your command to make friends out of potential enemies.

In my 29 years as a city employee, it has become clear that those in the community that act as if they have a chip on their shoulder are in this position because they feel slighted or alienated by not receiving attention that they are perceiving others may be getting at their expense.  In these cases, I try to make an extra effort to understand the source of the person’s complaints and create some connection on common ground. In Kansas City, there are really only 2 degrees of separation between you and someone you know in common with someone else. So, building a relationship through shared connections goes a long way towards building trust, assures them that their needs are being heard, and that any necessary action will be taken to resolve their complaints.

Most importantly – avoid putting a chip there in the first place. Find out how it got there. Find out if your staff has inadvertently provoked an issue. I was once actually accused of creating a customer’s problems because I was so easily able to resolve them. Often times, by empowering staff to collaborate to solve problems, the City Manager’s Office staff is guaranteed to be the hero because our role is to act as community problem solvers and relationship builders. Empowering your staff to resolve issues at the service level is one of the most powerful ways of avoiding unnecessary conflict.

Oftentimes, the chip on someone’s shoulder is being carried based on a poor perception of government services rather than actual experience. In these cases, go where your colleagues are avoiding and use your networking connections to make sincere contact. Showing up is 90% of community engagement success. The rest is follow-through. Identifying local civic groups that meet regularly and attending their meetings periodically—even when there is no agenda item with your name on it—helps to build relationships that will stand through any crisis that may come. Essentially, good community relations are best built outside of a crisis.

Listen and empathize with the complainant and you will most often be able to find common ground. Most importantly, you must recognize their investment in your community. Whether they are residents, business owners, or visitors, all have recognized on some level the value of being part of your community and will often go above and beyond to make your community successful.


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.

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.

Bridging the Generations in Local Government – 17

We’re in the 17th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Kurt Bressner. He is the Florida Senior Advisor  for ICMA,  a position he has held since September 2011. During Bressner’s 38-year career in the public sector he has served as city/village manager for several cities in Florida and Illinois. Bressner holds an MPA from Northern Illinois University.


Guidepost #17

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

I kept a copy of Mr. Cookingham’s “Food for Thought: Guideposts for City Managers” in my top desk drawer throughout my career as a City Manager. Originally published in 1956 in ICMA’s Public Management, this document was reprinted in 1975, also in Public Management. That yellowed paper version stayed with me throughout my career as a city manager of four communities over 33 years. Now retired, I still keep it handy. In 2008, I asked that ICMA reprint the “Guideposts” for a third time.  The original advice by Mr. Cookingham is still pertinent and crucial to effective public leadership. This document remains a relevant, reliable source of guidance for all levels of government service.

First, consider a simple, implied corollary to this Guideline: Choose effective words. The vocabulary of government business is complex and easily misconstrued. The use of jargon can mystify the public. One simple remedy is to remember your audience: Your written words should neither intimidate nor insult your readers.

Managing government has moved into the rapid-fire digital arena. Memoranda and letters are no longer the primary methods of communication. Today, the common channels are emails, texts, tweets, and online posts, each form with varying strengths and weaknesses. Compared to conventional letters or memos, email and social media present special challenges, including limited scope of message and easy opportunities for misuse of context. Brevity does not offer structure for including an extensive recap of facts and context.

Furthermore, even a 140-character Tweet based on a false premise, untruth, or inaccuracy is as damaging as a lengthy agenda packet memo with the same deficiencies and often garners greater circulation than a conventional memo. Failing to back up written communication without complete, accurate facts and full disclosure can redirect a city manager’s path from success to job change. I suggest that regardless of the method of written word, the importance of a “facts cabinet” remains the same. For every issue or matter that involves the public’s business, the facts, context, and reasons for change must be readily available through careful notes, corollary documents, and files. The more that this facts cabinet is digitally available, the easier it is to manage. Elected officials and the public will certainly call for back-up proof as a public policy matter continues through its decision cycle. Similarly, the press will ask for information routinely. The sad reality is that facts, context, or reasons for change may not find their way into the story. The chances of deliberate distortion increase in blogs. Nevertheless, in all cases, the proof must be provided or readily available in government documents. Visualize a cabinet of facts, context, and reasons for change in everything you write. You must be able to prove the facts forming the basis of the issue definition and evaluation. Ideally, these facts  are a direct component of a report. Of the several methods of written communication, a conventional memo provides much friendlier turf to include or embed accurate facts, context, and reasons for change.

Credibility as a manager –not only on a specific issue in real time, but also in general over time– relates to this Guideline, too. Repeated gaps in facts or false interpretation of facts is often perceived as conduct unbecoming a public official, resulting in short tenure with multiple and possibly declining career stops. Sadly, conduct at the national level that obscures the facts of an issue is not infrequent.  Once the microscope of media commentary magnifies the situation, the backstroking begins; but the damage to the organization or to the individual in charge has already been accomplished.  In most cases, an individual “takes the hit” for the organization’s elasticity with or obstruction of truth. After solemn promises by replacement leadership to do better, the issue then fades away. Yet subsequent public cynicism continues to taint the perception of local government with damaging disbelief.

In summary, modern communication methods and media demand close attention to Guideline #17: Routinely and resolutely clarify the issues you face with accurate facts, context, and reasons for change while practicing neutral, full disclosure to strengthen your managing skills and solidify your career path.

I close with these words of Lao Tzu about the path of truth, a worthy addendum to Mr. Cookingham’s wise Guidelines:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habit.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

― Lao Tzu


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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