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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.

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”.


    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.

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