Coexisting with Night Meetings

One of the fundamental truths about local government is that the profession requires a lot of night meetings.  I mean a lot. Because most of our governing bodies are volunteers with full-time day jobs, most of the policy making occurs between 7:00 and 10:00 p.m.

A “typical” town manager in our state attends select board meetings twice per month.  In the long budget season (sometimes December to May) the manager could attend at least two or three Finance Committee meetings every month.  If he or she is overseeing a large capital project, there will be public building committee and planning board meetings to cover.  Add to that mix any special board meetings and the annual and special town meetings and you start to get a sense of the time commitment.  And that list does not include any civic or charitable events, or the admirable goal of attending at least one meeting of key boards every year.  Most managers are out twice a week, and three times is fairly common. 

In my research about the careers of local government managers, I asked many seasoned managers why we have to work this many hours.  I hypothesized that the managers coming after us will simply not be willing to work the number of hours we do.  Not surprisingly, the later-stage career managers don’t see a path for change, while younger managers can imagine a different structure somewhere in the murky future.  Aspiring managers wholeheartedly agree with my hypothesis.

Especially in smaller communities, where the manager is also the HR Director and the Finance director, say, the notion of not working the traditional 40 hours as well as nights is hard to fathom, managers say.  Moreover, working 40 – 60 hours per week is the norm for any CEO. “In many ways this is the job and why we are paid the salaries we receive,” said a colleague.

A common theme is that some of the workload is self-imposed.  “We are successful as managers when we develop strong and supporting working relationships with our boards,” said one manager, noting that “part of that success, at our own peril, is being indispensable.”  Another manager of our seafaring state added, “You have different constituents and the like who expect you to be available at different times.  They add up.  And the ‘to do’ list never gets shorter.  You tend to accumulate responsibilities like barnacles especially when there is no one else who can do it (as much as we’d like to delegate).”

It was suggested that new managers need to accept the reality of long hours at least in the first few years of their careers as a CEO.  After they build relationships and credibility, they can delegate more.  While many seasoned managers have a hard time envisioning a different future, they are conflicted.  “I’m not 100% sure I agree with the initial premise” said one manager.  “However I will concede that may be a challenge in attracting qualified people to fill all the vacancies we are experiencing.”

If change is inevitable given the needs and wants of the next generation, what can be done?  One option is for local government to become more outcome-focused rather than input-focused.  Boards and committees would have to evaluate managers more on achievement of goals rather than the number of hours spent in meetings.  Delegation is another option, although most managers are protective of their staff and are reluctant to burden them further. If you can delegate, perhaps take the time to explain to the board or committee chair exactly why you are dividing up the work.  Catch up with committee chairs during the day when possible for coffee after watching their meetings on cable television. 

In the words of one manager, “We have a maximum amount of time we can bring to the job simply because of energy, logistics and other commitments.”  As a profession, we need to figure out how to get more done without meetings, use technology to shape the workplace structure, and spread the workload among department managers in our organizations. 

On a positive note, jobs that have the most night meetings tend to have a corresponding amount of flexibility.  Use it.  Exercise in the morning.  Have breakfast with your aging parents.  Go to school plays. One colleague notes “I’m not sure there is a solution to this problem, or that it is a problem.  The nature of the job is that it is 24/7. The best advice to managers is to maintain their own schedules and use slow times to add some extra time off.”  Well said. 

Finally, when taking a new job, the manager should set expectations with governing boards about the night meeting commitment.  Setting limits now will benefit those who come after us.  Local government CEOs have to be available 24/7 but the structure of that work will inevitably have to change, or manager candidates simply won’t take the jobs.

Local government managers and aspiring managers – can you imagine a different structure?  Do you have any tips for managing your time?  Will brick and mortar city and town halls remaining open every day be a thing of the past?

Let’s practice.

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