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Buster Nicholson

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Podcast featuring Buster Nicholsonmanager of Public Sector Outreach and
Horace McHugh, President, Florida City County Management Association

Being a municipal leader means working with a diverse group of people. In this episode, AMU’s Buster Nicholson talks to Horace McHugh, President of Florida City County Management Association about his experience in municipal leadership and the strategies that have worked best to help him accomplish community goals. Learn the importance of training and professional development, the role of ethics and integrity in government leadership, and why all municipalities should encourage mentoring among employees.

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Buster Nicholson: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Buster Nicholson. This show is dedicated to highlighting issues facing communities from perspectives of those in local leadership positions. Today, my guest is Horace McHugh, President of Florida City County Management Association.

Horace’s municipal career spans over 29 years in various south Florida cities serving as Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Plantation, Deputy City Manager for the City of Coral Springs, Assistant City Manager for the cities of North Miami Beach, Oakland Park, and Miami Gardens and Assistant to the City Manager in Fort Lauderdale.

His background includes a startup of several key departments for a newly incorporated city, municipal bond processes, infrastructure planning, capital project implementation, and long-term and strategic planning. He is also a [former] President of Leadership Broward and [former] board member of Broward Partnership for Homeless. Horace, it’s a pleasure to have you here and welcome to the show.

Horace McHugh: Good morning, Buster. Thank you.

Buster Nicholson: So, you currently serve as President of Florida City County Manager Association, or FCCMA. What is FCCMA and who does it serve?

Horace McHugh: FCCMA is an association of local government public administrators, city managers, county administrators. It’s a professional institution whose foundation is on ethics and its statewide membership is comprised of individuals from all over the state of Florida, which includes over 400 municipalities cities, 65 counties, special districts, other government agencies.

And the idea is to develop a process, or serve the community in terms of providing public administration, public service, do it in a manner that’s professional founded on ethics and serving the membership.

Buster Nicholson: I love that. I love that “founded on ethics.” I mean, leadership is basically tied to ethics. I mean, you can’t separate the two. So how does FCCMA facilitate leadership and development amongst its members?

Horace McHugh: Some of the things that we do, you did mention, and you did highlight the issue of ethics and it’s founded on its hallmarks are on ethics and integrity. We serve the public and we are stewards of the public’s resources in terms of tax dollars in terms of the spend in the funds. So we have to ensure that whatever we do is bounded by a professional and ethical direction. It’s not arbitrary.

So some of the things that we do in terms developing leadership is provide meaningful professional development and training opportunities. We do a number of webinars, which are probably one-hour sessions, at least 12 of those per year. We do institutes and symposiums that focus and highlight on specific topics and dig down a little deeper into them. We do a district training. We have the state divided into various districts and each district maybe going through unique issues so we do district trainings that talk about the issues that are unique to that district.

We do an annual conference at least where statewide, everyone is able to get together in person and talk about some of the issues that again are facing the professionals, facing the municipalities. The idea of all of these is to talk about our shared experiences, talk about best practices. And we help in terms of whether it’s mentoring, training, in terms of some of the personal skills that our members may need with negotiations, persuasion, things like organizational challenges we talk about. Strategic planning, soft skills like council relations, look at performance measurements, benchmarking.

As I said, dealing with best practices and shared experiences. Even most recently, we had the pandemic and a lot of us may benefit from the efforts of others in terms of how they dealt with a pandemic or in other instances, the impacts of the pandemic and how we’ll recover, what are the next steps of dealing with it, how it affects our downtowns, our revenues, our traffics? So some of those are the types of professional development that we offer

We actually have a very, very engaged membership and the membership is extremely diverse. And the diversity comes in terms of number of areas, whether it’s rural versus urban, whether it’s small versus large municipalities, counties versus cities, geographic, members at various stages of their life careers, those are that are emerging, those who are retiring. So those are all things that we do in terms of leadership development for our members, as well as advocating the value of professional, local government experiences and advocacy. So those are some of the things that we do in terms of supporting and advocating leadership within our organization.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And I mean, that is a great mission and role for the FCCMA because you have soft skills and they are very difficult to manage in a lot of ways to realize you as a leader, anyone as a leader, would say to themselves, “How do I interact with the public? How am I perceived by the public?”

