Were You Born to be a Local Government Manager?

Posted on June 12, 2015

Last time he brought you “Mixing In Perfect Harmony at the ICMA Conference,” now Phil Smith-Hanes returns to write about the “X-ec” factor. Phil proposes that there are four executive qualities that cannot be taught.  

Were You Born to be a Local Government Manager?


By: Phil Smith-Hanes – LinkedIn and Twitter

I got really good grades in school, but my notes were pretty much worthless to anyone else. I would usually take something like half a page of notes for a 90-minute class. Everyone always chalked it up to “Phil‘s got a great memory.” I suppose that’s true in one sense, but please don’t ask me to repeat the name of that guy who just introduced himself to me ten minutes ago. Rather than a good memory, I thought of it as having a good sense of being able to discern what was going to be on the test.
giphy (1)I guess I still have that sense. I recently met with a consulting team to kick off a project. After me, they met with other people in the organization, including elected officials (separately, of course – no open meeting law violations). At the end of the day, I spoke with the consultants again to see how their meetings went. One of their comments to me was, “Gosh, you really know your Board well.” Well duh, I thought. That’s what they pay me for.
I’m just one person, of course. But I sometimes hear comments from other executives about a particular individual as someone who’s “got it” (whatever “it” is). Here’s the reality of a management career path: not everyone is cut out for the executive role. There are amazing staff members in our office, and they are all capable of doing great technical work. But to be perfectly honest, I have greater confidence in some of them than others to fill my shoes. That leads me to wonder how much of being an executive can be chalked up to nurture (training, coaching) and how much is nature (a person’s innate political sense).
Please don’t get me wrong. I believe in the value of training and have expanded training opportunities for our organization. I have been incredibly fortunate to learn from stellar individuals, both at the university level and on the job. I am committed to networking with peers and to the value of organizations like ELGL. I am certain I would not be where I am without those things. And yet…
giphy (2)Maybe there’s more to it. Maybe the lessons of reality TV singing competitions also translate to local government management. Just as voice lessons will make you a better singer but not necessarily a star (and some rare individuals can become stars without formal training), maybe there’s an “X” factor (or “exec” factor) that some people possess which eases the path to success. Let’s call it The X-ec Factor (trademark pending).
So if The X-ec Factor isn’t dependent on training, how does one recognize it? Is it, like Justice Potter Stewart’s standard for obscenity, something that eludes definition but “I know it when I see it”? I tend to think there are some clues.
One key indicator is self-assuredness (especially when presenting). My observation is that it’s not necessarily the smartest person in the room that commands respect, but often the one that sounds the most authoritative. That requires a fair amount of knowledge about your topic, but not necessarily expertise in it. It also requires an ability to explain things clearly and succinctly. Elected officials don’t want to be dazzled, they want to understand (or at least have confidence that you understand). Finally – and perhaps most importantly – your knowledgeable, clear explanation must also project an air of confidence. I really agree with Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, who says: “Fake it ’til you become it.”

Focusing on the “right” details is another key part of The X-ec Factor. Obsessing about details is an occupational hazard in local government (and a trap into which far too many of our colleagues fall), but attempting to gloss over important details is an even worse sin. The example of “learning to the test” with which I began is an illustration of this point. I don’t (and elected officials don’t) want to know everything, but I (and they) want to know the important things… and to have sufficient detail to develop confidence in the decision path.
Respect-My-Authoritah-On-South-Park-Episode-When-Cartman-Becomes-a-CopAnother component is the ability to stand up to people in authority (but keep within channels, not throw rocks). Part of the role of the chief executive is to confront elected officials when they are doing something that is bad for the organization – yet at the same time remember that you work for them. To do this, one has to have a combination of fearlessness and respect that seems to be somewhat rare. I always look for individuals who can tell me when the emperor has no clothes – but in a way that makes me want to get clothes, not send the messenger to the guillotine.
Finally, I’ll mention politics. Big-P politics (the Republican v. Democrat, growth v. conservation stuff) can be deadly to a professional local government manager, but the politics of interpersonal relationships are the lifeblood of the job. The X-ec Factor means being a master of politics without being tied to political outcomes. A great way to get a sense of this is navigating the competing priorities of department heads.
While there are undoubtedly other attributes to The X-ec Factor (attitude and productivity come to mind), that would make for a book rather than a blog post. So I’ll close with two questions that I’m sure are on the minds of some of you:

  • What do I do if I don’t have “it”?
  • And what if I have it but I’m not sure about the executive role?

If you’re in the former category, just remember – for every star on the front of the stage in those singing shows there are three backup singers. Everyone might not be cut out for the spotlight, but “leadership at all levels” needs to be more than just a catchphrase to move our organizations forward and serve our residents. Rock on! If you’re in the latter category, I’ve got a challenge for you: do it! You have a gift and it would be a shame to squander it. Local government needs you. Don’t worry… I’ll loan you my notes 😉

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