Cents and Sensibility
I recently facilitated a city council retreat to set goals and priorities leading into their budget process. One council member strongly advocated for “the lowest tax rate in the region.” The Mayor responded with an incredibly thoughtful and wise explanation regarding the need to link tax rate decisions to both current and future needs (such as aging infrastructure) and that a tax rate should not be an end in and of itself, but a means to accomplish the policy goals of the council and the quality of life goals of the community.
This wise Mayor understood that the tax rate is an important part of the equation to be deliberated, but just one part. A one dimensional focus on the tax rate empowers bad decision making. It is like awarding the cheapest bid for new police cars, but ignoring that the cars included in the lowest bid did not include engines.
The budget is not a financial document so much as a policy document which has financial implications. And the tax rate provides the means to implement the policy decisions of the elected officials… but it should not be an end in and of itself.
A one dimensional obsession with the tax rate, unaccompanied by an understanding that it has a direct impact on the type and quality of services delivered reminds me of the little boy visiting his grandfather who was an avid baseball fan. They were watching the game together when the doorbell rang. The grandfather got up and asked the boy to watch the game and tell him what happened when he got back. When the grandfather returned, he asked what the score was. “Five to four” the boy replied. “In whose favor?” he asked. The boy thought a moment and replied “The fives.”
When the only question is “do we have the lowest tax rate?” the answer is like the little boy who knew the score but not what the numbers really meant. An effective budget process helps the governing body ask the right series of questions to understand underlying implications and in so doing advance their policy goals:
- “What services do we want to deliver?” allows a governing body to answer the philosophical questions of what business lines their organization should be in.
- “How are we delivering these services?” allows a governing body to address efficiency and effectiveness as well as the level of quality they are committed to.
- “Who should we be delivering the services to?” allows a governing body to wrestle with different service configurations for different populations such as central versus neighborhood libraries and non-resident utilization of city services.
- “What are we willing to pay to provide these services?” allows the governing body to determine if they are really ready to pay for what they say they want. If the governing body is unwilling to set the tax rate at a level required to deliver the array of services at the desired quality of service level, then the governing body should rethink whether they want to quit providing a service, whether they want to provide it at a lower quality level, or whether they do not want to provide it as broadly.
- “What are the long term implications of our intended funding level for these services?” provides a fiscal stewardship reality check. What looks like a fiscally conservative decision in the context of a two year time horizon often looks like fiscal irresponsibility when considered over a 20 year time horizon (think under-funding infrastructure needs). Evaluating and understanding the long term implications of current funding decisions is an essential and routine part of any responsible budgeting process.
Asking the right questions in the right order equips governing bodies to engage in more sensible budget deliberations to set tax rates that ensure both fiscal responsibility and a vibrant and healthy future.
CEO, Strategic Government Resources
New Year’s Resolutions for Elected Officials Who Want to Leave a Legacy That Matters
In electing me to office, my fellow citizens have entrusted me with the sacred duty of shaping the future of our community. Because I am committed to creating a future that is brighter and healthier and more beneficial to all citizens than when I was called to lead, I will:
- Base my decisions on the next generation more than the next election, committed to the ideal that my loyalty must be to the entire community (both now and in the future) and not merely to those who got me elected.
- Focus on mission, vision and values as the benchmark for my decisions and recognize that my responsibility is the pursuit of the greatest good for the entire community and not the satisfaction of any particular group’s agenda.
- Make decisions based on fact based evidence and not allow myself to be manipulated into bad decisions for the future based on the decibel level of critics.
- Recognize that “it takes a smart man to know where he is stupid” and have the wisdom to be smart. Accordingly, I will value those who have the courage to tell me what they really think and will listen sincerely to those who disagree with me to truly understand their perspective, recognizing that understanding other perspectives makes me a better leader.
- Embrace my responsibility to govern rather than to manage; recognizing that if I am doing staff’s job I am not doing my job, while also understanding and embracing the appropriately exercised governance role of holding staff accountable.
- Place a greater emphasis on solutions than on problems; while refusing to offer solutions before I understand the problem.
- Understand that mutual trust is the foundation for everything and that if I refuse to trust others they will be unable to trust me.
