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.

Power Hour: Local Government Style

The work desk TBR

This shiny new decade finds me as overwhelmed as ever, struggling to find new ways to be more productive. If I can just “catch up”…

As ever, I turn for advice to Gretchen Rubin. In her book Better Than Before, she demonstrates the power of habit and explores many ways to set or break habits. One of these tips is to create space for a “power hour”* on your calendar. Power hour tasks are usually those that weigh us down because we know we should be doing them (hello photos). I find that once I put a task on a list, it stops weighing so heavily on me. It has been given its own time and space.

I’ve used the power hour concept in my home for years (or else my computer would never be backed up and my Goodreads account would be empty). I wondered if power hour would work in Town Hall. The answer is unreservedly yes. I am striving to put one hour a week on my calendar to tackle the kinds of tasks that never make it to daily list and therefore will never get done. Power hour tasks are also the kind of thing you can easily do at the end of a long week when you run out of steam. Here is my initial list:

  • file
  • read national association magazines
  • read management books
  • take personality tests and review data
  • update policies
  • clean out your pen drawer
  • Update your resume
  • organize the drawer where you keep coffee, soup and stale rice cakes
  • de-clutter
  • file email
  • catalog your file drawers
  • upload work photos from your phone
  • update your password list
  • file more
  • throw out the Town Hall phone list from 2018
  • Reevaluate the display of elementary school pictures of your married kids
  • start and update a success log for yourself
  • develop a success log for your direct reports to help you when the time comes for performance reviews
  • create an annual schedule to meet with boards and committees
  • plan out your professional development
  • update contacts and birthday reminders
  • call people you like on the phone (gasp)
  • think up ideas for spicing up your budget message before the day it is due (By think up I mean find budget messages from other jurisdictions and borrow ideas.)
  • draft a list of topics and speakers for your upcoming leadership meetings
  • learn a new software
  • create a personal brand PowerPoint template (I am so doing this.)
Good thing this desk cabinet has doors

*Another thing I learned from Gretchen (I seem to say this as often as I say “I heard on NPR this morning…”) is that “Power Hour” is a fluency heuristic. According to Gretchen, the easier it is to say or think about something, the more valuable it feels. Ideas expressed in rhyming phrases seem even more convincing – hence “Power Hour” makes a chore more important. This got me thinking. I like to go to municipal buildings outside Town Hall just to walk through and say hello. It seems less like procrastinating with a name like “Rapport Tour.” Similarly, working remotely at a library or coffee shop is not hiding if your calendar lists it as part of your “Quiet Diet,” or your “Promote Remote 2020” initiative!

What would you add to the Town Hall power hour list? Do you have a fun fluency heuristic to share?

Let’s practice. Find me Friday afternoon – smiling while filing.

The Snow Day and the Chair

Snow Day in 2015 Holliston, MA

I lived in Boston for many winters, shoveling out parking spaces and reserving them with plastic lawn chairs. This is probably just a Boston thing. Working late nights in local government was not conducive to getting a good parking spot, and one never (ever) took a spot that had been shoveled and reserved (via chair) by someone else. But that isn’t the kind of chair I am talking about.

I often hear early career department managers, and assistant managers in particular, talking about the importance of “chair time.” This type of chair is an opportunity for aspiring managers to gain executive experience, on-the-job training, and resume-building by acting in place of the manager – or sitting in “the chair.” I try to foster these opportunities in my own organization, but I often want to tell earlier career managers to take their time. The chair will be here, but the days of working without the burden of being the one in charge, once gone, are usually gone forever.

Snow days are a source of great stress for most people other than school-age children. When I was the parent of young children, the snow day notice was a source of dread. One of us would have to stay home – and we would enter into negotiations to see whose meeting was more important. Even worse was the early release day. When your children go to after school programs and there is an early release day, you need to pick them up long before the traditional 6:00 closing time. This entails leaving work and driving through the treacherous conditions that caused the early release in the first place. If you commute by train, you have limited options and high stress.

Snow days are also stressful for local government managers. In my view, the worst time to be occupying “the chair” is the night before a projected snow storm with a low degree of confidence in the projection. When the Governor calls a state of emergency the night before the storm it certainly makes it a lot easier to make closing decisions, but when you are the manager, you never really get to enjoy a snow day.

