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It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Nine Lessons from the First Year

As told by City Manager Charmelle Garrett, Victoria, Texas

When I started with the city of Victoria as human resources director, I never thought I wanted to be a city manager.  I was fortunate to have a city manager, Denny Arnold, who saw something in me and gave me opportunities to learn about city management.  He got me involved with “big picture” thinking, explained political land mines, and taught me to never get out in front of the council.  All were very valuable lessons.

But it was at the 2010 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Annual Conference, held shortly after the Victoria city council announced my new appointment, where a visit with ICMA’s Executive Director Bob O’Neill provided another very valuable lesson.

I’d had the privilege of getting to know Bob while participating as a member of the Leadership-ICMA 2010 class.  During our conversation at the 2010 annual conference, we discussed many of the new ideas that I had.  Of course, I had plenty of ideas.  Having worked for Victoria for 21 years, my depth of knowledge was rather diverse (or so I thought).  Sixteen years were spent as the human resources director and four as the assistant city manager. Local government in Victoria was not new to me.  Bob gently reminded me that organizations can only handle so much change at one time.  “Charmelle,” he said, “you need to remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

As I tell this short story, I have just completed one year as city manager.  During the first year, we had a few challenges, lots of laughs, and days that made me want to run from the building as if I were training for a marathon.  With that said, most of the time has been very rewarding. 

Here are nine lessons I’ve learned from the first year of my marathon:

  1. Stay on your toes. You never know what type of questions might come from individual citizens or from city council members.
  2. Running takes endurance. One of the aspects of being a public servant is fielding questions in the grocery story, in church, or in a restaurant.… This simply part of the job.  I am thankful that private citizens are willing to share their opinion with me, however time-consuming that may be.
  3. Visualize the course. [When I was first appointed] I immediately started trying to figure out how to see around corners and predict what was next.
  4. Train, train, train. I challenged department heads to review processes, determine what technology could help us be more efficient, and as Jim Collins would say, find out if they “have the right people on the bus.”
  5. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Department heads are usually more successful when city managers get out of the way.
  6. When the race doesn’t go as planned, adjust. One of the first events [in the newly re-lighted downtown square]…we planned was for the mayor to speak…[and] it went a little long.  During a dramatic pause for effect,…the parks director flipped the switch, [and] the [new] lights came on, but the mayor was not finished. We all got a good laugh.…It’s great to work with a mayor who has a sense of humor.
  7. You have prepared for this, enjoy the race. I deal with the same issues all city managers deal with…learning to live in [a] fishbowl…Communicating is key and knowing when to shut up is critical.
  8. Marathons aren’t for everyone—they take a special breed. When I knew the city manager job was going to be open, I asked my husband if he was okay with the long hours, the negative press, and all the blogs.…I am very fortunate to have the support of a great husband who is not only my biggest cheerleader, but a ground force at times.
  9. Lace up your running shoes. I will continue [in the coming years] to work on the balancing of needs between the city council and department heads, making professional recommendations to council knowing that there will always be political land mines, and having peace with not being able to make everyone happy.  

There are still days when I have to sprint, but I always remember those valuable words from Bob.  This is a marathon.


This is an excerpt from Mike Conduff and Melissa Byrne Vossmer’s book Democracy at the Doorstep, Too.  Learn more about this book here



Harrison Maddox

Duly noted sir, thank you.

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