- Protect the integrity of the process more than the rightness of my position; I will fight hard for my issue but then unify behind the governing body when the decision is made because the decision was made with integrity of process, even if I disagree with the outcome.
- Understand that my deeply held beliefs, values and positions will be strengthened, not compromised by courteous, respectful and civil discourse. I will not treat someone as the enemy just because we disagree.
- Treat everyone with dignity and respect because of who I am as a leader… not because of how they treat me or what I think about them.
- Be a role model for civility. I will not treat my colleagues or staff in any way that I would be embarrassed if my five year old child treated someone the same way.
CEO, Strategic Government Resources
Don’t Bah Humbug Communication
We are all familiar with the character Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’ famous novella, A Christmas Carol. This character is depicted, as a surly, cold-hearted businessman who hates Christmas, spends his life hoarding his wealth and forces his employees to work long, grueling hours for little pay. Scrooge is basically everyone’s worst nightmare when it comes to a manager. However, as we learn more about Scrooge through his journey with the ghosts of Christmas past, we find that he actually is a victim of circumstance. His childhood experiences, misfortune in love, and depression overcome him, not allowing him to re-frame his perspective to understand how he, as a manager, needs to communicate with his employees.
In communications, this is called understanding your frame of reference, or how individuals assess information. This can be based upon an individuals education, background, personal values, experiences, cultural differences and more, having a large influence on how information flows from or to us. The greater the overlap in frame of reference between two people, or the greater the similarities in individual’s backgrounds, the higher the likelihood that communication will be successful.
In the case of Scrooge, due to his lack of willingness to open up to his employees and allow them to understand his background, employees as well as others, simply assume that he is crotchety and cold-hearted. Therefore, any message that he sends to an intended audience will misconstrued, and may be dismissed due to the disrespect that the intended receiver may have for the sender. However, if the intended receiver of the message understands Scrooge’s background, they may be more willing to understand his situation and receive the message without the attachment of bias.
So, what can be done to fix these communication issues?
In order to fix this communication barrier, managers must do a bit of re-framing. Meaning that as leaders, we must seek to look at things in a different way and seek to understand the other person’s frame of reference. The following can assist with this process:
- Take the time to get to know your employees. Learn their personalities and interact with them regularly so that you not only build a trusting relationship with them, but you also learn how they communicate. Doing this will help to improve the likelihood of successful communication.
- Let your employees learn about you. Communication is a two-way street, unless, of course, you want to talk to yourself. Managers need to ensure that they share their best practices for communicating, including their favorite way to deliver messages and feedback. Allowing for face-to-face time to get to know each others personalities is key as well, as this is the time that you will learn how to interpret each others non-verbal cues.
- When communicating to the outside public, know your audience. Do your research. Learn about the background of your intended audience and speak to that. Although you can’t get to know everyone you are speaking to at a conference, classroom or otherwise, you can speak to their general experiences and speak to them through that perspective.
My advice to you is, don’t be a Scrooge. Teach yourself to look at things from a different perspective; learn your audience and communicate in a clear, concise manner, giving feedback as necessary to improve internal and external communication within your organization.
What are some of techniques or methods that you use to help improve communication?
What in the world is going on with the Police?
If a similar thought has not gone through your mind lately, then clearly, you have been sleeping through the evening news. There is not a week that goes by that some new video surfaces where someone is claiming police mistreated them. And clearly some were. But is this something new that has happened, some new change in police procedure or are our police departments just hiring a bunch of brutal racists?
You may now think “I’ve always supported law enforcement, I’ve always respected police officers, but now I am not so sure…” Historically, the police of the last century were used as a means of oppression for minority groups. It has been a long process of change since the 1960s for both the police and our country. Because of this past, and in some cases more recent events like Rodney King and now Michael Brown, support for law enforcement is not always prevalent in all communities.
I have spent my life as a police officer and worked at all levels within police agencies, including as a Chief of Police. And even Police Chiefs are shocked at some of the incidents that have occurred. So why is this happening? We are now in a media age where every person has the ability to instantly publish video of an incident to the entire world. And since the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, the news media is alert and anxious to publish any inappropriate police action.
