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Priorities for New Local Government Leaders

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

By Jerry Newfarmer
October 20, 2015

Business people shaking their hands to seal a dealIn August, I wrote about priorities for when a local government leader leaves his or her position, whether to retire or take another job. This column will focus on the beginning of the job cycle, specifically what the priorities should be for a new local government manager. The first weeks on the job are an opportunity for the incoming leader. By establishing relationships and clearly communicating priorities early on, a new manager sets the tone for years to come.

 1.      Build relationships. While there are operational and policy issues that need to be tackled, the top priority for a new city manager is to begin building relationships. They are the key to success, so spend adequate time creating and nurturing them. Walk through the entire administrative building on the first day and show up at police stations, community centers, maintenance facilities and other employment centers–without an entourage–in the first weeks (months, if the government is large). This makes the point to employees that they are important and their work is at the center of the enterprise. This is worth doing whether you are brand-new to the government or are an old-timer, promoted from within.

Meet the first day with department heads and senior staff, establishing the ground rules and answering their questions. Continue with managers, employee representatives, the mayor, councilmembers and their staffs, council appointees and boards and commissions. Over the first year, meet with as many community organizations and interest groups as you can. Emphasize your priorities and that your office is open and accessible. This will take a lot of time but it will be worth it.

 2.      Be intentional about change. A new manager wants to improve the organization she or he is leading, and that often means changing things. But changing policies or people just for the sake of change is a bad idea. A good leader instinctively knows, when taking the reins, that the starting point has to be respect for the people, the organization and the way work is done. The new manager must be in a position to reassure employees that the direction going forward will be a good one. Someone who gains a reputation as an overt “change-agent” is not in a position to be the reassuring leader that the staff needs.

 3.      Emphasize a clear and consistent set of values. Policies and workloads will come and go but every professional manager has a few operating principles that inform the everyday work of the team. Some examples:

– Department heads and senior staff, when interacting with elected officials or the press, act not as free agents but as the city manager’s representative.
– Managers are expected to work collaboratively, making important decisions only after consulting with the other managers whose work will be affected.
– Continuous improvement is the goal of every manager, which requires a positive tone and a constructive environment.

Know the core values the first day on the job and use them as a unifying thread throughout all the work of the organization during your tenure.

4.      Use time wisely. How a new leader chooses to spend time reflects his or her sense of the scope of the new job and should be a major consideration in staff organization. There are three things to spend time on: people, general management and policy issues. While the balance between these elements varies with the scale and complexity of the government, each of these three dimensions of the role are important. To get the right balance requires a first-rate staff that is well-organized and functions like clock-work. This leads us to the final point.

5.      Organize staff to be effective. There are two different worlds that a successful city or county manager needs to be effective in: internal and external. The internal world is the operation of the executive branch of government, the administration. The external world is the mayor and council, the press, the community and other entities external to the government. To be effective, you need to organize so you can effectively lead in both worlds. That means you need staff support to get things done that you want to do. The best leader is constantly increasing the work that others (especially staff members whose work you control) do instead of the leader having to do it. The bottom line is that what’s most important is increasing the leverage of your time, working through others.

This obviously doesn’t cover every issue a new local government leader will face, as the challenges and rewards of the job are complex and ever-changing. Launching an organization review or management system review of the government will equip an incoming manager with a 360-degree look at the enterprise and most first-time managers will benefit from executive coaching. However, these few principles are important to get right from the beginning. Even veteran leaders will benefit from reviewing them before the first day at a new job.

Author: Jerry Newfarmer, a national leader in local government performance management, served as city manager in Fresno, Calif.; San Jose, Calif.; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Newfarmer is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations. Newfarmer has led his firm to nationally recognized expertise in municipal development review processes, strategic planning, budgeting and finance and organizational analysis.

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