And being a public figure, you have the council up there but you also have the staff which has always front facing and dealing with situations like the pandemic. I mean, you have businesses that were shut down for a period of time. You have people that have lost revenue, you’ve lost revenue in your budget. So there’s a lot of nuances to the job, especially in times of stress or crisis.

Horace McHugh: Yes, certainly. During the pandemic they offered some unique challenges where in some instances we had to determine whether city hall was open or not. We wanted to serve the public, serve the community. At the other hand, we wanted to provide a safe environment for our staff. So those are challenges. We still wanted to process building permits and inspections. There were certain areas that could work from home where others could not. So those provided a variety of issues or responsibility to offer, testing of our employees who were there.

Our efforts to provide outreach services to the committed interpretive testing. And when it was difficult to test or in terms of vaccination when those were still not available. So those are all challenges that individual municipalities faced. Collectively, we got together, talked about some of the strategies we used, talk about some of the best practices. This was something that was a very, very fluid process that change on a regular basis from day to day and even more frequently.

Buster Nicholson: Right. And that presents a whole other set of challenges, right? Because as humans, we draw from our past experiences to deal with current issues, problems. And there isn’t a whole lot of past experience for 2020, you know what I mean?

Horace McHugh: Correct. We have a lot of experience dealing with public health crisis, or dealing with hurricanes and we’ve got a playbook, or most municipalities have playbooks to deal with that. And we rehearse that and we anticipate that. And in this case, we really did not know, had to work it day by day and hoping that the outcome would be the best.

Buster Nicholson: So when you’re talking about pandemic versus hurricane, versus day-to-day, versus community relations, there are certain leadership qualities that transcend every issue and can be applied to any situation. So talk a little bit about your leadership philosophy and style.

Horace McHugh: My leadership philosophy and style for my employees that would include giving them the instructions that they need and the direction that they need, providing them with examples in terms of the way I behave and I conduct myself. Probably holding them accountable as I would expect to be held accountable. And mentoring them in terms of steering them in the direction that I think they should be going. So those are probably some styles that could be implemented or could be used.

Other things that are real critical is communication. Communicating what you’re doing, what the goals are, what the visions are so that your team members know the direction you’re going. Communicating with the public, you’re receiving their feedback, you’re understanding what their concerns are. And again, in conjunction with a council members, you’re developing the direction and going in a direction that serves them well, and that is responsive to their needs. So those are some of the leadership styles or philosophies that I would advocate.

Buster Nicholson: Yes. And leadership comes at any level in an organization. Leadership is a philosophy, like you said, a style, and you talked a little bit about the council who definitely are in leadership roles, but also their staff can take leadership position on making change or completing projects or moving in a general direction. And you did mention the council. So tell me about some of your strategies when working with a council. You typically have seven individuals with varying personalities and basically differing goals. So how do you facilitate moving all those individuals in towards a shared goal?

Horace McHugh: Yes, you did mention seven. Sometimes it’s five elected officials and the challenge there is each of them are individual, strong personalities who have a passion for moving the community forward. And the challenge is balancing their personal desires, their personal goals with that of the strategic plan of the organization that have the community needs. And some other objectives.

What I think is helpful is in an organization with the council, there is a strategic plan or one that has been developed. What it does is collectively look at where the organization should be or desires to be within a five-year period or a longer term period. So, that sets a general direction of where the municipality is going. Some of the priorities, some of the objectives that we like to achieve over a longer term period. The budget itself, and that hopefully you’d have the buy-in of the elected officials because they would be the ones developing it.

So you may have a majority of them supporting a particular direction that should be advocated, whether it’s that maintaining or replacing infrastructure, whether that’s economic development, whether that’s redevelopment in particular areas, all those are objectives that are multi-year. So it’s helpful if you develop something on a longer term that would set the direction of where you’d want to go.

On an annual basis, you’d be doing the budget and what the budget does is look at the one year, the resources, the funding, and the allocation that would get you to be achieving that. Plus, dealing with your normal operational day-to-day desires that the council is involved in also, in addition to the input and recommendations of your professional staff, telling you what would need to be done, what needs to be replaced, but bringing that to the council for them to provide the support for those.

So between the five-year objectives and the one-year goal, then you have the activities that you’re dealing with on a regular basis, a day-to-day basis. And hopefully a lot of this, a lot of what you’re doing, a lot of your staffing, a lot of increase, a lot of your spending is supplemented and coordinated in terms of performance-based or data-driven, analytical, reflective of the community’s needs. So these are all ways I think that are helpful in terms of providing the information to the council, which would help them to collectively buy-in to some of this, be on the same page and move forward.

