Image of a tie dye fabric

The past 21 months have been long, challenging, and exhausting (a strange trip?), and we are here to tell you it’s not over yet. Between the pandemic, racial justice issues, mental health challenges, and New England weather, it has been a time of struggle, growth, and change for many communities.

During this period, our relationship as manager and assistant manager, boss and subordinate, colleagues, and friends, has grown. We have been pushed to have uncomfortable conversations, to learn how to best support the organization (both individually and as a team), to be willing to say “I don’t know,” to be frustrated with each other, recover, and advance.

For us, an essential factor of our working relationship, for the success of our community and the organization, is good communication—and good communication is built on trust.

Steve was hired as town manager in 2014. In 2018, when Jen began in the role of assistant manager, there had been a lot of organizational change driven by the retirement of several long-serving department heads who wore multiple hats within the organization. There were grand plans to re-define the assistant role based on the needs of the organization, but things got in the way.

Over the past three years, the position has run point on human resources, our Covid response, and growing the communication director role, in addition to working on changes to the town’s health plan, assisting with collective bargaining, and expanding community engagement. In late 2021, the role of assistant continues to evolve and adapt depending on the crisis du jour.

But how did we get to a point of good communication and trust? That’s the million-dollar question. While some of it happens naturally (this is why hiring for fit is as important as hiring the right skill set), some of it comes with time and effort, and trial and error. Although we hadn’t worked with each other for very long before the pandemic began, we invested time and energy into building our working relationship from day one.

This meant creating a space where Jen, in the role of assistant, was comfortable going to Steve, with questions, concerns, ideas, and problems. Steve had to be willing to make the time and invest the effort to support Jen, whether that meant stopping what he was working on to discuss a topic with Jen, or providing guidance and support on challenging issues. As the assistant, Jen had to understand the goals and direction Steve had for the organization and how she could support and build upon that work.

We also had to have difficult conversations to help our communication and trust grow. Being able to voice concerns or different opinions and have them be heard and valued allowed our mutual trust to develop. While it is important for the assistant to understand the “why” of a decision, it is ultimately the manager’s decision to make. To have a good working relationship, the manager must be willing to listen to the assistant’s opinions and suggestions. Then, in turn, the assistant must be able to recognize when it’s time to support the manager’s decision. Because we share our opinions freely and are open to each other’s perspective and ideas, it is rare that we fundamentally disagree on the path ahead.

Another key to building our trust and communication is relying on the other for guidance and insight. We both need to be able to recognize when we don’t know the right answer or the best way forward. Being able to go to the other person with the problem and get guidance or bounce around ideas is critical. We each bring different insight and experience to the table, and routinely defer to the other’s particular areas of expertise.

We are both procrastinators by nature and work best (or so we think) under pressure, but we also recognize how our skillsets complement one another. Jen is great at developing work plans, assigning tasks, and managing the process; Steve is great at seeing the big picture, developing options, crafting the message, and communicating. When it came to this article (yes, we procrastinated), we both developed ideas, then Jen prepared the draft, and Steve fine-tuned it (and included the hokey Grateful Dead references). Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates is key to a successful team.

We know we are preaching to the choir here, but it feels like we’ve been lurching from one crisis to another for almost two years. While there’s nothing quite like a crisis to get the adrenaline going, we have also in the past few months started working to identify what the role of assistant will look like moving forward in Danvers, when there isn’t a crisis demanding our time and attention. In the meantime, we just keep truckin’ on.

Headshot of Jen Breaker

 

JEN BREAKER is assistant town manager of Danvers, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

Headshot of Steve Bartha

 

STEVE BARTHA is town manager of Danvers, Massachusetts.

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