Managing Board-Staff Communications

Posted on July 10, 2023

Actor Rainn Wilson in a scene as "The Office" character Dwight Schrute. The caption on the image reads "Whenever I am about to do this something I ask myself, Should this go in the Weekly Report?"

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Matt Horn, Director of Local Government Services for MRB Group and a real Yankee Doodle Boy (feather in cap not included). To check out his many professional musings, peruse his LinkedIn profile.

What I’m Watching: Fireworks (or drone simulations of fireworks – tough to tell).

What I’m Listening to: The 1812 Overture (performed by Weezer, I think. They seem to cover everything.)

What I am Reading: It’s bedtime for Hudson, so Diary of a Wimpy Kid (OK, not everything I do is patriotic).

When I went to City Manager school, I learned the first rule of public management – the Board has one employee: the City Manager. All communication between the Board and the administration should flow through the Manager. Board members should not have organizational conversations with staff.

That’s a great textbook statement; and if all of life moved smoothly up and down an org chart, this would be a simply adhered-to principle. However, out here in the real world, we take management positions in communities that have existed for decades or centuries before our arrival. The Fire Chief played football with the Mayor, the Public Works Director is in the National Guard unit with the 1st Ward Councilmember, and the Recreation Director’s third cousin is married to the Democratic Committee chairperson. Small town, big town…it doesn’t matter – as Walt Disney said, it’s a small, small world.

IF we’re hoping our tenure lasts longer than the Buffalo Bills playoff hopes, we’ll need to be more malleable than our Public Administration 101 professor suggested that we be. Malleable means somewhere south of steel beams, but north of kite string.

In general, I have but two general rules with respect to board member-staff interaction:

  • Questions vs. Direction: Board members are absolutely entitled/required to ask questions about the details of the operation. A question is typically more easily interpreted the farther up the chain you go. For example, when a Board member asks “Why haven’t the leaves been picked up on 4th Street?”, a Public Works Director might quickly recite the pickup schedule, while an action-level staffer may feel inclined to run over to 4th Street and grab those leaves. Board members should absolutely refrain from giving direction, and should probably refrain from asking questions of staff members who might infer direction.
  • Policy vs. Activity: Across the organization, questions should be asked of the people who know the answer. If, during budget season, the Mayor asks action-level staffers about how the budget is going, he is likely to get an incomplete answer. Generally, policy questions should be asked of managers.
  • Communication: When a staff member hears from Board members, it’s important that it gets communicated upward. Back to our 4th Street issue – if one Board member asks, it might just be a simple inquiry. If multiple Board members ask, it could be a real problem. The manager will never know if she never hears.

So, how do we ensure that everyone who is looking for answers gets them? The best countermeasures to sub-optimal board – staff communications include:

  • Clear communications expectations: Meet early with the board as a whole, and with each individual board member. Seek to understand their preferred means of communications (both big picture and issue-by-issue), and reinforce your preferences for how they interact with you and staff. A universally-understood foundation will pay dividends well into the future.
  • The Weekly Report: I can’t believe I am typing this right now. The weekly report is the bane of most managers’ existence. There are many reasons for this – it’s due on Friday afternoon, we hate talking about minuscule stuff that already happened, we have more important things to do, etc. But – without some measure of broad-based, regular reporting you leave the door open for the board to seek answers wherever they may…
  • An internal policy: Make sure you have an understanding with your team about expectations. This could (and should) be as simple as “let me know if someone on the board contacts you…” I can’t emphasize enough that this should be no means be about control. It’s important for the manager (and valuable for the board) to know what questions are being asked. Many questions on the same topic can mean that the Manager has missed the mark on communicating the issue. If five board members are each contacting two or three staff members, then something has been missed.
  • A light touch: When things go awry, try to assume the best. When a Public Works foreman complains to the Alderman about a piece of equipment, or a lifeguard decries the use of SPF 50 instead of 80 to the Deputy Mayor, assume they had the best intentions at heart. Gently counsel the department head, and be sure that she gently counsels the action level team member. These are coaching opportunities, not the end of the world.

Staff managers and board members both have huge jobs, with high expectations and visible consequences. Board members are the critical footbridge between constituents and the administration. Create ample opportunities for your board to learn about the operation, and arm them with all the information they need to feel supported.

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