On Bob O'Neill, Local Government Leadership, & the Civil War

Antietam, 2007

Me: Hey Bob, would you be willing to let me interview you for the VeryKate blog?

Bob: Of course.

Me: Great. Can you email me answers to these six questions?

Bob: Well it would be a lot more fun if we can talk!!! But I will do what is best for you.

Me: Yes. Of course you are right. As usual.

So excited to find a picture of Bob and VeryKate together blurry or not! (ICMA Boston 2013)

I can’t say enough good things about Bob. Last spring, I had the chance to present a training session on resilient leadership with him on Cape Cod and it was a dream come true. (Let’s just say that the picture of us from that event, while not blurry, was highly unflattering). A former ICMA executive director, Fairfax County Executive, and Hampton, VA city manager, Bob now works in a variety of roles teaching and coaching on finance and leadership.

I always knew Bob from a distance, but we really got to know each other at the inaugural Gettysburg Leadership Institute in 2007, bonding over Civil War history and leadership lessons. I couldn’t find a single picture from that trip, and a little Internet research reminded me of the likely cause – the first IPhone was not released until June of that year. I had to make due with a picture of Antietam from a family vacation that same year. (Yes, I visited more than one major Civil War battle field in a four-month period.)

So back to Bob. Since he declined to write my blog for me, I had a rollicking 30 minutes or so connecting with him on the telephone. I was also writing furiously with a PEN on a PAD OF PAPER so I am forced to paraphrase our discussion.

Random picture of Bob from the Internet.

How did you get involved in local government leadership? Like so many of us, Bob walked into a city hall (this one in Hampton Virginia) after his first year of college, and found himself an internship. While he had no earthly idea what local government was all about, he spent his summer performing time and motion studies about street patching (sounds hot) and drafting personnel policies. When I asked him if he felt he added any value that summer, Bob said the city manager wanted to see if he would stick it out. Those were heady days, with local government on the front-line of social programs. Hooked, Bob worked for the city all through college and got himself hired as the assistant city manager at 24 years old. Upon reflection, this was a stretch role – most department managers were twice his age!

What was the most challenging aspect of managing in the public sector? Not surprisingly, Bob lists leadership as a big challenge. He notes that he had to figure out how to work with people who knew more than he did, and how to create a team. Bob told me that when he was first hired, there were a lot of young city managers who probably wouldn’t even meet the minimum entrance requirements to be a budget analyst today. There is so much competition for talent, we need to be widening rather than limiting the pool of applicants. We should also be looking more closely in our own organizations for employees to promote.

Bob also expressed a familiar frustration that there is a stakeholder group for everything you can think of. So how can we get everybody in on the act, and yet still take action? Bob was an early convert to the notion that there is no other way to move a project forward than to get everyone engaged in the process. It is messy and slow, but the result is the one that is most likely to stick. Otherwise, we are just shoving the “right” decision down people’s throats. And we know how that turns out.

What advice would you give later-career managers who are struggling to find new sources of motivation at work? Bob gave me great perspective on the value of dual direction mentorships. We all spend a lot of time talking about preparing the next generation for leadership, but of course such mentoring is not all one-way. Early career managers are teaching us new approaches on a daily basis, and we should find more opportunities to embrace this learning. Bob also suggested that many later career managers don’t see themselves as role models, and are perhaps too humble about what they have to offer. He believes that for early career managers, time with the “older set” is priceless. Managers are so used to deferring credit that they forget that they have great value to impart to others.

What would you tell your early-career self?  This hits home. Bob would tell his earlier self that the simple, obvious, technical solution is not always the best option. I am reminding myself of that as I write this. Maybe it will stick this time.

What are the areas of local government that you believe will be the most impacted by the pace of change? Bob says that the biggest challenge for government responding to change is that there is no money for research and development, and no seed capital for experimentation. Even if you have a cool idea, where would you get the funds to explore it? Bob’s solution was to create what he called “venture teams” every place he worked. The teams would focus on an issue that was likely to be increasingly important over the three to five year horizon, find out what the the best places in the world do, what the city is doing, and then identify the gap. (Bob is quick to point out it was more fun for those teams to go to places like Disney World and Busch Gardens as field research back before we had Google). For example, the teams discovered at a nearby air force base that pride and performance improved when the mechanic’s name was painted on the plane along with the pilot’s. Bob encourages all managers to consider the use of such venture teams to identify looming issues and scan the environment for solutions.

I have heard you say many times that you think this is the best time to be an early career employee in local government.  Why is that? Bob thinks that this is an amazing time to be involved in local government – in a lot of ways our times are similar to when he started out. Local government has never been more important, especially as ordinary Americans report that their faith in government is highest (by far) at the local level. A generation is leaving the workforce, and the opportunity for new leadership is available to those who are prepared to take this risk.

So let’s practice, learning from those newer to the profession than we are, exploring the use of venture teams, and promoting the profession. For help spreading the word, check out the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Mass Town Careers project. Maybe you will spy a VeryKate follower or two, as well as great footage of our town.

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