John's Question

A manager's explanation about what he really does on the job as an appointed local overnment administrator.

By Anthony Romanello, ICMA-CM | Aug 20, 2015 | ARTICLE

By Anthony Romanello, ICMA-CM

Considering college choices and career fields, my son John, a high school senior, asked me, “Dad, what do you do?” I’ve been in local government since before he was born, so the question surprised me.

I told him I’m responsible for day-to-day operations of Stafford County, Virginia, government for the board of supervisors and for its residents. You might say I’m there to deliver on democracy.

John said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all that, but what do you do?”

I said, “Attend a lot of meetings,” and then I changed the subject. But John’s question burned in my brain. What do I do? A lot happens over the course of the day, and I’m certainly exhausted when it’s over, but what do I actually do?

A Gutsy Explanation

I’ve always liked Mel Brooks’ answer to this same question in the movie History of the World: Part I. Brooks plays Comicus, an unemployed court performer who says his work is to “coalesce the vapor of human experience into a viable and logical comprehension.” I’ve never had the guts to try this explanation with elected officials or the public.

I presented John’s question to human resources adviser Tom Davidson whose advice was simple. He said, “Well, answer it.”

So I began to document work done at the office, meetings attended, phone calls, conversations in the car, thoughts in the shower, work done from home—all the daily steering and navigating—everything except routine paperwork.

I kept a log during the workday, added to it at night as I recalled things done that day, and then checked it again the next morning for completeness.

For the first few days, I found answering John’s question annoying. I just don’t have time for this, I thought to myself. But soon the initial annoyance passed, and I began to enjoy chronicling my work life.

I was amazed at the amount of effort exerted in just one day. I didn’t edit as I went along, just made sure to fill in everything I could remember. I didn’t editorialize as to the efficacy of the task completed.

As I reviewed work done, ideas popped into my head of additional work to be done. The experience became fun and valuable as both a reminder of good work completed and new opportunities.

The Answer Is. . .

After 30 days the answer to John’s question was six pages long, single-spaced, 12-point font. I reviewed the effort and came to no immediate conclusions, so I let it marinate for a few days to find the answer, the common thread.

After several days, the epiphany came. What do all of these meetings, phone calls, shower contemplations, and personal interactions have in common?

I sow seeds.

I sow seeds for the purpose of growth—growth of my team and our community.

I sow seeds to cultivate a great community.

Value of Random Thinking

When people think of cultivating, we probably assume this happens in quiet rooms with soft music playing in times of deep, purposeful thought. Sure, these infrequent moments are gold. They’re what author Stephen Covey called Quadrant II, or work that is important, but not urgent.

Answering John’s question, however, proves that I live in QII more than I realize because cultivating is a daily, continual effort that happens in conversations, e-mails, and deceptively random—often unconscious—thinking.

Indeed, as I am performing my management responsibilities and meeting the needs of the elected officials, residents, and employees to whom I am responsible, I am continually looking for opportunities to cultivate.

How many of the seeds sown bear fruit? I don’t know. Their success depends upon the quality of the seed, the climate during the planting, and the days to germinate.

Some ideas bear fruit immediately. Others pop out of the ground in the fullness of time.

I am reminded of an experience early in my time as Stafford County administrator when I proposed a change in procedure to handle year-end surplus funds for our school system. After a detailed explanation and consideration of the policy, the board voted it down—unanimously.

The following year, the policy was approved and remains the practice of our community. That seed simply needed more time to germinate. Had I never sown the seed and not cultivated it once planted, the old policy would still be in force.

I Am a Farmer

Reading six pages of answers to John’s question, I am reminded of this story told by Benjamin Zander in Rosumand and Benjamin Zander’s book published in 2000, The Art of Possibility:


“Four young men sit by the bedside of their dying father. The old man, with his last breath, tells them there is a huge treasure buried in the family fields. The sons crowd around him crying, “Where, where?” but it is too late. The day after the funeral and for many days to come, the young men go out with their picks and shovels and turn the soil, digging deeply into the ground from one end of the field to the other. They find nothing and, bitterly disappointed, abandon the search. The next season the farm has its best harvest ever.”


In answering John’s question, I discovered that I am less a county administrator and more like a farmer. Seeds sown. Ground cultivated. The harvest comes in its own time. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”


Editor's Note: See tom davidson's follow-up to this article in a separate commentary article included in the september 2015 issue of pm magazine.