Police Officers have an awesome responsibility. They can legally stop you, take away your freedom (arrest) and even use force, up to and including deadly force in some circumstances. So how do Police Departments make sure their officers do the right thing? They basically use four methods. First they hire the best people they can find. They train them to the best of their ability. Then they supervise them. And since most officers work alone, the ability of a Sergeant to watch their every move is limited, so most supervision is done through policy. In other words, the department writes policy on how situations should be handled. If an officer violates policy, they use a disciplinary system to modify behavior or remove the officer.
So, why is this happening now? Well, we are now getting better video proof, but the truth is, it has been happening much longer. The Justice Department has conducted over 20 investigations over the last 20 years, into Police Departments that use excessive force. It is my belief that we, Police Chiefs and City Governments, have failed our Police Officers and our communities. We have failed to see these issues and improve our policies and training. We have failed to properly supervise our officers and hold them accountable for their actions. And we have failed to engage all segments of our community in an open dialog to bring understanding. Some chiefs and some cities have done a much better job of this than others, and we need to learn from each other.
I have assisted SGR in the development of a new seminar called The Future of Policing for City Managers and Police Chiefs to discuss these issues and develop specific plans for their community and department. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but together, we can examine our operations, our policies, and our training; and learn new ways to engage our communities.
The men and women that I know in law enforcement are certainly not brutal racists. They literally put their lives on the line every day. But they are human beings and are subject to the same human emotions and frailties as the next person, and they do make mistakes – even with all the training they have had. They deserve better from us and so do our communities. They deserve our very best efforts.
Senior Vice President, Executive Search
Your Mission: Hire Veterans
A few months ago I was on the hunt for a job, a task that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. It’s not easy. After a few months of searching you begin to wonder if there is something on your resume that is glaring up at companies and holding them back from hiring you…and you ask yourself, what could be the problem?
I am a Navy Reservist, so for a while I thought that my reserve status was holding companies back from hiring me. Maybe they had seen a military movie and thought I’d be screaming my head off at employees like a drill sergeant or maybe they immediately associate a service member with deployment. But then I thought to myself, that’s ridiculous. Why wouldn’t they want to hire me? Sure, there is a chance that I could deploy. But if I am put on orders for deployment, I would be enhancing my skills in a professional field, a field that they would be hiring me in.
It made me question whether or not employers see the value in hiring and employing service members. So, I put together a list of five attributes that a service member brings to your organization:
1) Leadership skills
Service members are bred to become leaders. We are instilled to accept responsibility for getting things done, manage cross-functional team communication and promote a culture of hard work by setting the example.
2) Work well under pressure
Military training assists members to flourish when working under pressure. A key trait necessary for working in high-stress career fields in the civilian world.
3) Attention to detail
If you miss one tiny detail during a mission, you are putting lives at risk. The military workplace puts service members into scenarios where they are challenged to pay attention to every detail. Making a conscious effort to understand causes instead of just the effects translates well into the corporate world, because details that fall through the cracks can cost a company time and money.
We work in teams. That’s just what we do. Never leave a man behind. Veterans instill a sense of team pride and cohesiveness. Teamwork builds trust and trust builds speed. Working together, we are able to achieve organizational goals and success faster.
5) Great work ethic
Military members have an incredible work ethic, and make personal sacrifices to accomplish the mission. We don’t let the team down. We get our jobs done, and we do it well, regardless of the organizational demands.
While there are other traits that could be mentioned, this short list is great to keep in mind when hiring and employing a Veteran because they all have the potential to promote a culture of teamwork and growth.
So now I ask you, what benefits has your organization seen in hiring veterans and service members? Let us know your feedback.
For more information about employers who have benefited from hiring veterans or if you are a veteran seeking employment go to the ESGR website.
As part of my MBA program at Texas Tech (Wreck ‘em), I am taking a Business Analytics course. Recently, we did an exercise in class where we had to rank how certain we were about answers to random trivia questions (80% sure the answer is A, etc.). It looked like this…
Answer: A or B
Confidence in your answer: 50-100%
(Obviously, if it is less than 50% you would choose the other answer.)
