Guidepost #9 – Julie Underwood

Posted on September 26, 2014

Underwood Connection

Welcome to week #9 of the Cookingham Connection. Julie Underwood is the City of Mercer Island, WA City Manager.

Guidepost #9:Get acquainted with your employees as rapidly as possible, and take time to let them show you what they have in their departments and how they do their work. (If you do not approve, go slowly in making drastic changes. The results will be much better and the improvements more lasting.)

Ultimately, Cookingham provides advice on change. And in fact, Cookingham advises us that there’s a right and wrong way to make changes.

Let’s face it, when a new manager comes on board the entire organization has to adjust to new leadership. Some staff will want to “show off” and demonstrate what a good job they’re doing. They have a lot of pride and would welcome the new boss’ attention. On the opposite side of the continuum there are staff who come to work daily doing their job with little fanfare. They don’t want a lot of attention and more or less want to be left alone to get their job done. And as you might expect, there are a lot of folks in the middle, who are indifferent. It would be nice to show off their work, but if the new boss doesn’t get around to seeing it, it’s not the end of the world.

Cookingham encourages us to get out into the organization and get acquainted with staff and learn how they do their job. I always loved going out into the field. It was enlightening to visit the Parks and Recreation Department to see the different kinds of activities the kids were doing during summer camp and how much the kids were enjoying themselves. I also liked seeing the Public Works Streets Division prep for the annual slurry seal program giving me a better sense of the level of work and resources involved. And probably one of the best experiences I had was visiting a residence following a Police bust and seeing the condition of the home and the pride the officers had in making a difference for this particular neighborhood.

As a manager, it’s common to be busy with work that keeps you away from frontline staff. However, it is important to be thoughtful and deliberate in making time to visit the teams across your city. To help me achieve this I would block out time on my calendar to “walk around.”  If I did not put it on my calendar there was little chance it would happen. And even then, sometimes it would be bumped for other pressing matters.

When I did find time to visit employees it was a great opportunity to hear suggestions and ideas for making improvements. When your staff sees a genuine interest in their work, they are more willing to be engaged. And according to Gallup’s study on the State of the Global Workplace, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work. A disengaged workforce impacts motivation, performance, and productivity.  And this would certainly impact the success and endurance of any change that would be implemented.

An insightful book that highlights the challenges to making changes and helpful strategies for implementing change is, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Like Cookingham, they also caution us about making drastic changes. They quote former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden who once said, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur….Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens–and when it happens, it lasts.”

I believe that if staff perceives a change as drastic or as a significant departure from how they’re used to doing things, then you have to approach that change differently. The new manager needs to spend time explaining why the change is needed (what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?) and needs to be clear on identifying the direction. Likewise, before launching the change, the manager needs to listen and understand why things are done a certain way. An indication that a change may be needed is if you hear, “We do it this way because that’s how the director wanted it done.”  Of course, that’s not the most compelling reason; you really want to get an answer for “why” and not “who.”

One of the most effective ways to minimize resistance and enhance acceptance of the the change is involving employees in the change. Employee committees are an effective way to build support and buy-in for the change. I’ve been fortunate to be part of some amazing change efforts that have truly made a lasting contribution on performance. And they were successful through the teamwork and collaboration of employees. Chip Heath and Dan Heath noted, “As people begin to act differently, they’ll start to think of themselves differently, and as their identity evolves, it will reinforce the new way of doing things.”

Cookingham subtly points out that as the manager you’re the one that gets to decide if a change is needed. However, in today’s world, it’s not just about deciding to change something, it’s also about involving the workforce in shaping how that change happens.

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