Imagine you’re a first-time local government manager or a first-time assistant manager. You have visions for how you want to be successful in your role and how you can have an impact on your agency. You’re excited and ready as you’ll ever be to get going.
Then imagine that in that first year, not only would you have to begin to address serious long-term budget challenges, but also a controversial tenant protection ordinance, public safety power outages and wildfire danger, and passing a renewal of a parcel tax on the ballot, among other things. Not to mention that the first-time city manager is traveling regularly in her role as ICMA president while the first-time assistant city manager serves as acting manager when she’s out. A challenging year, for sure…but that’s part of being in local government management. We’re trained on how to manage through crisis. Nothing we couldn’t handle, right? Then the pandemic hit, and everything we thought we knew about managing in a crisis changed forever.
We’ve all been managing through crisis over the last 18 months. But in our case, we have realized that the entire two and a half years of our tenures as city manager and assistant city manager in El Cerrito, California, have been spent creating order amid chaos. One thing is clear: our relationship is the critical factor in both of us surviving up to this point. While our story is somewhat unique, there are some universal lessons in why our relationship works that we think are worth sharing:
We are partners.
We work together well and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses—and it’s not strictly a manager and subordinate relationship, even though the city manager is clearly the boss. The partnership happens when we have each other’s back to execute decisions, whether it’s Karen who makes the call as city manager, or Alex being empowered to make the call as assistant city manager on Karen’s behalf. We have found that together, we are able to balance the alignment and execution of Karen’s vision and tone, while giving Alex autonomy in her role as well. Certainly, this partnership also allows us to strategically provide an additional voice for the other on various issues that need to be addressed, whether with the city council, within the organization, or with community members.
We are brutally honest with each other.
We learned that we need to give each other candid opinions, even if it’s hard to hear. We have learned how to disagree and challenge each other when necessary. Sometimes these discussions are tactful and polite…sometimes they come with loud voices, emotion, and animated hand gestures. But at the end of the day, we commit to hearing each other privately and moving forward together publicly. We are usually aligned and agree on things a majority of the time. Yet we’ve realized that knowing how to properly fight for something when it’s really worth it, while understanding boundaries, is really important. It makes us better managers and brings better outcomes for the city.
We are rather close.
We realize this isn’t always the case for people in our roles, but we have come to believe that having a close working relationship is an absolute must. We must be able to rely on one another and trust each other implicitly. Of course, this usually doesn’t happen immediately, as trust has to be tested and earned. Because we’ve faced down crisis together, we’ve bonded much differently in a short timeframe. We have learned to take advantage of our relationship being “forged in fire” and use it to sustain ourselves so that we can be the best leaders we can for others.
We are able to be raw, real, and vulnerable.
This is certainly a direct result of the pandemic, in that everyone has been challenged both personally and professionally, and we are all going through various struggles. Knowing that we need to be okay with not being okay is essential. We have found that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with each other, and with our staff team, has been helpful for everyone to be able to relate and know that we’re not alone in what we are going through. It’s a tricky balance to achieve between us, but in the end, we have taken on the roles of being open and lifting each other up. This has helped us build resilience and kept us moving forward even when things seem bleak.
We understand the importance of humility.
Humility—a tough but very necessary element. Being able to admit that you don’t know something, when you mess up, when you are wrong, and to understand you actually might not be the smartest person in the room. We believe this is a key ingredient of being successful in local government management, and we’ve found it’s also important in how we relate to one another in our roles. You need to have enough humility to be vulnerable and not let your insecurities get the best of you. You also need to view being humble as a motivator to be better, not a hindrance to progress. We’ve seen how people’s egos can sometimes not allow them to get out of their own way, or how this impacts the trust in their relationships, and we want to avoid that for ourselves.
We have patience.
Finally, patience is indeed a virtue. We are both ambitious and have big visions for El Cerrito’s future, but right now we have to focus on getting through the present day. We have to recognize that some of the issues we’re facing in El Cerrito took many years to come about and we won’t be able to make change overnight. We have to be patient with our team, our bosses, and our community as we are all still figuring out our new normal in these unpredictable times. And we have to be patient with each other, as we are still relatively new to our roles and our relationship. We’re still, and always will be, learning.