Don’t get me wrong – the school superintendents have the absolute worst job in this realm. But, there is also pressure on the local government manager. Should the Town Hall open? What about the Library? Is trash collection going to be on schedule? Who am I supposed to notify again? Do we still need “phone trees” or can we rely on employees and the public to check our website and social media? After all these years of making decision in a haphazard manner, I recently asked our staff to make a checklist for snow day decisions. Brilliant. I still have to get up at 4:30 a.m., but at least I don’t routinely forget a step. Or re-write – for the 50th time – the closure notice to be posted to the website.

I live about 16 miles from my office. During the peak of a storm, I am absolutely non-essential. In this day and age, any decision that I need to make can be done easily from my phone or laptop. And yet. It is impossible to curl up with a book when I know that so many of our Public Works, Police, and Fire employees are working in terrible conditions with little rest.

I am nowhere near ready to retire from local government. But I can picture in my mind a snow day when I make a second pot of coffee and a fire. Perhaps there is Netflix involved. And a chair. Just not “the Chair.”

How about you? Do you have a snow day story to tell? Let’s Practice – shovel at the ready.

Honoring Military Veterans is a Local Tradition

Lt. Commander Rebecca Ping, Emergency Management Administrator, Needham MA

“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.” – Thucydides

While for the most part the military is a function of the Federal government, there is a unique and perhaps surprising interconnection between the military and local government. Local governments often own and maintain cemeteries, including special areas for veterans’ graves. In our State, every community has a veteran assigned to care for graves, usually marking them with flags at Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Cities and towns of a certain size are also required to have a Veterans Agent, and some of us provide services and coordinate benefits for veterans through regional districts. Local Veterans Agents help veterans and their families apply for benefits through the State, yet offer so much more. They help veterans navigate the Federal benefits they may be entitled to, especially through the VA Hospital network (routinely driving veterans and their families to appointments!) Most importantly, they offer advice and counsel about complex topics in a familiar setting, with great patience and compassion.

West Suburban Veterans District Director Sarada Kalpee with Very Kate on Veterans Day, 2016

Of course, observances for Memorial Day and Veterans Day are held at Federal and State level, but most average Americans who pay their respects do so at a local event. These observances, usually organized by a Veterans Agent or local veterans group like the VFW or American Legion (or, commonly, a mixture of both), are solemn yet beautiful events. They typically involve public safety honor guards and high school choirs or bands. While it is invariably raining or unseasonably cold, residents attend, listen to speeches by local officials, and sip donated coffee, carefully avoiding the doughnut table.

Earlier this month, our Town had the remarkable opportunity to welcome home the remains of Lt. Joseph Finneran, a World War II Army Airman who died in combat in 1943 at the age of 22. The outpouring of support from community members was overwhelming. The basic logistics were determined by the Army, but the observance had a truly local flavor, supported by fire and police departments of dozens of surrounding communities.

A hometown welcome for Lt. Joseph Finneran, November 1, 2019

Local government is an attractive career for veterans and reservists. I interview all finalists for police officer and firefighter positions in our Town. Their story is remarkably similar: they graduate from high school and attend liberal arts colleges in the area. They can’t imagine a life sitting at a desk, so they join the military. I always ask them what their mothers felt when they joined up, and the answer is the same: disbelief, fear, yet great pride. Many people might be surprised at the number of reservists who are called up for active duty still in 2019. Because we have a fair number of military personnel, we occasionally have to see our colleagues deploy. The Town’s Emergency Management Administrator recently returned from a year in the Middle East, and our Veterans Services Director will be shipping out to Africa in the near future. The sacrifice of enduring their absence pales in comparison to the sacrifices they make for our freedom and way of life.

What stories can you share about the intersection of military service and local government?

Let’s Practice, honoring those who see clearly what’s before them and go out to meet it.

Public Works: The Silent Arm of Public Safety

Public Works Vehicles adding to safety measures as Pope Francis visits DC – 2015

Most of us have a pretty good idea about the role of first responders. Police officers patrol the streets of our town 24 hours per day. In the community where I work, 99% of residents say their overall sense of safety is good or excellent. While, thankfully, most residents have not needed to call on fire or emergency medical services, they likely know someone who has. Satisfaction with Fire services is also very high.

