Part II: Future of Local Government – 6 Critical Skills to Strengthen

Posted on January 15, 2014

Reigning Knope of the Week Julie Underwood is back with part two of the two-part article on “Forecasting the Future of Local Government.”  Julie is currently in transition due to spouse’s job relocation to Silicon Valley, CA. Julie was appointed Shoreline City Manager February 2011 and served until October 2013.

Forecasting the Future of Local Government: 6 Critical Skills to Strengthen


This is part two of a two-part article. Part one outlined my observations that are impacting local governments and some thoughts on how to manage them. In this article I’ve summarized six critical skills that I think are needed to address those future challenges.

It’s an exceedingly difficult time to lead in our complex world. Our communities have high expectations of us, and as soon as one goal is accomplished, we’re on to the next. Here are six skills to develop and strengthen as we endure:

1. It’s Critical to be Critical

As we’re faced with limited resources and intricate problems, we’ll be forced to make difficult choices. When we’re exercising this skill we’re able to:critical_thinking_national_deficit1

  • Suspend judgment, be open-minded and look at the problem objectively
  • Consider multiple perspectives, understand the values and interests of all stakeholders, and play devil’s advocate
  • Gather and assess relevant facts and information from credible sources
  • Interpret and critique conclusions against relevant criteria and standards
  • Examine assumptions, implications and practical consequences
  • Communicate the solutions and alternatives effectively

Key to Success:

Why is this skill so important? Having critical thinking skills will enable us to improve our judgment and decision-making. In addition, I believe this skill supports our integrity as professional managers. As professionals it’s our duty to be apolitical in an increasingly political environment.

2. Embrace the 360 Evaluation

It is so important to recognize our own strengths, limitations, values and motives. We must constantly strive to become more self-aware and to increase our propensity for self-reflection and thoughtfulness. Daniel Goleman, author of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, states:

Without recognizing our own emotions, we will be poor at managing them, and less able to understand them in others.  Self-aware leaders are attuned to their inner signals.  They recognize, for instance, how their feelings affect themselves and their job performance…If a person is perpetually oblivious to his own feelings, he will also be tuned out to how others feel.

7049I’ve had the good fortune to work with some exceptional leaders who were conscious of how they were perceived by the organization and community, but I’ve also seen leaders lack this ability. Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations says:

“Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative. Our individual wakes are larger than we know. Take personal responsible for your emotional wake. Take care to consider what kind of emotional wake you’re leaving people.”

Early in my career, a colleague (who has now became a very good friend) took the time to give me some life changing feedback. After a presentation I gave to co-workers where I was instructing them on a new program that the City Manager’s Office was launching, she shared that I had come across as patronizing. Needless to say, I was mortified, and clueless. Just think–if I had not gotten this feedback, I would’ve been unaware of my wake.

We need to have the courage to hear the truth and to be honest with ourselves. Being open to hearing from others about the impact of our behavior can improve our ability to work with others more effectively and our overall performance. Find someone you trust in the organization or community and ask them to give you feedback.

Key to Success:

After I became city manager, I continued to have department directors give me feedback. In fact, as part of my annual performance evaluation, I received a 360 review. While I felt vulnerable during this review process, I trusted that this knowledge would make me a better leader.

3. The Great Communicator…..Has the Ability to Influence

ReaganOur ability to communicate effectively in writing and in person is a must. When I worked at the City of Rockville, Maryland we made available a management internship in the City Manager’s Office for recent graduate students (this is how I started my career). When reviewing applications I was struck by how many applications were poorly written. On the other side of the experience spectrum, I’ve also seen managers prepare staff reports and memos that included poor punctuation and grammar and lacked overall structure and flow. Even if the content is relevant and sound, grammatical mistakes distract the reader.

Keep in mind – everything we write is a public document and most likely open to public disclosure. How we write, whether it’s a memo or email, can reflect on the entire organization. It’s always a good practice to have someone proof your drafts.

