ICMA’s regional summits, usually held during the spring months each year, just keep getting better, and this year’s “TED Talk” format may have been the best yet. For those of you who were unable to attend, each of the ve events featured a handful of successful professionals from the host region who made 12-minute presentations on managing positive change, followed by small-group sharing. This is peer learning at its best.
These are people attendees might know personally who have made or are in the process of instituting significant improvements in process, focus, innovation, and culture in their organizations. Their talks were crisp, entertaining,
and heartfelt. Starts, stops, wins, losses, breakthroughs, setbacks, bursts, and pauses were all part of the journeys they described. Each talk was similar while also being unique.
While I was unable to attend as many summits as ICMA President Simon Farbrother or President-Elect Jim Bennett, I was blessed to be at both the Mountain Plains (my home region) and West Coast (where I spend most of my professional time). In both cases, I came away impressed, energized, and with the same thought—legacy matters—and legacies take trust and time to build.
Trust is Key
Virtually all colleagues who spoke talked about trust being the key component of change: trust from the organization in the manager and trust from the elected officials in the staff and organization. Bennett described this intersection as the “neck of the hourglass.”
In discussions, some managers said they were hired with a mandate for change, and some were pushed into change by the economy or community service needs. Some communities came with a reputation for embracing excellence and some were eased into excellence. In every story and description, successful sustained change came about over time as the trust grew; often over a period of numerous years.
Of the 21 presenters, the average organizational tenure was 13.5 years, with 24 years being the longest. Many said their greatest contributions have come about later in their tenures, that the first several years were spent in getting the right people on the bus, followed by getting them in the right seats. Only after the managerial moves were made were our colleagues able to move on to their leadership legacies.
From a governance perspective I was especially intrigued by the discussion on how the quality of the council impacted the manager’s ability to
effect change, and how the council’s own policies, practices, and behaviors reflected this quality. Further, those councils with a lower velocity of turn- over—longer tenures marked by elected officials mentoring each other and embracing positive conflict-resolution strategies—also had a high correlation to the tenures of their managers.
Darin Attebury, city manager, Fort Collins, Colorado, I think is doing some of the best work in the area of quality in the country. The quote I wrote down from his presentation was: “Without a cohesive council [that] understands its key role in the process, we could never have undertaken these efforts.”
ICMA’s Past President Dave Childs, city manager, Palmdale, California, whose heart for cultural improvement is widely known among his many admirers, also commented on this key factor: “For a city manager to be successful in creating permanent change in the culture of an organization, the council needs to be as supportive of the manager as the manager is of the employees. Success comes when trust is high at all levels within the organization.“
Does this mean that managers with shorter tenures or who have been challenged by disruptive governing bodies cannot or do not do excellent work? Of course not.
In fact, sometimes the especial heroes in the management profession are those folks who take on the Paladin role of a knight and as a result, are able to turn around a community with a dif cult history, or as the Teddy Roosevelt quote I use so often says, “Spend themselves in the worthy cause.”
What I think it does mean though is that if your heart’s desire is to do a significant work in your community that requires significant change, you must focus first on the foundation of trust and be willing to invest the time it takes to build that. Folks will not follow you far without it.
Take Small Steps
If you have a great council, do not take it for granted, but rather help councilmembers grow their governance capacity and their trust in you and the organization. If you are not so blessed, start with the basics of group process, facilitate council interactions within the confines of your open meetings statutes, and nd solace in small steps on your journey to trust.
Remember, legacies matter. They take time to build, and trust is their foundation.