On January 21, 2021, ELGL members will discuss “Greedy Bastards” by Sheryl Scully at the ELGL Book Club. We gave away six signed copies of the book to our members and asked them to write reflections on the book. Here’s the reflection post by Ruanda McFerren, Housing Program Manager with the City of Kansas City, MO.
It is not the norm for a woman to be the top executive at a $3 billion organization with 13,000 employees. Over the last few years, it has been pretty well documented that women are often hired as company CEOs when businesses are in dire need of an overhaul and this precarity sets women up to fall off of the glass cliff. So, when a woman achieves this level of leadership, turns the organization around, and maintains the position for 14 years, you know she had to have done a lot of things right and that there are going to be some stories to tell. And Sheryl Sculley does tell some stories in her book Greedy Bastards: One City’s Texas-Size Struggle to Avoid a Financial Crisis.
Prior to reading, I was not familiar with Sculley and the notorious police and fire union contracts that she spent years negotiating. Because of this, I opened the book not really knowing what to expect. About the first two-fifths of this quick read serves as a highlight reel of the first few years Sculley spent in San Antonio. Implementing a new financial system, updating employee onboarding and a host of other staff trainings, building up a management team, and rooting out bribery and poor customer service in the city’s one stop development services center are some of the examples that stood out to me.
More than anything else though, what stood out to me most as I read was the amount of toxic masculinity that Sculley had to endure in her role. Toxic masculinity, as defined by Maya Salam in the New York Times, is “a set of behaviors and beliefs that include the following: suppressing emotions or masking distress, maintaining an appearance of hardness, [and] violence as an indicator of power.” Perhaps I am particularly primed to notice these instances since I have been thinking a lot about gender roles and norms lately. After all, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo is one of the last books I read in 2020. With chapters discussing a range of topics from voter enfranchisement to manifest destiny to sports, this book is a bit of a social history detailing the ways in which men have stifled different types of societal progress. A section on Sculley’s experiences negotiating with San Antonio’s police and fire unions would fit right perfectly in Oluo’s book.
You may be asking yourself why this was such a tense and toxic process. Well, San Antonio’s public safety unions had negotiated a real sweetheart of a contract in 1988 that they benefited from for over 25 years and, without significant contract changes, the city was headed for financial insolvency. Union leadership could have realized that the current contracts had outlived their useful life, but they did not. Instead, they approached the negotiations with an attitude of “if all else fails, we’ll drop the bomb and live in the ashes.” The smear campaigns against Sculley, stall tactics, and escalation strategies that union leadership used were part of a formula outlined in a step-by-step guide for unions on how to defeat city hall.
The negotiations in San Antonio didn’t have to be this way. In fact, they more than likely would not have been as contentious had Sculley been a Stewart instead of a Sheryl. San Antonio journalist Robert Rivard probably said it best: “When women like Sculley excel, it’s not uncommon to see them targeted as intimidating or tagged with one or more of the B-words: Bossy, Bitchy, Bully. It’s an effective way to change the subject when … the status quo is challenged.”
As Sculley said early on in the book, this really could be the story of events in Any City, USA. While she had an extreme experience due to San Antonio’s size, the issues she faced can and do play out all over the country. So, here are two clear takeaways that may be helpful to you in your city, regardless of your gender:
Lay the groundwork to be successful. Sculley and her team spent countless hours over years educating four different mayors and 40+ council members on why changing these union contracts could not wait. The team had the numbers to back them up and had done stakeholder outreach to identify community allies. This allowed them to stand firm in their approach and have an outcome that benefitted the city for the long term.
Consider what is being sacrificed. I am sure that the leadership of the San Antonio’s police and fire unions felt that they were doing what was right to protect their members. But, in fighting to keep their preexisting union contracts in such a public and negative way, a lot of community good will and morale among the uniformed employees was lost. Not to mention how many probably hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent on their efforts. This energy could have been directed to other, more beneficial, areas had they thought early on about whether or not a brutal fight to keep the contracts was worth the cost.
Ruanda McFerren is a Housing Program Manager with the City of Kansas City, MO where she works on federal contract administration and special projects. She is a previous Cookingham-Noll Management Fellow and an Arkansas native. Connect with Ruanda on Twitter or LinkedIn.