In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Pete Haga, City of Grand Forks, North Dakota, reflects on his 21 years in Grand Forks.
The three biggest factors that have kept me at the City of Grand Forks are my boss, the ability to have impact in diverse ways, and working in a collaborative team environment.
The retention effect of good bosses
We’ve all heard, “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.” My corollary: “People don’t stay in good jobs, they stay with good bosses.” The biggest reason I’ve for my longevity is my boss, Mayor Michael R. Brown.
I started at the City after the devastating 1997 flood in communications and thought I’d stay three years maximum. The job included answering phone calls about myriad recovery programs, helping people through the tragedy of lost homes, and communicating the City’s vision for long-term recovery through public meetings, newsletters, and our first City website (a copy of “HTML for Dummies” propped up on my desktop computer).
Those three years later, Mayor Brown was elected and for the unprecedented almost 20 years since, the town, the residents, and my professional life have thrived.
Early on, his “Tackle tough issues” and “You win, I win” leadership had the team focused on improving relationships, including with area non-profits, state and federal partners, and particularly between the Chamber of Commerce/business sector and City Hall. This provided opportunities to initiate our successful TEAM GRAND FORKS legislative team with the Chamber President, produce joint City/Chamber State of the City events, and partner in countless community building efforts.
The Mayor promotes curiosity and learning from others, especially R&D (Rip off & Duplicate) of best practices. So my work is continually reinvigorated and reimagined with active involvement in organizations like the National League of Cities, the International Town and Gown Association and ELGL.
His commitment to young people provided opportunities to organize a Youth Commission and navigate Sister City relationshipsfro Norway to Japan.
He is forgiving with my mistakes, never criticizing publicly, but steady in his high expectation. He not only recites common Mantras – some taped on the office wall – “People over policies”, “Do the right thing, not the easy thing”, “It’s amazing you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit”, etc., but he lives them. Working for someone like that is humbling and inspiring. And it is an honor from which I am not eager to walk away.
Giving the chance to have an impact is critical to retaining people
I’ve found if you feel valuable and believe you make an impact, you want to stay.
From early on I have had roles in transactional projects like supporting boat docks and bike share along our ELGL Knope Award Top 8 Greenway or recycling containers, cafe lights and Proud Home of the University of North Dakota (UND) banners downtown.
Moreover, I’m truly grateful to have been a part of transformational ones like the Mayor’s Call to Action on Opioids, the Safer Tomorrows project to end or mitigate childhood exposure to violence, the Grand Forks Immigrant Integration Initiative, and the Welcoming Community Roadmap project.
These types of opportunities to have meaningful roles are increasing for employees across the City of Grand Forks. Our City Administrator, backed by an excellent administrative City team, has done some outstanding work in breaking silos and putting people, including interns and brand new employees, in positions to to have impact.
In fact, it is happening throughout the community so inspiring to experience the surge of new leaders, passionate and talented individuals heading our Young Professionals, Downtown Association, Community Foundations and otherwise creating vibrancy and in the community. Importantly, Grand Forks as a whole and “experienced” (not “old”) leaders have embraced and empowered them.
Working in a collaborative team environment
Collaboration is really Grand Forks’ “Secret Sauce”. Any visitor or newcomer identifies it immediately and it is the expected modus operendi both within city government and around the community.
I thrive professionally and personally in this team environment. I recently read a study online that working in a place where you know people have your back is a key determinant in job satisfaction. It was. on the internet; it must be right.
Starting from the top, the Mayor and City Adminitrator emphasize the team approach, articulating clear direction, creating cross-department teams, and fostering trust with open communication and a demonstrated assurance that someone has our back.
I’ve been fortunate to play various roles creating “Top 10 College Town” opportunities with the University of North Dakota. Building on a foundation laid by many over the years, recent town-gown collaborations led by the City’s administrative team with with terrific UND leaders, including Student Government, include integrated infrastructure projects, partnered mixed use developments, student-focused experience, that are both literally and figuratively strengthening connections.
A prime example of community collaboration is the Grand Forks is Cooler Thank You Think – workforce campaign. With temps that dip to -30 in January, that’s pretty clever, right? Led by the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation, this #GFisCooler project convened human resource professionals from across the community and forged a brilliant workforce tool we all use.
Bonus reason why I’ve stayed
My family, especially my wife, is the reason I can do what I do and Grand Forks is wonderful for my family.
Through two decades, my family has tolerated being stopped at hockey games for a “quick question” about a recent construction project or at the downtown farmer’s market for a “friendly suggestion” on city spending or service delivery. They do so because living in Grand Forks is worth it. Grand Forks has given me much, but nothing more valuable than the ability for my family to thrive.
Grand Forks is led by Mayor who inspires and empowers, energized by a corps of diverse leaders who are making an impact, and has a team with a simple game plan: Collaborate. Add to that a great place to support a family who supports you, and the question really should be, “Why would I NOT stay in Grand Forks for 21 years.”