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What’s Your Story?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larry Keeton
December 15, 2017


Shortly after being hired as the Director of the county’s building department, a gentleman walked into my office, sat down and shoved a stack of papers across my desk. Curtly, he said, “Fix this. You work for me. My taxes pay your salary.”

Taken aback, I tried to figure out a response.

As he tapped the stack of papers with his forefinger, I removed a penny from my pocket and laid it on the pile. “Here’s how much of your taxes pays my salary.”

He reached for the coin.

I continued. “You owe me change.”

Some of you are shuttering at my disrespect; others chuckling.

When I tell this story to citizens, I use an old penny as a prop. I remind them it’s a technique, not a good one, when they’re seeking navigating governmental bureaucracies.

The Importance of Stories

Management consultant, Steven Denning lists numerous reasons why leaders should tell stories. “Storytelling is a crucial tool for management and leadership, because often, nothing else works. Charts leave listeners bemused. Prose remains unread. Dialogue is just too laborious and slow. Time after time, when faced with the task of persuading a group of managers or front-line staff in a large organization to get enthusiastic about a major change, storytelling is the only thing that works.”

Changing the culture of a regulatory agency isn’t easy, especially when staff morale is lower than whale dung in the Mariana’s Trench. Yet, it’s not impossible.

Our leadership team and staff worked hard through the recession, layoffs, process changes and training to become a nationally recognized permitting agency. Washington State’s Auditor held up the department as a model for improving efficiencies in a state often viewed as regulatory unfriendly. Key to this effort was the use of stories at our monthly all-staff meetings which included recognitions.

Use Organizational Experiences for Change Lessons

The organization is fertile grounds for tales, especially for lessons learned. Consider the following example.

A small business owner applied for an occupancy permit for a massage therapy suite in a rural area. Such a business had been in the building prior to the building’s closure three years earlier. During that time, the county’s zoning codes changed to meet a state growth management board decision regarding rural businesses. The business owner was disheartened, as was the massage therapist who lived in the area.

A staff planner took up the challenge to find a way to make get these people to yes within the scope of the code. Her research revealed massage therapy services were not normally considered “rural” in general terms. However, she also learned many of the rural residents had previously used the service and many desired a return. Given the “demand” and minimal impacts, a legitimate code change could occur.

For those knowledgeable of code changes, its a long, laborious process. Waiting meant loss of income for the therapist and the business owner. While the process began, the planner found another solution. As the building had been shut down for repairs, the therapist hadn’t abandon the site. Thus, it would have been allowed to continue to operate as a “nonconforming use” despite the changes to the zoning code. We agreed and granted a Director’s decision to allow the business to reopen.

Two important lessons emerged. First, we celebrated the creativity and ingenuity of the planner’s solution. Second, we discussed the unintended consequences of zoning code changes in future efforts.

It’s efforts like this that reflect a change in culture and regulatory attitudes. And, these efforts can be sustained long after the event using departmental tales.

History Provides Great Insights

As a practitioner, one has to wonder if serving in today’s toxic political environment is worth it. Let’s face it. Citizens will fight to save their neighborhood bar long before protesting cuts to the government workforce. Then a disaster hits and they ask, “Where’s the government?” But, then I take solace in a Rick Reeves’ print that hangs over my home office desk.

The summer months after D-Day, 1944, the Germans held the Brittany Peninsula. As the Allies fought toward Berlin, they had to eliminate any potential threat to their supplies lines while seeking additional ports into western France. The last port to fall was Brest.

On September 9, 1944, German Lieutenant General Hermann-Bernard Ramcke, a well-respected and beloved officer by his soldiers, waited his American counterpart. Decked out in his finest uniform, he expected an American General of equal rank to receive his surrender as was tradition. Instead, Brigadier General Charles Canham bounded down the bunker steps trailed by tired, dirty, but determined American GIs.

Upon seeing the junior officer, Ramcke said, “I’m to surrender to you? What are your credentials?”

Without hesitation, Canham pointed to his men. “These are my credentials.”

That painting reminds me of a key lesson I learned early in my career. Our credentials aren’t bestowed upon us by victories, bosses, nor political masters. Rather, they are granted us by those we serve, those we lead and those we engage daily.

Author: Larry Keeton is a retired public administrator with over 44 years of successfully leading military and local government organizations ranging in size from 10 to 1300 people. He can be reached at [email protected]

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