Leadership in Local Government

Motivated professionals seek to climb the career ladder, while gaining the requisite experience necessary to be successful at the next level.  While this can look different in the private versus public sector, some would agree that being promoted to a middle management position in government is like “becoming the backbone of an organization.”  Through my own experience as both a military non-commissioned officer (NCO) and a mid-level manager in the world’s largest municipal government agency (Los Angeles County), I have learned valuable lessons for those who find themselves in a position to make an impact in local government middle management.

Local government middle managers have a plateful of responsibilities, including operations, human resources, budgeting, risk management, and maybe most importantly, customer service to both internal and external stakeholders.  This is very similar for NCOs in our military, only in addition, they have subordinate soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines for whom they are responsible for supervising during off-duty time. So, how do effective middle managers balance these functions to provide the necessary service delivery to the constituents of their jurisdiction, while not getting burned out from the day-to-day marathons associated with being a technical expert who keeps the organization running? 

Here are four skills for mid-career managers to master their current role and prepare for future executive leadership:

1. Managing Up and Down within the Organization

Managing up and down requires connecting the dots from the lowest level line staff to the top-level executive management, ensuring that each level is working toward the unified strategic goals of the organization.  This can be a challenge because the mission, vision, and values of the organization do not change, but the way they are communicated at various levels changes based on organizational comprehension.  For example, the Air Force Core Values – Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do – are paramount at every level of the organization and it is the duty and responsibility of the NCO to ensure that subordinates adhere to these values, embody these values themselves, and demonstrate understanding and competence on these values to the leaders of their organization.  Therefore, the middle manager is responsible for clear communication both up and down the organizational chain.

2. Collaboration and Communication within an Organization

Even in local government, silos and politics get in the way of individuals and teams from working together collaboratively to provide an excellent customer experience.  “Protecting what is mine and ensuring that I shine” are pitfalls that exist at the middle management levels, which must be overcome to create and foster teamwork and eliminate barriers to advancing the organization over oneself.  For example, an accounting team and a customer service team must work together to ensure that the customer service team has accurate and complete data to respond to public inquiries.  If the accounting manager does not communicate a bookkeeping problem to the customer service manager, a breakdown occurs, and the consequence is a poor customer experience because the resolution is not readily available.

3. Change Management

Middle managers are the bridge between “executive management said…” and the staff response of “why do we have to do it that way?”  As champions of change, middle managers are in a unique position to implement change in their operations to make their organization function more effectively and efficiently.  Ask any manager that has ever encountered change in the workplace, employees typically fall into three buckets: buy-in, opt-out, or indifference.  The middle manager must engage with these groups to implement and operationalize the change and to also report back to executive management on the cost savings, service delivery impacts, or customer satisfaction associated with the implementation. 

For example, implementing self-service applications on the organization’s website to streamline customer service interactions may be adopted by more tech savvy employees, but rebuffed by employees that embrace manual paper-driven processes.  The middle manager needs to secure buy-in from both groups to be able to report up effectively about eliminating processing times and streamlining customer experiences.  Empathy, negotiation, and persuasion are key elements to creating a unified workforce.

4. Set Boundaries

Most middle managers are in their prime, which means they most likely have additional commitments outside of their working hours.  Burning the candle at both ends takes its toll on middle managers as they juggle their full-time job, family obligations, self-improvement (formal or informal) and community engagement.  Middle managers must find balance and learn when and where to say “no” when asked if they have time to take something else onto their plate–professionally or personally.  Setting boundaries is a great skillset that will pay dividends when aspiring to ascend to executive management. Setting a weekly time budget to allot this most valuable resource is a great way to ensure the manager is taking care of self, while executing professional and personal responsibilities.

Being the backbone of an organization is the claim to fame of middle managers, but there is an intensive effort required in reporting for duty each day to manage both up and down within an organization.  Keeping the subordinate workforce engaged and motivated, collaborating and communicating effectively with peers, and briefing executive management on operations requires the middle manager to be well rounded in all aspects of the organization.  This may seem easy on its face but ask any middle managers in your organization about their day-to-day activities and you might be surprised at the response.  The challenge of middle management is embraced and welcomed by those honing their skillsets to become the future executives of our organizations that will provide critical public services to their constituents.

Share your leadership and path from middle management to executive leadership with fellow members on ICMA Connect


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