Counties Are Better!

Posted on September 4, 2018

county courthouse

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I recently had a conversation with a veteran City Manager in my state who was most curious about what it was like working for a county. This guy has been a city manager for nearly a decade (without any county experience) so he offered a clear perspective – “I like to be in charge”.

Managing a county is the “dark side” for some or a place others shy from because you have to ask permission a bit more than they would as a City Manager. Counties are interesting environments and I think more City Managers should better understand their county counterparts for more effective local relationships.

Prior to working for Routt County, I spent a decade working for a series of four cities. I didn’t plan to work for a county (I was one of those “cities are where it’s at” guys) but when the chance for advancement as a Deputy County Manager appeared, I jumped at it for several reasons. Primarily, I wanted to get more management experience and to build an organization myself rather than enhance a high performing one.  My county experience has been all I expected and more. County management has taught me that all places, departments and parts are not the same and each deserves my respect and understanding so that I can offer an appropriate solution.

County management requires skill in reading the situation. In most organizations, county commissioners are viewed as full-time employees – different and more involved than City Councilmembers. The difference of reporting to three commissioners versus five, seven or nine (god help those reporting to eleven or more councilmembers!!!) means that more power is concentrated in each commissioner. One person can have far more influence on the outcome of a discussion among commissioners. To get things done, a county manager needs to be skilled in knowing when to push, how to promote an idea, and when to shut up and ride along.

County management requires skill in leading from behind. I may have a unique experience but I have found that my commissioners want to make more operational decisions than a Council would. This exacerbates that typical problem of having laypeople make operational decisions – meaning that an experienced manager has to push gently and deftly to get a result. I have spent a significant time on strategic plan implementation, in assessment of departments and department functions that have gone stale and in making communication with both employees and residents a priority. None of these topics were top of mind to my commissioners but they needed to be addressed so I had to build my case and consistently push change until I was rewarded.

County management requires compromise. I have to work with about five elected department heads. These folks are independent elected officials but not completely independent – the commissioners still approve their budgets. All county elected positions are partisan and unfortunately that can bring in a level of “national politics” to operational decisions. I can call a meeting of all department heads and count on the fact that some of the elected department heads will choose to come and others will not. Also, as we make changes that affect elected department heads getting them to participate in county-wide initiatives can be a challenge that requires a discussion of WIIFM (what’s in it for me).

County management requires balance. It’s not only the people but managing a place that has multiple incorporated communities requires balancing the needs of those places and the people in them. There’s a simplicity to managing one place and rallying the community around completing a project or addressing a challenge. County management requires working with your own elected officials and those of each incorporated community. You’re not going to get ahead in that environment without balancing cooperation, tact and a firm hand to maintain eyes on the details.

County management requires you hustle harder. Let’s face it the whole “I’d rather be in charge”-thing comes with a certain truth. From a manager’s standpoint you’re working up hill and constantly in a place where you have to think not only what has to happen but how to convince others to let you make it happen.  The challenges can also come in the form of explaining county services or recruiting highly qualified candidates.

County management is more challenging than city management. OK I said it. Let’s debate that! I think that given the need for sharper people skills and ability to work collaboratively that county management is harder. I can’t mandate change as much as a city may – no matter how much it makes sense or meets the current best practice.

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