It’s been said before that hiring a manager is the most important decision an elected official will ever make.
Whether you’re talking about a school board hiring a superintendent, county commissioners hiring a county manager or a town council hiring a town manager, finding just the right person can often be tricky.
Garner council members won’t like hearing me say this again, but they forced a good man out of the office when Hardin Watkins left earlier this month. It has been suggested to me by at least one former town employee that I don’t know the entire story.
Chances are that’s true. Council members don’t generally complain in public about their hired hand, particularly if their complaints are based on complaints generated by rank and file employees. But the truth is, my door’s open. Any council member who wants to open up about their concerns is most welcome to sit down with me and explain themselves.
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While I wait for that invitation to be accepted, the town council will have to search for the next manager. Over the past couple decades I’ve had the chance to observe any number of managers and school superintendents do their work.
I’ve seen some good ones and some, well, not-so-good ones. What follows are a few qualities I’ve found the best managers have in common. Let’s hope council members are looking for some of these same traits in their next manager.
• Encyclopedic knowledge of the issues: The very best managers always had an answer for a board or council member when they asked a question in a public meeting. Almost never was that answer something like, “I don’t have that information with me, but we can certainly get that to you tomorrow.” Many issues that land on a manager’s desk are complex and the answers, even if they seem obvious, are not always so. It may seem best to pursue a certain solution to a problem, but unintended consequences may make that path a poor choice. Good managers know that.
• Translation skills: Government is so full of cutsie little acronyms it would make a true linguist sick to his or her stomach. And issues that may seem easily understandable to a professional manager aren’t always so easy to understand for elected leaders who often bring no more than a passing knowledge of government operations with them to the council. And rank-and-file citizens who want to understand why their government is doing something a certain way need someone to explain such things to them in a way they can understand. That’s not always an easy task, but the best managers are easy to talk to.
• Thick skin: Husbands, imagine you had six wives telling you what to do. Wives, imagine you had to put up with the foolishness of six husbands. Now both of you can throw in about 30,000 children who only talk to you when they want something or when they aren’t happy with you. All that can for some long days. Good managers know how to manuever through all those traps and keep most people happy most of the time.
• Bankers at heart: The best managers know how to stretch a dollar with the best of them. They can find grants and all sorts of hidden treasure under most any rock and they understand the value of long-term investments. Most elected leaders don’t like raising taxes any more than those of us paying those taxes like to see them go up. Most managers, in their heart of hearts, would love to see tax rates double so there would be enough money to do everything they’d like to see done. But good managers know that’s not likely to happen. They can, instead, find ways to move their limited dollars, like a general moving his troops, to the place where it will do the most good. And when the needs are serious enough, they are smart enough to make an ironclad case for adding a little bit to the tax rate.
That’s a lot to look for in one person. But that’s the task Garner’s council has in front of it now. I hope they choose well.