- By Keifer Johnson -
The job of a city manager is never simple. At the 2019 Colorado City & County Management Association (CCCMA) Annual Conference in Glenwood Springs, presenters and attendees focused on three leadership lessons for managers that come with both large challenges and great opportunities. City managers need to uphold good relationships with an expansive amount of people, they must be ready for change at a moment’s notice, and they need to reliably innovate improved ways to deal with their city’s issues. With some fantastic presenters, and plenty of conversation between sessions, there was a lot to learn about these three topics.
Highly functional relationships are essential for the success of any organization. Local governments are no exception. Positive relationships develop communication habits that flow freely. Open conversation skills improve problem solving, illuminate possible issues earlier on, and establish a culture of trust and friendship between staff members. A great work ethic is established as relationships prove to all parties that they are a part of an important team. An organization that works together will thrive, while one that silos and shuts members out will likely fail to achieve its goals.
Working with elected officials is a prime example of the necessity for positive relationships. "The ability to get the citizens behind what the councilors want to do is a function of relationships,” said Mark Achen, a retired chief executive who served cities in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. He is also the namesake and recipient of the CCCMA Mark Achen Lifetime Achievement Award.
Council members may have strong ideas for their city. But if residents don’t have faith in their government, those hopes may never come to fruition. Earning public trust takes time, commitment and building genuine relationships. A city manager must aptly toe the line between resident support and the wishes of council.
"Successful relationships with elected officials require being open and transparent," Achen said. His advice is important in both directions. Yes, city staff must be transparent with elected officials. But elected officials also should be open with staff members and citizens. Transparency builds trust, and trust allows powerful relationships to form. And these relationships enable great work to be done.
In her presentation, Justine Bruno, Assistant to the City Manager of Loveland, discussed the need for teamwork in dealing with local economic recessions. “You need to think, we’re in this together and we’ll get out of this together,” Bruno said.
“You can’t fight change. You can only manage it,” said Matt Cohrs, Administrator for the Town of Elizabeth.
As time passes, things change. City council members change, populations change, economic opportunities change, and countless other aspects of local government work change. How you deal with change can make or break your community’s success.
There were many great conference sessions about the changes seen throughout Colorado that impact local government. In recent years, the Centennial State has weathered growing and shifting demographics, including the third highest rate of older-adult population growth in the nation. “If communities are to sustain through the dips and bends of shifting demographics, they will need to understand what to expect,” said National Research Center, Inc. (NRC) Vice President Michelle Kobayashi, who spoke at the CCCMA Conference. Kobayashi’s presentation revealed results from a recent, state-wide survey of residents 65 years and older. “Right now, local governments need to prepare livable communities for people to age in place.”
City managers today must recognize and prepare for the needs of tomorrow. Ron LeBlanc, City Manager of Durango and Past President of the CCCMA board, spoke about the future of local government and how to prepare for it. “Be a lifelong learner,” LeBlanc said. “Read books, take courses, always try to improve yourself, and advance the greater good.”
Colorado has seen its fair-share of large-scale natural disasters in recent years. LeBlanc urged his fellow colleagues to stay informed and to be ready. “I can assure you climate change is real, and you are going to be affected by it,” he said. LeBlanc also discussed changes in technology, culture, and expectations by residents. With more than 40 years in city management, LeBlanc credits his long-standing career to his ability to adapt to change.
The 2019 CCCMA conference was packed in every way with innovative approaches to long-lived issues. Even the snacks called for innovation; packets of mixed nuts read, “Blaze your own trail.” Sessions implored participants to be original, creative, and unafraid to invent new ways to tackle old problems.
Book author and Alliance for Innovation (AFI) Senior Fellow Peter Kageyama spoke especially potent words on innovation. He encouraged attendees to step outside established norms to develop ideas that can really make improvements. “Sometimes, someone has to break the rules to get things done that need to be done,” Kageyama said.
He gave some examples of municipal innovation from his latest book, Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places. One town, for instance, wanted to build a water feature in the local park, but the costs would be too high. Instead of giving up on the idea, the town used a common garden hose and inexpensive equipment from a home improvement store to fashion a beautiful fountain. "Never apologize for your garden hose solution," Kageyama said.
His speech confronted the harm silos cause innovation. Instead of focusing on creating everything yourself, Kageyama said, work with your community to find what residents would appreciate the most. He said inventive local governments should not only ask stakeholders what they think, but also what they want to feel.
Whether running a town of five thousand or a city of five-hundred thousand, managers juggle innumerable issues. But the 2019 CCCMA conference expressed that if leaders focus on strong relationships, preparing for change, and innovation, they can handle anything.