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March 30, 2004 > What Are The Qualities of an Effective City Manager?

What Are The Qualities of an Effective City Manager?

Recently, Jan Perkins, City Manager of Fremont tendered her resignation after twelve years of service to that city. Fremont officials have indicated that they will begin a wide search for a suitable replacement. Another City Manager of long standing in the Tri-Cities, Alberto Huezo of Newark was asked about the job of city manager and what characteristics he feels are vital to that role.

TCV: What are the qualities of a good city manager?

Huezo: I think you have to have a leader rather than just a manager. Let me explain what that means to me. A good city manager is someone who will identify a vision and "sell" it to others - the council, staff and the community - to move forward. I don't think micromanagement of things or people is the answer. The ideal manager has strong diplomatic skills because you work for many bosses and try to motivate people as a team. This is very important.

TCV: What are the challenges in different sized cities?

Huezo: There are different challenges. It's a lot tougher to unite a team made up of a thousand people as opposed to a team made up of eleven. There are some obvious differences in size. Size brings complexity. As an example, there's a big difference between leading one district in Fremont as opposed to five or six because there are very different political agendas, so it gets more complex. That's why it's so important to have a common goal so everyone can work towards common objectives. You have to be skillful in developing a very strong vision that people can support..

TCV: The public usually doesn't see what you or any of the city managers do on a day-to-day basis. How can a city manager give the public a sense of ease that their city is being well administered? What are the signs that citizens are satisfied with their government?

Huezo: I think that the public has to be comfortable with you. The city manager has to be able to read a community. The smaller a community, the easier it is to read. You have to be able to relate to a community. Your values, your personal values and the values of the organization you are leading have to be in line with the community's values. You must have good listening skills, to feel the pulse of the community.

The only way you can feel the community pulse is by being very involved in community events, by engaging in the community and making sure the organization does too. You asked specifically about signs from the public. The signs come during an election because that's when candidates for office go door to door and do what I call "missionary work." That's when you get feedback consistently - through the election season - of public satisfaction.

TCV: Where does the city manager fit in with the use of funds at the city level?

Huezo: The city manager is at the very heart of it!

TCV: In other words, the buck stops with you - the city manager.

Huezo: Yes. The city manager is the one who proposes the allocation of resources. You're the one who fights to make sure the resources are there. That is it. What happens many times is that we end up - in my case and in most of our cases because we've been in one community for a long time - staying in the community after retirement. Frankly, I'm not planning on moving out when I retire so I get to live and enjoy the successes... and suffer from the mistakes. That's always there.

TCV: How do you plan for succession? Will it be similar to what Fremont proposes?

Huezo: It's very different. Different communities do different things. Newark has a very defined culture and for us, it is important to have people learn that culture early on and be trained and prepared. Our succession planning is very definite, very certain. Other communities may take the position that they want to go out and find someone that will infuse new blood and new excitement into the organization. We have found a formula that works - a model that works - and we want to follow that. Why fix it if it ain't broke?

TCV: So Newark often moves from within the organization?

Huezo: We're moving from within. And not just at the city managers level, but also at the department heads level. You saw the transition from John Robertson to Ray Samuels as Police Chief and you're going to see that with the position of city manager as well.

TCV: What is the city managers' role? You said it was "vision" shared with the council as well.

Huezo: Yes, it cannot be your vision, rather that of the city council; they have to take ownership of it. Beyond that, it must be the community vision. You start putting it in place early and develop it, but somebody else has to adopt it, take ownership and make it their own.

TCV: How do you treat the issue of micromanagement? There is always a tendency to watch and direct everything, because it's your head on the platter. How do you avoid it?

Huezo: You manage results. You don't manage the how, you manage the why. If you have clear objectives of what you want, that will work.

TCV: With tight budgets and, in some cases projects being scaled back, what is a city managers role fall in keeping employee morale up.

Huezo: The city managers role is to keep employee morale up all the time, not just when times are bad. What you have to do is create a place, an ambiance, where people feel they are contributing. The best way to keep positive employee morale is a sense of fairness. If employees understand that you are going to be fair, that is manageable. And you do that by earning - and I underscore the word earning - the respect of people by setting an example of being a good person, a good manager and someone that's trustworthy.

TCV: Often, use of the words, "the city," creates a sense of an entirely separate entity.

Huezo: You're right. It's an organization made up of people, of human beings.

TCV: It is sometimes looked at as a monolith and citizens use the phrase "well, it's the city doing this." These are people, representatives elected and their appointees. I think that at times, we forget that.

Huezo: You have to put a human face on that all the time.

TCV: At many Newark functions, it appears that not only one official shows up, but groups of these people, much like a team.

Huezo: It goes back to what I said earlier. You have to have the pulse of the community and the only way you get that is to get close to it. To have good antennas - to figure out what is going on around you - you have to be involved.

TCV: How does that translate to larger cities?

Huezo: You can't rely on one person to do it all. It has to be a team effort. If you set that as an expectation - as a "modus operandi" - for your immediate advisors and your department heads, you're going to accomplish that. You have to be seen in public, be engaged and involved with the nonprofits and services clubs; you have to do all of that. There needs to be a human face on whole entity that you represent.

It cannot be just a job - that's the difference. Being part of the community means you cannot just go to sleep or work there, then take off and go somewhere else. You have to have ownership. You must be a stakeholder!

It comes down to the philosophy of an organization. The city manager establishes a tone. Sometimes we become aloof and cold. We think people should be impressed with our position. But if you do that, you're going to get yourself in trouble. You have to be reaching out all the time; and not just you, your team must be doing it as well.

TCV: It's hard to do it all the time.

Huezo: It is hard to do, but that's why you decided to go into public service. It isn't just a job; it's a passion, a commitment.

TCV: Is there anything you would like to add?

Huezo: I would like to emphasize that a city manager has to be an excellent communicator, not only able to go before a large audience and talk at council meetings, but also develop good listening skills. You are there to listen. When people bring issues to your attention, you don't start by telling them what to do, you listen to them. That is difficult because, at times, we are under the illusion that we know the answers. It is always important to be able to receive and analyze new information.

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