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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Jerry Newfarmer
June 3, 2016
Leadership is more than just sitting in the office or meeting with your immediate staff. It is engaging your workforce. And if your role is leading a large workforce, demonstrating personal leadership requires techniques more than the occasional brown bag lunch or social event.
When we survey local government employees on their job satisfaction, we often find employees would like better communication. They want to know what’s going on in their organization want to see and hear it from the chief executive.
While the need for personal leadership is present in every organization, large organizations have the bigger challenge because they have “layers of managers” between the chief executive and front-line employees. There’s a way to meet this need—without detracting from the important roles department heads and middle managers fill—and build unity in our diverse management teams at the same time: the monthly managers meeting.
Here’s my recipe for success: invite all the managers at the second level of management and up to the monthly managers meeting (maybe around 10 percent of your workforce). Use the meeting to individually introduce each new and promoted manager to the group, plan one or two presentations of topics folks should know about and (here’s the important part), as the leader, take and answer questions from the group.
The Q&A part of the meeting is the opportunity for personal leadership on the part of the chief. Since there’s a natural reluctance to ask questions in front of your boss (or your boss’s boss), especially if they might result in someone’s embarrassment, the leader should give participants the gift of anonymity. Ask them to write down their questions on notecards. When you get to this final item on the agenda, collect the cards and answer or respond to each question, without any screening.
The monthly managers meeting gives the leader the forum to bypass the communication filters in the chain and speak directly to the management team. The approach I’ve described models a style of open leadership that is based on respect for colleagues on the management team. And it’s not all that risky! If you don’t know the answer, just say so. It’s your perspective they want. No beating around the bush, no referrals or hand-offs to a staff expert in the subject at hand. Just your response to the question. And if the matter deserves it, you can commit to following up.
The monthly management meeting is a major team-building tool. You can have your HR folks staff the meeting—like a conference—with name tags for everyone. You will also think up variations to further enhance the experience. Here are some I’ve done as examples:
- City manager-hosted reception for new managers and department heads (the latter having the assignment to circulate and personally meet each new member of the management team.
- A string quartet, unannounced, one time to entertain folks during the social half-hour before the start of the meeting.
- The members of the civil service board on a panel to share their perspective with the management team (they were quite nervous).
- The local football coach to talk about leadership.
The team-building dimension is especially fun! And over time, managers down inside will get to know each other across the organization. And they’ll have a shared experience that enhances their baseline shared experience of public service.
Creating a culture with the right tone is a basic task of every leader. You do this effectively with personal leadership, month-in and month-out, much more than just enumerating your values in writing. The monthly managers meeting can be an important tool for that team-building goal.
Author: Jerry Newfarmer served as city manager in Fresno and San Jose, California, as well as Cincinnati, Ohio. Newfarmer is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations.