Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Veteran managers at the 2019 ICMA Annual Conference offer advice for new local government leaders to position themselves for long-term success.
Congratulations! You have just started your job as a city or county manager. You’ve taken your oath and are walking the halls excited by the prospect of all the good you will do for your community. As the adrenaline rush begins to wane, reality sets in and your mind starts filling with questions like, What appointments do I need to make? What meetings do I attend? How do I juggle the needs and desires of the city council, residents and my family simultaneously? And where the heck is the nearest restroom?
Excluding that last question, it may take some time to figure out your answers and establish a rhythm. Yet in the public sector, elected and appointed officials often feel that they are expected to know exactly how to do their jobs and perform from the second they arrive. Luckily, new managers can benefit from the wisdom, experience and mistakes of those who came before them.
During the 2019 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, former and current city and county managers will share their words of wisdom to advise the next generation on some on the job do’s and don’ts—which boils down to five essential tips.
#1. You Serve at the Pleasure of the Elected Officials
The relationship between the manager and the elected officials who appointed him or her is paramount. Key to that is understanding the very distinct roles the two sides play. The elected officials make policy. The manager carries it out. Brant Hanson, current city manager of Centreville, Utah described it as, “My job is to bridge the gap between politics and administration.”
Unsurprisingly, communication is critical to the long-term viability of this relationship. That communication should be two-way, as Patricia Vinchesi, a former administrator in Massachusetts, and ICMA Northeast Regional Director, noted. Vinchesi went on to recommend that managers routinely talk to members of their local council about administrative operations, as well as invite elected officials to share their vision.
What new managers do not want to have happen is for elected officials to feel like communication isn’t happening. According to ICMA Southeast Regional Director Randall Reid, who worked as a city and county manager in Florida and Wyoming, one of the most cited reasons for managers to be removed from office is that they did not keep their elected officials informed. Reid encourages new managers to embark on a listening tour to learn the vision and goals of the city council. Vinchesi also suggests going on an annual retreat as a way to have an opportunity to discuss goals and strategies.
#2. Get to Know Your Community
Researching the community and its characteristics should start during the hiring process. As Hanson stated, “the basis of the decision making is what is best for the city.” Managers will not perform well without that community context. However, they should not solely rely on public meetings to learn about their communities. Managers need to be present and accessible in the community to really know what is happening. Vinchesi recommends that managers use social media to solicit feedback and provide information. Cheryl Hilvert, ICMA Midwest Regional Director, joined her local Rotary club when she was the city manager in the greater Cincinnati area, to engage her residents on an informal level. Hilvert said participating in community organizations allows a new manager to bring a more human touch to the role and appear accessible to residents and business owners.
#3. You Do Not Have to Know, Do or Be Everything
Hilvert said that the day she realized she did not need to know everything was her “most freeing day as a manager.” The manager role is overwhelming. Between crafting budgets, overseeing multiple department heads and engaging the community it is easy for managers to get lost in the feeling that they alone are responsible for all operations. But they are not.
Vinchesi said, “Lone wolf syndrome does not work in local government.” Instead it is critical to invite staff in early and often for their ideas and solutions to problems given their deep expertise. Not only does this alleviate the burden on the manager, but it empowers the staff to be leaders themselves. As Hilvert said, “really good things can be created if managers give some power away.”
Relatedly, managers might feel the need to address every issue right out of the gate. This is not realistic. Reid recommends two ways to handle this. First, create an annual policy calendar to track elected official’s stated goals and prioritize what gets done based on needs and budget. Second, managers should not assume that only the local government can achieve the desired goals. Instead, it may be prudent to engage community groups or local businesses to tackle a project.
Whether understanding when something should be handled solely by the manager, asking staff for assistance or just taking a step back and meeting one’s own personal needs of spending time with your family or engaging in a hobby, managers need to find the right workload and work-life balance.
#4. Don’t Forget the Two C’s: Courage and Confidence
The local government manager is a high-profile position. Your successes, and especially your failures, are visible to all. Therefore, it is understandable that managers have a fear of making a mistake and (in the worst case) being fired because of it. But Reid says “sometimes the fear of failure or being fired is worse than the actual event.” It is important to recognize there will be mistakes and there will be failures, but as Hilvert said you should be courageous in what you do and confident in your approach. If a mistake is made or something does not go as planned, how you handle it is what’s important, Hanson said. ”You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to explore your limits,” he added.
#5. Focus on the Soft Skills
Most managers have mastered hard skills like crafting a budget, personnel management or planning. Less emphasized, but equally important, are soft skills. Hilvert says without the soft skills of communication, listening, promoting integrity and cultivating a strong work culture, managers will struggle. Equally important is that when managers establish these features within their offices, it also should be reflected in business practices. Hilvert recalled a time when after emphasizing the organizational values of trust and integrity, she discovered it did not trickle down to organization’s handling of supply orders. According to Hilvert, it took multiple signatures to order an item as simple as pencil—that did not reflect that the organization trusted staff. Therefore, she would go on to make sure when she established values to also write those into operations so that it would no longer take repeated sign-offs to order office supplies.
Alisha Powell Gillis is the senior editor for Route Fifty.
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