I find that most people don’t naturally think of public works employees as first responders. And yet, if you see a car accident, crime scene, or house fire, look beyond the immediate perimeter and you will find DPW employees setting up traffic barriers, cleaning up debris, and lending a hand. I routinely ask front line police and fire personnel about their work with DPW employees, and they universally tell me that the relationship is essential.

Public Works employees are on the job every day of the week. Cities and towns that run their own water or wastewater treatment operations rely on daily monitoring. In our part of the country, there are two seasons – snow and ice removal and construction – meaning that it is never a good time for DPW employees to go on vacation. When it is windy and rainy and we are home watching football, you can be sure that DPW employees are being called out to manage downed trees and flooding. And as for wishing for a white Christmas? Don’t get me started.

I work in a full service, family-friendly community with excellent municipal services and top notch schools. One unusual feature of our town is that we have never offered municipal curbside trash collection. As a result, all 11,000 households must arrange for private trash pick-up, or, as the vast majority elect, fill the trunks of their cars with trash in “pay-per-throw bags” and recycling buckets and drive to our Recycling and Transfer Station. Literally thousands of them do this every week, most on Saturdays. Many residents will tell you going to the “dump” is a social event. They talk to neighbors, visit the “re-use it” shop for treasure, and maybe get their car washed by high schoolers at the park across the street.

This arrangement saves the Town budget millions in transportation costs. A side benefit of the system is that many residents get a true appreciation of the hard working employees who are directing the operation, and preparing the solid waste and recycling material for disposal. “Preparing” isn’t quite the right word for driving a piece of heavy (and thankfully enclosed) equipment over a towering mound of household trash to squish it into as little space as possible to fit into a hauler waiting below. (If this sounds exciting to you I can easily arrange for a tour). These employees are rightly proud of their work, performed in all conditions every week of the year.

Do you have a public works story to share? Try thanking a DPW employee next time you see one. Or, better yet, don’t groan when the plow comes by just after you cleared the end of your driveway…just wave.

Let’s practice.

What’s Saving Your Life Right Now?

Hey, it has Vitamin A

My daughter and I were driving around recently, discussing the things that are saving our lives right now. The last 90 days of the year can be an opportunity for restarting, or simply enduring. It’s really our choice. So while I have committed to more exercise, drinking more water, practicing gratitude, giving up (or, maybe easing back on) that one food item I know I should, and carving out more time in my day for passion projects, I know I can rely on the life savers list when I find myself white-knuckling it through to the end of the year. Below are a few of the things that are saving my life this season.

Ellio’s Pizza – I attend a lot of night meetings for work, and I can’t seem to get into the habit of having a nourishing, low carb, kale-based meal at my desk beforehand. My colleague Donna and I made a pact long ago that frozen pizza is a legitimate food group for busy women. Ellio’s is the go-to when I get home starving, and according to the Internet, it is one of the “healthier” frozen pizza options. Of course, you may recall it comes in frozen slabs containing three pieces, yet a “serving” is only two…

A Gym That Thinks for You – Said daughter and I recently joined a gym that thinks for us. We have to sign up for classes, and they are usually full. Anyone who cancels at the last minute is depriving someone else a slot. Since I am an Upholder who leans to Obliger, this level of accountability is just what I need. (If you haven’t taken Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz check it out! In my informal survey there seem to be a lot of Questioners in our local government field). But back to the list. So at my old gym, I did what I wanted at my own pace. Needless to say, I never really pushed myself very hard. At the new gym, the coach drives the treadmill, rower and strength training routine, and there is NO slacking. It thinks for you.

Podcasts – I am obsessed with podcasts. As an Upholder, I am incapable of doing fewer than two things at once. Like with books on tape audio books, I can listen while walking, running, driving, cooking, and cleaning the attic. Podcasts have the added advantage of being easily digestible in short bursts. I always seem to get something out of podcasts even when they are totally unrelated to my current work or interests. I recently told my husband that I now understand the mechanics of an email drip campaign to grow my on-line revenue. If I had an on-line business, this would be very practical advice. Current favorite podcasts include:

  • Happier with Gretchen Rubin
  • Rise with Rachel Hollis
  • Jill on Money with Jill Schlesinger
  • What Should I Read Next with Anne Bogel (the Modern Mrs. Darcy)
  • Before Breakfast & Best of Both Worlds with Laura Vanderkam
  • The Next Right Thing with Emily P. Freeman
  • The Lazy Genius with Kendra Adachi

Family Dinner – I am so fortunate to have both daughters, one son-in-law, a brother and sister-in-law and mother living close enough that we manage to have “family dinner” about three times per month. My husband joins us, as well as another couple we consider family. These are basic and quick affairs, we share (mostly!) the cooking and wine and desert buying, and bask in the connection.