Certainly, despite that you’ll have differences in, there is a goal and how to get to the goals. So there’ll be differences in the steps that would be taken to get to the goal. And very often it’s a matter of speaking to the commissioners, whether it’s individually explaining the issues to them, having them understand if there are questions to be asked, providing that justification so that they understand and feel comfortable in the decisions that they’re being asked to make publicly.

Buster Nicholson: I love that. You brought up a couple of really good points there. One, being a tool as the comprehensive plan updated every five years in many states. The plan of the town, the city, the municipality, using that as a guide for the council and basically educating new members, “Hey, here’s what the comprehensive plan is. This is where we’re going.”

And then I loved what you said about, “Hey, data-driven reporting back to them. Here’s where we’ve been. We’re 10% done. We’re 15%. We’re getting there.” And using that as a communicative tool to say to them, you’re going in the direction that was put here, maybe by a former council or by that existing council. But that piece of using the comprehensive plan as a tool, almost as a rallying point for everybody to get around. And if they want to change that direction, there’s always that opportunity. That plan can be amended at any time, although it has to be done every five years in many states, it can be amended at will of the council.

Horace McHugh: I think you’re referring to the comp plan, which is correct, but I was referring to the strategic plan. So, outside of the comp plan, I think what I’d encourage each municipality to do is to look at strategically where you want to be, what are some of the things that are unique to your municipality that you’d like to accomplish. That then provides a direction of how you want to get there and the steps that you’d be taking and the funding and the resources that you’d wanted to allocate to that.

And as you said, that can be changed very easily by a majority of the elected officials, but it’s something that’s intended to be not changed on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis. It’s something that this is more like a long-term projection of where we’d want to be. That turned back to the professionals to say, what are the steps you’d need to take to get there? And that would be some of the driving forces behind the actions that the staff is taking and the funding that’s allocated for some of these initiatives.

Buster Nicholson: Sure. And changing that week to week would create a lot of work for the staff. Wouldn’t it?

Horace McHugh: A lot of confusion also.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. So yeah, I like that. I like, again, the reporting back to the council with data-driven statistics and analysis and so forth. And that’s just a good tool for them to see where they’ve been and where they’re going. So you’ve been in management roles most of your career here, and you’ve managed many employees. So tell me how you keep employees motivated?

Horace McHugh: I think a key thing to keeping employees motivated is again, providing clear direction. You hire professionals so you allow them to operate in a professional manner, recognizing that we are operating in a political environment, but our decisions should not be political. Our decisions are analytical and it’s based on the technical background that each of our experience and our expertise brings. So whether it’s an engineering, whether it’s a road repaving, that’s based on certain calculations, not based on the support of a particular community of an elected official who won election. For example, whether it’s hiring that’s based on the best qualified, best fit, best skill. So those are all, some of the professional areas that we operate in. So providing clear direction, allowing the professionals to use our professional skills, to provide the recommendation and to operate in that arena, treating employees fairly. I think those are all areas that are important.

Developing a team and helping the employees to feel that they’re part of the team. You’re building the team, helping them feel that they’re working towards a common goal where you value their input, or each employee feels that they’re critical to the organization’s success. Some of the steps in helping them feel that way is even public acknowledgements of their initiatives or visiting the field workers on site and expressing an interest in their job, visiting some of the facilities that they’re serving that they’re extremely proud off. So these are all things that bode well in terms of motivation and development of pride above among the employees.

Buster Nicholson: I agree. And the development does help when you show up, if you’re in a leadership position to express interest and you show a genuine interest in what’s going on. You learn about what they do and you learn a lot from them. I used to be a town administrator and I would go out on the job site, maybe pitch in a little bit, some water/sewer projects, and really just ask a lot of questions. And I am genuinely interested in that. So I think that’s critical. I do agree with you that you come out and you express interest in what the employees are doing.

Yeah, very often they see the administrative staff as very detached and uninterested in what they’re doing and not understanding it. And obviously in many instances, in terms of compensation, there’s some concerns there and that guided by negotiation, labor relations issues. So there’s a disconnect between what they’re doing and how they perceive administrative staff operating. So it’s extremely helpful to engage with these employees whenever you can and offer that level of interest in the work that they’re doing, and understanding of what services and activities that they’re performing.