After we completed the questionnaire, the instructor called out the correct answers and we tallied the results to show which we answered correctly/incorrectly and how accurate we were when we guessed our confidence level in our answer. Some of you may already realize this… but we were ALL over-confident. Everyone in the entire room, law school graduates, CPA’s, CEO’s, future CEO’s, and one Managing Director of Development and Collaboration were all more positive that we knew the correct answer than we really did. (I think my statistic was something like when I say I am 70% sure, I am only correct 30% of the time. Scary right??)
Fortunately, for this defeated group of students, this was exactly the point the instructor was trying to prove. We rely on gut instinct and intuition, and we are wrong… A LOT. Then, once the facts do show that we are indeed incorrect, we actually rationalize our error (typically using extenuating circumstances beyond our control). We say things like, “that would have been successful, but we ended up having to switch gears to focus on something else” or “it really was a great idea, but the customer base ended up needing something else…” or “nobody could have predicted that downturn in the economy.” Next, we repeat this situation, time and time again.
So, how do we overcome this over-confidence? Well, the answer is really not that black and white. We can make use of metrics, data, and algorithms, but we have to be careful. As Mark Twain once said, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” but, numbers can be powerful and algorithms are more accurate than our gut feeling (seriously, it is true, read this). When you track data over a period of time, find trends, form algorithms and analyze, you are able to look at results in a more unemotional state that lets you make truly informed decisions without your own preconceived notions, desires and bias weighing in. This type of decision-making can also lead to greater efficiency organization wide, because instead of multiple people using debate and brainstorming (or worse, group think), you can implement tools and processes for making quick and accurate decisions.
That said the POWER of over-confidence is actually very beneficial to an organization. Yes, you heard that correctly! When looking back over the course of history, we see inventions and innovations like the first car, first flight, and medical advancements. It is clear that without some creative humans setting lofty goals, brainstorming, and trying again, and again, and again (despite the overwhelming statistics showing they would fail), we would not have progressed as a society like we have. Innovation is the key when starting new initiatives and staying on the leading edge (being in the 16%). Especially in local government, it would be detrimental to eliminate or even stifle the creativity that over-confidence brings to the organization. Sometimes success is not about what would be supported through numbers and data, because only a human can make a JUDGMENT call.
All of this is to say, while we all think we are more correct than we really are, it is important to acknowledge and understand and use it to our advantage. Leaders in local government face an even more unique challenge, because while most are driven to serve the public and create a learning organization, they are also focused on streamlining operations and overall efficiency. As leaders, we must find the right balance to utilize the over-confidence to spur innovation, while being aware of the impact over-confidence has on accurate decision-making.
My boss, Ron Holifield, often says, “I would rather try ten things and only succeed at five than to try three things and succeed 100% of the time.” This is a truly innovative approach and has allowed the entire company to take risks and think outside the box.
So, what are you doing in your organization to overcome over-confidence? Are you using it to spur innovation?
Managing Director of Development and Collaboration
Why Are Assessments Important?
Good question. Let’s start with a very brief definition of Employee Assessments. Employee Assessments are products that evaluate employee behavior, typically by asking respondents to answer questions about how they perceive themselves at work. There are several very effective products available on the market today, both in paper and online formats.
Now…why bother? Can’t we just assign employees the work and expect them to get it done? Sure, you could try that. Another idea is to discover more about the behavior styles of your individual employees, and maximize the positive behavior traits of each individual employee.
For example, say you have an employee named Sally. Sally works in your finance department. Say that Sally exemplifies the classic introverted personality style. Sally appears painfully shy, is often soft-spoken, and prefers to work solo rather than in a team environment. She is a number cruncher, a paperwork guru, and a powerhouse auditor.
Now, let’s pretend the City Council has requested an oral presentation of the recently completed fiscal audit. Did I also mention that City Council meetings are televised and broadcast over and over again on the City TV channel! Would Sally be your first choice in conducting that presentation?
I’d guess not.