Dinner Club – Both daughters and I share a dinner club with seven other amazing women of all backgrounds and professions. We range in age from 20’s to 50’s, reveling in each other’s accomplishments and commiserating over setbacks. We created the dinner club about two years ago, and meet every other month rotating homes and sometimes restaurants. Many of the members had never met, and yet this group is 100% saving our lives right now.

Checklists – I love a checklist. Especially a book checklist. Along with some friends, my younger daughter and I accepted the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s summer reading challenge, and we live to check off each book we read. We download checklists for starting over, living our best lives, establishing morning routines, you name it. Is there anything more satisfying than completing a task and checking it off?

Cooking While watching Football – The consolation for the end of summer in New England is a magnificent fall. This is the time of year to stay inside on a Sunday afternoon, meal prepping for the week and watching whatever football game is on. When it is cold enough for a fire? Winning.

What about you? What is saving you life right now? Please leave us a comment! And don’t forget to sign up to receive the Very Kate blog in your email.

Let’s practice.

Athenian “Mastermind?”

The 2019 Athenians, Aierlie House, June 2019

This past June I had the opportunity to participate in a week-long professional development program called the “Athenian Project.” Since then I have been trying to find the best way to describe this once in a lifetime event.

Should I focus on the “Socratic challenge” that I signed up to work on? The personal challenge and accountability project? The city-love that Peter Kageyama preaches? The evolving theme of healing civic democracy?

The Athenian Project is a professional development opportunity sponsored by the International City Management Association (ICMA). It was created after many members expressed the concern that there aren’t enough opportunities for senior career managers to gather, create new cohorts, learn new approaches, and ponder their legacies.

In June, 20 managers and ICMA staff gathered in Virginia to do just that. Some of the most amazing managers in the country attended. Some, like me, had served on the design team so we knew what to expect. Others took a leap of faith, believing that the power of the group would be transformational.

During the week-long session, we debated societal challenges relating to local government. We had many conversations about future goals – both personal and professional. We were collectively seeking a new well of motivation to recharge our careers. We also laughed, shared, and even sang around a campfire.

I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and hear many entrepreneurs talking about their mastermind classes. They talk about groups of leaders who navigate challenges together, sharing connections, networking, sharpening skills and learning to think bigger. Just recently it hit me – the Athenian Project is a mastermind class for local government leaders!

In his fascinating book When, Dan Pink talks about using “temporal landmarks” to start again. Landmarks used to navigate time can include the traditional ones like New Year’s Day, the first day of school, or a birthday. But temporal landmarks can also be events like week long retreats with amazing people. Pink notes that starting again can serve to relegate our old selves to the past, leaving us confident about our future, superior selves. These opportunities can slow our thinking, and allow us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions. This is just how I felt during the Athenian Project.

I am humbled to have been able to spend a week laughing and learning from my Athenian friends – I am confident that these relationships will endure for years. We plan to continue our work, teaching and writing about our challenges, and encouraging others to participate in the future.

So what am I doing differently after the Athenian project?

  1. Keeping in touch with the Athenians.
  2. Continuing to develop our Socratic challenge and pursuing my own personal challenge with my accountability partners.
  3. Pondering legacy and succession planning with more intention.
  4. Prioritizing time to work on big goals.
  5. Tackling challenges that are long overdue.
  6. Starting again!

Do you have a “Mastermind” group? If not, how could you create one of your own? If you cannot make the Athenian trip (or at least not now) can you create a cohort of your peers? Perhaps with colleagues in your organization who have similar goals, or those in other communities who have similar roles? Don’t be afraid to reach out – everyone likes to be asked!

Let’s practice, starting again!