Buster Nicholson: That’s good. That’s really good. So who are some of your role models and mentors?

Horace McHugh: So growing up, I was blessed with parents who instilled values of discipline, hard work, and pointing out the value of education. My father, for example, was self-employed, an entrepreneur with several businesses. So holidays for me meant working in his business, getting up early and working late. My grandfather also had his own business and in addition to his regular work, he was active in the community, active in church. And so those were all values that my parents, my family helped to instill within me.

From a professional level. The first city manager I worked with—George Hanbury—was a great advocate for local government and professional public administration and the commission manager form of providing professional services. He was a real visionary of forward-thinking in terms of the service models to the community. And he had a 30-year career in local government where he did this for the community.

And while I worked with him, he was extremely helpful in helping me understand how to be thinking of the community needs long-term, how to deliver those community needs, how to be engaged in interacting with the elected officials and the community. And these were all things that I really, really appreciated. He left the profession after 30 some years and went on to serve, continuing to serve, the public this time at a university as the president CEO and professor. So he was a great role model who I admire in terms of the things that he did and his service to the public and to the community.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And it’s such a blessing when you look back through your life and you look at those people that influenced you in a positive way and your family, your coworkers. I often thought about doing an exercise where I just sat down and wrote that out. Like what people have put into my life and those are the real treasures: the time spent, the care, the deliberate, mentoring, and training. It is an incredible blessing to have that in your life.

Horace McHugh: Right. And additionally, it’s an opportunity as we hit certain milestones, a 25 or 30 year mark in the profession, it’s an opportunity for us then to pay that forward and to invest in emerging professionals in terms of mentoring them, in terms of offering them advice and in terms of steering them in the direction that would allow them to continue along in the profession and advocate good public practices.

Buster Nicholson: Right, right. It is so rewarding to be a part of somebody’s career growth and imparting on them, wisdom that you’ve gained from others and your experiences and just helping them to grow, seeing them grow and just being there for them. I know I always had an open door policy when I was in management. And because to me that was the most important thing, building others up. It was the most rewarding to me. Okay. And I’m going to have one last question here Horace, and just tell me what are the most rewarding professional achievements you have accomplished?

Horace McHugh: It’s hard to think of just one or just two, I think in terms of rewarding accomplishments, it’s things that would be developing a long-term sustainable community and that’s what we do day to day. We work in a community. We take the steps that we need to take and hope that it’s moving the community forward.

So with that, I could probably think back to a few. For example, in one municipality, it was initiating a $60 million bond. And that bond was used for replacing fire stations, for road improvements, for park improvements. In another city, replacing $28 million to $30 million in aging infrastructure, underground infrastructure, in water, sewer, storm water, pipes, the roadway, the beautification. In another city, it’s developing a five-year strategic financial action plan for the CRA that would set the direction of where the CRA would be going and some of the initiatives here.

Probably another municipality, this was a startup city where, when I came in, I was the fifth employee. It’s participating in that and starting the new municipality and starting up the departments like HR, IT, finance, procurement, those departments from scratch, including participating in the startup of a 250 member police agency. Those are all things, especially in this last one that I did mention, I think the community on a whole recognized that they needed more and they felt that they were underserved and as a result, they incorporated themselves and they were looking at a number of services that they would want provided to them.

So I was blessed in terms of being there to be able to help, to deliver some of those services, set the foundation for that city, set some of the basic needs that they had, so that it’s on a path towards a long-term sustainable direction so that after I left, it was able to continue along. So I think those are some of the most rewarding accomplishments.

And certainly while we talk about this in terms of accomplishments in projects, similar things could be said for individuals, the people we have invested in to have seen them over a period of time advance and certainly develop successful careers. Those are all rewarding things for me.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And what a unique opportunity. Going into a startup locality. That’s really cool.

Horace McHugh: Yeah. That was difficult at times when you’re going through it. At the end of the day, you have a checklist, you’re able to check off a number of things that you were able to accomplish and looking back, it’s real gratifying to have served in that capacity.

Buster Nicholson: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well Horace, thank you for joining me today and for sharing your expertise and perspective on these issues.

Horace McHugh: Well, it’s my pleasure Buster, and certainly hope it will be helpful in terms of offering some benefit to you as well as to the audience and I appreciate being invited. Thank you.

Buster Nicholson: And thank you to our listeners for joining us for another episode. Have a great day.