By Buster Nicholson, Public Sector Outreach at American Public University
City and town managers have a unique job to say the least. They are bombarded daily with requests from all areas of their organizations and the public. The nature of these requests can quickly turn a municipal manager into a purely reactionary creature. This is not good for anyone’s career longevity as city councils and the voting public are notoriously fickle. Just doing an excellent job of completing tasks — many of which can be difficult and time consuming — may not be enough to keep a municipal manager out of hot water.
A municipal manager should consider all people with whom they come in contact as their customers, especially those on the council. With six or seven individuals acting as a municipal manager’s “boss,” and each of them bringing unique objectives and ideas to the table, it can sometimes be overwhelming trying to build consensus.
However, if you think of them as customers, you can aim to serve all council members in a way that accomplishes their goals while at the same time moving them toward shared results. But how does a municipal manager manage the “boss?”
Mastery of soft skills is critical to survive in what can be a hyper-political atmosphere, which is becoming more common in local governments. The poisonous tone set at the federal level has indeed leaked down into local politics. To become productive and set a positive tone, a municipal manager must approach each council member through the lens of customer service. Here are some ideas to help develop positive relationships among mayors and council members.
You Are the Product
Think of everyone employed in the workforce filling the role of a sales associate with the majority of them not even realizing it. For a transaction to occur, the potential buyer must be comfortable with the sales representative. My uncle and his son Geoff opened a gym focused on personalized training for an affluent clientele. Geoff is a strong guy who can literally pull a firetruck, which he has done in competitions. They decided to call the gym, “Body by Geoff.” I was puzzled by the choice of name, so I asked my uncle why he would put Geoff’s name on the business. He replied, “Because Geoff IS the product.”
That was an epiphany for me and changed my whole way of thinking when it came to managing municipal councils. You must think of yourself as the product to even have a chance at moving a diverse group, sometimes with competing ideas, in a unified direction.
Key In on Their Interests
People love to talk about their interests. That includes managers and potential managers. I once worked with an individual who could not stop talking during council meetings; it was embarrassing to watch the council members’ eyes glaze over as she droned on. Remember, you have to be a listener first because the conversation cannot be about you.
My father is probably the greatest salesman I have known. When I would ask him what is the key to his success, he’d say, “I would walk into a potential customer’s office and look around at the pictures on the walls and the souvenirs on the desk. I would take mental notes of the client’s interests based on what I saw in there. There may be a picture of him playing golf. If I didn’t know anything about golf, you better believe I would have learned something about it before the next meeting!” You need to take an active interest in your council members’ interests. This will build trust and help you when the tough decisions must be made.
Be Faithful with the Little Things
Here’s where listening skills come into play in a major way. As you have conversations with the council members, try to key in on their always-evolving issues. Pick out one or two easy wins: Something as simple as answering a question in a timely manner with quality content. You want your council members to feel good about you, which makes you valuable to them. I once had a council member who threw herself into the staff’s daily routines more thoroughly than her peers because she was retired and had lots of free time. I would listen to her, determine her interests, and “assign” her small jobs that helped me and made her feel valued. In return, I could usually count on her vote when we had an important town initiative before the council.
Building goodwill takes time and effort. Honing your sales associate skills will reap rewards as you present yourself to your customers, the council, in an appealing way. If you focus on customer service and diligently seek to serve those who have put their trust in you, the value you bring to the table will resonate with the entire council.
About the Author: Buster Nicholson is a senior manager of Public Sector Outreach at American Public University. He has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, an analyst for the United States Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At APU, he works with directors, senior managers, and staff from state and local government entities to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development. You can reach him at ANicholson@apus.edu.