Sure, Sally knows the material inside and out, she was involved in every aspect of the audit and knows the findings, but is that the only consideration in deciding who should present the findings? Would Sally even WANT to do that presentation? Would she freeze like a deer in the headlights in front of the dais? Would she embarrass herself? The department? How would the Council Members perceive the audit itself if the presenter of the material isn’t able to clearly and concisely articulate the findings? Can’t you see Sally up there, stammering and red-faced, uncomfortable and sweating under the lights and the cameras? Not a good look.
Another idea would be to capitalize on Sally’s expertise more effectively by having her prepare the presentation to the Council. She could write the talking points. She could prepare handouts and documentation to support the findings. She could also spend time discussing the audit report with the selected presenter beforehand so that the presenter is fully versed in the material. Sally could play a vital role in the presentation while being behind the scenes.
Spending time to learn about your employees and their behavior styles gives you the opportunity to learn what their comfort zones are. It allows the employees to learn more about themselves, more about their co-workers, more about how they interact with each other. Assessing employee behavior also provides a common language for all employees to speak, teaches respectful ways to communicate with each other. Assessing employee behavior styles also gives leaders a clear understanding of how they can better plan work assignments.
Assessing employee behavior can lead to increased employee retention, improved relationships, and an overall more successful work group. All of these things open up the lines of communication between you and each of your employees and that’s ALWAYS a good thing!
Participants of the upcoming Parks and Recreation Leadership Summit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can learn more about Assessments during my session “Understanding Personality Styles”. Now…who’s ready to go on camera?
Member Collaboration Manager, Central & SE Texas Region
Saving Yourself from Scandal
Like many American’s I am pretty much obsessed with the confident television phenomenon that is Scandal’s Olivia Pope. As a communication’s professional, it’s hard for me to not want to be her. She’s confident, she’s smart, and she’s basically everything that you would want in a crisis management professional. So instead of ranting about how great the show is, I’ve opted for informing you on some of the things that I’ve learned from Scandal that directly translate to real-life communications situations.
- Never Tell a Lie
This is probably the most important one, especially for government employees. In government as well as the business world, it is vital that you maintain transparency with your public. The days where “no comment” would suffice are no longer here. “No comment” has warped from a way to avoid responding to a topic to a term that evokes wrongdoing and gives your public the impression that you are hiding something. So, don’t ever use that. Instead, stick with the truth. Don’t make anything up, don’t stretch the truth, simply state the facts that you do know. And if you don’t know how to answer a question, it’s perfectly OK to respond to someone by telling them that you will get back to them. But, let me emphasize that you MUST get back to them. You can’t leave them hanging.
- Always Have A Backup Plan
Another important thing that Olivia Pope does is that she develops multiple plans. It is vital for organizations to formulate crisis plans so that they are prepared to respond to just about any scenario that they may come across. If your organization does not already have a crisis plan in place, say something. Lead your organization in the development of a plan, the creation of a crisis team, and acquire or reach out to obtain the necessary resources that are necessary in implementing something of this magnitude. It is far easier to respond to a crisis when there are already steps outlined on how to respond. If you have no plan in place, you are relying on your reactions and emotions to formulate a plan at the last-minute, and this has the potential to add to the crisis rather than help to solve it.
- Confidence is Key
I feel like that phrase is strong enough to use on its own, however I will elaborate a bit so you see where I’m coming from. In a crisis scenario it is vital that you choose a confident spokesperson to respond to the community about what is not only happening, but also what is being done to solve the problem at hand. The spokesperson needs to not only believe what they are saying, but they need to be empathetic with their audience, letting them know that the situation is being handled and that there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes all it takes is a little confidence to reassure the public that they are in good hands. There’s nothing worse than having an unconfident spokesperson, as their lack in confidence in themselves translates to the community as untrustworthy and creates panic and worry in a crisis scenario. Both things that you do not want proliferate.
- No One Is Perfect
Always remember, no one is perfect. Not even Olivia Pope or Mary Poppins (who was only practically perfect). We all have our faults and we all make bad decisions every once in a while. It’s how you respond to these bad choices that makes you a good leader.
- Be a Gladiator
Finally, this is my favorite take-away from Scandal, “be a gladiator.” Get out there and be a leader. If you see something wrong within your organization or if you have an idea on how to improve something, be a gladiator and take the necessary steps to lead your organization down the right path.