Leadership in local government

Always focused on a positive culture in the workplace, Trish Stiles, town administrator of Bennett, Colorado, is a woman with a mission: to have really happy employees. To complete her goal, Stiles has created an emotional buy-in/goal-setting process that helps employees make personal and professional achievements. The outcome? Building connections between staff members, celebrating each other’s wins, achieving goals – and you guessed it, really good employees who do really good work.

ICMA recently caught up with Stiles, and here is part one of what she has to say about mental health in the workplace, employee happiness, and more.

How do you connect workplace happiness with mental health?

The mental health of our employees is now more critical than ever. The job as a public servant is getting more challenging, with the rise of incivility, distrust in government, and now we top it off with a pandemic. We know it is crucial that our employees need support, to really look at them as human beings and not robots doing jobs.  We have to think of mental health as an essential part of overall health. The healthier our employees are, the more resilient and productive our organization becomes.

Quite simply, truly happy employees are better employees; they will work harder for you, support the community/organization vision, and make teams that support each other.

I really want employees that "Understand It," "Get It" and most importantly, "Want It." Organizations can always train an employee to "understand" the duties and functions of the job. They can be taught how to take utility payments, run SCADA reports, and pay invoices. I cannot teach if they "get" what this work is about; we are here to serve our residents and communities to make a difference. At the end of the day, either your employees will want to do this significant work or not. Those that "want it" wake up every day excited and ready to do these jobs because it brings them joy and happiness to do so. These are the employees I love to have on our team.

What types of health and happiness programs do you have in place that focus on the employee?

As a manager, I have an opportunity to improve the health of my team every day. In Bennett, I am proud to say we have made great progress in implementing various wellness initiatives. Grant-funded healthy eating/snack options, employee engagement and appreciation, stress-less techniques, team wellness activities, flexible schedules, to list a few. Bennett is recognized by the American Heart Association for the Workplace Health Achievement Bronze award for both 2019 and 2020 and received the Health Links 2020 Champion of Well-Being award.

We are proud of our health and wellness programs and organizational culture, making Bennett a great place to work.

As a small but growing organization adjacent to the Denver metro area, finding great employees can sometimes be challenging. We want to be competitive in attracting great employees and the culture is a huge part of that attraction.

With the projected growth in our community, we know more work will be necessary and can only be accomplished if the team is focused and supportive of one another. The town is working on significant infrastructure projects, internal growth, and high expectations of our town board. The to-do list seems a mile long, and I often think, how do 30 people manage getting all of these projects done?

The question led us to our latest work with our management team, a goal-setting program that we call Golden Egg Workshop. It was the brainchild of a meeting during the onset of the pandemic when staff were seeking connection with their now remote teammates. They needed support to keep moving forward with the substantial to-do lists from the start of the year. We had just held a virtual retreat with our town board and prioritized significant projects down to seven, but that didn't mean the continued day-to-day tasks were put to rest.  In the team meeting, I jokingly said, "Our big projects were like golden eggs and that it reminded me of Verruca Salt wanting the Golden Geese in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a silly metaphor, but our team likes to have fun. The goal-setting idea was simple; if our projects were like golden eggs that we needed to lay, we needed to support the geese laying them. Healthy and happy geese lay more eggs.

The team in Bennett is small and we often reflect that we are a family. It is my favorite part of working here. The group lends itself to being close-knit and when things get tough, this is when we lean in and support each other. Much of this is nurtured by working to be a high trust organization fostered by a genuine concern and interests in our employees' lives, both professionally and personally. To get through our tough times, to deliver on the expectations of our elected officials, and to build real connections, we needed to do some very meaningful work focused on both levels.

To support this mission, it was important to get the team to set goals in an honest and meaningful way so that we could achieve them and not just "hope" or "wish" that they would get done, which to me sounds like far too many New Year's resolutions. It could be a way to support each other, which was so very much needed and keep momentum on our work and see real achievement. I reached out to a friend, Rob Joseph, a former assistant city manager working with a group of other Colorado managers. I experienced that practical goal setting helped focus the group into making monumental and life-altering achievements, myself included. This same support system helped me when I felt pretty low at the start of the pandemic in April. It showed me that even though the world was so uncertain, I could still achieve big goals and it help me be more focused personally and professionally. I knew this was something that had to be shared with my team.  

First, and I cannot stress this enough, if you really want to learn how to be great at goal setting, it is critical that you start with personal goals and not professional goals.

You will have to support the person first and not the employee.

We start here because when you are goal setting for personal desires, we already know that these are important to the individual and they will have an emotional connection to them. You will also get to know your team on a deeper level and be more connected. As an example, one employee shared she set a goal to have new kitchen appliances. As the team talked about the goal, it became clear that it was not just about the appliances, the goal was about connection to her family. She wanted new appliances so that she would cook more, that her children would want to be a part of the process, and they would sit down to eat as a family and enjoy sharing and being together. This goal was about the connection to her family and how important that is to make deeper connections with her kids and husband. New appliances were only part of why the goal was so important and the team could all relate to that same feeling.

Once the goal-setting skill is learned from a personal connection, we then can transition to professional goals and apply the same technique and process to them. We all have to-do lists a mile long and a sea of major projects, capital improvements, and strategic improvements to better our organization. Bennett has a Capital Asset Inventory Master Plan (CAIMP) that takes all of our buildings, parks, roads, utilities, and properties and scores them for replacement or construction based on their "capacity, condition, and criticality." The score helps to prioritize and budget projects. As we worked through our professional goal setting, we used this same idea about the appliances to talk about our town projects. It is not just adding a new water storage tank or updating finance software, it is much more than that. We often forget the emotional connection to why we are doing things and then turn into just a list, a task to be complete.

So for the team, we felt strongly about adding emotional buy-in to our work goal lists. We added two more scores to our CAIMP that we call "care scores."

A "Community Care Score" reminds us why our residents care about what we are doing.

The score is based on health and safety as a top priority through sustainability, infrastructure, economy, housing, community service commitment, planning, and welcoming neighbor character. Next, we assign a "Co-Worker Care Score" and how the project benefits the internal organization and team. These include employees' health and well-being, with production and process improvement, professional development, legacy effect, and the “plus-it” ratings.

The idea was profound from the gradual change in emotional buy-in from the team. It transformed us from just making to-do lists to a meaningful connection to the work we do every day. Our new water storage tank creates a safer and sustainable community where we can leave our legacy for years to come. The new public works building provides a space to keep our staff safe and give them pride in the facility where they work. The change in finance software will make sure we serve our community with transparency and make internal processes easier for all staff.

We are doing this work for others, and once you make that emotional connection to how this supports the happiness of the organization and community, it feels like there no other way.

Read part two on how to have happy employees, as Trish Stiles covers buy-in, measuring success, and concludes with when she realized listening was more important than talking or cheerleading.

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