In addition to being a good writer, we’ll need to present ourselves in front of many different audiences; therefore, it’s always important to think through our message. In some cases, we’re just presenting factual information, and in others we’re trying to persuade and make a case for a particular recommendation. As we’re preparing, we need to ask ourselves:

  • What is the message or take away when they (Council, community, staff, neighborhood) read our staff report or hear our presentation?
  • What questions may come up as result? Are we prepared to answer them?
  • Have we defined the policy question? Do we have workable alternatives identified?

Key to Success:

Likewise, my experience tells me that even though we think we’ve communicated internally, to our organization, we must be repetitious. Too many times, I assumed that if the directors communicated, I, as the city manager, wouldn’t have to. Not so. It’s helpful for the message and communication to come from multiple sources and in multiple formats (e.g., face-to-face at department meetings, all city staff meetings, email, portal, etc.). Communication requires a team effort.

4. Leading an Organization from Hire to Fire



When I moved across the country from Maryland to Washington to take an Assistant City Manager position, I’ll never forget my current City Manager warning me how much time I would spend on personnel matters. Oh how true it was! I had to deal with many issues that boiled up from departments to Human Resources to the Manager’s Office. I’ve seen all too often how we hire someone for their technical competence, and yet they lacked leadership/management skills.

Some of the best guidance that I’ve seen for helping us become more effective leaders comes from Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. Here is his description of Level 5 Leadership:

The Two Sides of Level 5 Leadership:

Professional Will

  • Creates superb results, a clear catalyst in the transition from good to great
  • Demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult
  • Sets the standard of building an enduring great company; will settle for nothing less
  • Looks in mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck

Personal Humility

  • Demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation; never boastful
  • Acts with quiet, calm determination; relies principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate
  • Channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even greater success in the next generation
  • Looks out the window, not in the mirror to apportion credit for the success of the company-to other people, external factors, and good luck

Key to Success: 

We must strengthen our capacity to lead and guide our staff to success, which includes setting clear expectations, checking in on progress, and providing resources/direction as needed. And when successful, celebrating and recognizing staff’s achievements.

5. Be a Chameleon

chamelonIt’s imperative that we build adaptive capacity to succeed in a changing environment. Shafeen Charania, said, “One of the best predictors of future failure is past success.” Often times we find ourselves on a course that has been proven to be successful, and we resist changing our approach, even when circumstances change.

After cities and counties experienced the Great Recession, we recognized that it’s not business as usual – our environment has changed. Jim Collins said, “ Greatness requires endless change and adaptation while preserving core values and purpose.”

Key to Success:

We must continually improve our ability to plan and execute. Steve Case said, “Vision without execution is a hallucination.” Our plan must articulate a clear vision, strategy, milestones and deadlines. Well-designed plans can help leaders achieve projects, reach goals and fulfill the vision.

6. Develop a “Circle of Trust”



We truly operate in a network of interconnected relationships. If our local businesses fail, our community falls behind. If our schools achieve, our community advances. If our global economy is negatively impacted, chances are, we’re also going to feel the impact.

Key to Success:

It’s important to find opportunities to collaborate with all of our stakeholders. Trust with our communities is built when members believe we’re genuinely listening to their points of view. Today it’s easier than ever to collaborate. There are many online tools that promote “crowdsourcing” ideas and solution-based discussions.

Strong collaboration skills can result in successful problem solving, idea generation and process improvements. I’ve experienced and witnessed the implementation of many cost-saving measures and great accomplishments as a result of collaboration.

…And One Final Thought

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We must not only develop and strengthen these six skills, but we must become smarter and better at our work—we must strive for excellence. Valuing continuous improvement and personal growth and development will expand our knowledge and deepen our understanding of the complex world we live in. It’s an exciting time to be in local government! While we’re faced with some difficult challenges, we do work with some amazing people and we have an opportunity to make a difference.

Supplemental Reading

Jim Collins – Articles – Good to Great

360 Degree Feedback: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Susan Scott – Founder of Fierce, Author of Fierce Conversations

Beyond the Suggestion Box: Government’s Crowdsourcing Revolution

Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

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