Tell us about some of the people who were influential in your professional development.
I was 21 years old, just coming out of graduate school, and a guy named Tracy Williams, who was the assistant city manager in Casa Grande, Arizona, hired me as the planning director for the city of Casa Grande. I was 21 years old and he took a chance on me. I've told folks over the years that I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Tracy Williams. And, as I've talked to people in the profession and talked to young people, and people who were in my position, I ask them "Who's going to say that about you?" It’s extremely important that we as midcareer and senior managers make sure we connect with the younger generation, that we take a chance on them, and that we give them opportunities.
Too often I hear my colleagues say, “Well you're really not old enough and you're not ready to take that next step.” And I say "that's baloney!” Folks took a chance on me when I was 21. I got my first city administrator job when I was 26 and the same thing happened, they took a chance on me. I remember the mayor and the city council at the interview said, “Well, you know Dave, we know that you don't know much and we don't know much either, but we're going to learn together. In a few years, you're going to move onto some other place and we'll hire another young person and do the same thing.” During my career, people have taken a chance on me and I'm here today because of it. So now it has become my challenge to everybody else: Who’s going to say that about you? Who's going to say if it wasn't for Tracy Williams or “insert your name," I wouldn't be here today?"
You worked in a number of cities as city manager, which is your favorite and why?
It’s funny because sometimes city councils and people in communities think that somebody who moves from one community to another doesn't have ownership in that town. I wouldn't use the word carpetbagger, but I think there's a bit of that sense sometimes. They think “He's not from around here, he's from somewhere else and he’s just on his way to somewhere else.”
One story I like to tell took place a few years ago when my wife and I were driving on the freeway in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (I had spent most of my career in the Twin Cities). When we got to Minnetonka, which is a beautiful suburb where I had been the city manager, I said "Sweetie, we're driving through my little town," and she said, "Honey, you know you've been gone 10 years, it's not your little town anymore." We kept driving on the freeway and we got to New Brighton, which is another city where I was the city manager before that and I said, "Oh! We're going through my other little town," and she said, "Sweetheart, it's not your little town anymore." We continued and we got to St. Anthony which is another city where I was city manager and I said, "Honey, we're going through my little town," and she said, "You moron, this is not your little town, you've been gone for 20 years," and I said, "Sweetie, these will always be my little towns."
And I think the story is that we as managers and administrators put our hearts and souls into our communities. We put down roots, we care about our little towns. We bring our families there, and when we leave, we leave a little bit of our hearts behind. I think that matters and I don't think people really know how much these communities become a part of us. That's part of our story and it’s about how much we care about the communities we work in. It’s a great story, and at the end of the day, we need to remember that people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care. That’s the message I think we have to give to the people we work with and for. The community needs to know how much we care before they'll care how much we know.
Tell us about the best day of your career.
I'd love to talk about that because it's just like yesterday. I came to the city of Minnetonka, it's a beautiful city, a wonderful community. I followed one of my heroes in the profession and the city council said to me that things were really going well, but they’d like me to work on our customer service. The city’s values were people, pride, and professionalism. It turned out that professionalism was the dominant value. The public felt the staff’s professionalism but they didn't necessarily feel as much warmth as the council was looking for. So it was my job to work on that.
We created a team of employees and asked three questions: “What's important around here?”; “What should be important around here?”; and “What should be most important around here?”. Through that process, we came up with six core values. For example, one was healthy human relationships, another was authentic communication, and another was contagious enthusiasm. We took all of the core values and we identified the behaviors that exist when you actually live the values. If you're thinking about authentic communication, it would be things like active listening and paraphrasing people and being direct and honest. It's all the behaviors that exist when you do a good job of communicating. Then we built our evaluation system around it, we built our hiring system around it, and we built our compensation system around it. When people came in to train, we said these are our values, please train to these core values.
The best day of my career was a few years later when the public works union steward came in to my office and said "We need to fire Bob in the public works department." I looked at him and said, “What's in Bob's personnel file? Does he have all the documentation in the file?” The steward said, “No Dave, that's not it. The guys in public works want Bob fired.” I asked what is this about. He said, “the guys don’t feel that Bob is living behaviors 1, 4, and 7 of our healthy human relationships value.” And I'm thinking about a group of public works street maintenance workers and the fact that they are actually living the healthy human relationships value and talking about it. That was the best day of my career, because I knew that not only had we changed the culture, but that it had gotten all the way into the organization, all the way to the bottom of the organization, and all the way to the top of the organization, and all the way to the edges. It was the best day of my career!