Image of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of oil and water

We all know the saying that “culture eats strategy for lunch,” but a good culture doesn’t always guarantee highly ethical actions. The two should go together like peanut butter and jelly, but that’s not always the case.

At the League of California Cities City Managers Conference in February 2024, three respected California city managers spoke about the success and challenges they faced while building a strong culture that also places a high value on ethics.

Session Moderator: Jessica Cowles, ICMA ethics director

Rosanna Bayon Moore, city administrator, Piedmont, CA
Fran Robustelli, city manager, San Leandro, CA
Graham Mitchell, city manager, El Cajon, CA

The session was offered in partnership with Cal-ICMA and summarized by Camilla Posthill, ICMA ethics senior program manager.

What Does Ethics Look Like?

Panelist Fran Robustelli shared the realities of linking ethics to culture in local governments:

Infinite work: Instilling ethics into culture is hard work and it’s a long journey. Keep sustainability in mind as you move forward. Recognize the complexity of ethics and help others to understand that blind spots and gray areas exist.

Handle with care: Ethical culture is fragile; it takes a while to build up and can disappear quickly. Trust doesn’t happen overnight, and it can be easy to lose.

Strong leadership: Understand that every decision and action has a potential to make a large and lasting impact. Be pragmatic, have clear team norms, and set expectations. Never leave a meeting about ethics without hearing everyone in the room speak.

Good people doing good things: Beware of ethical fading, “a condition in a culture that allows people to act in unethical ways in order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others, while believing they have not compromised their own moral principles” (from Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game).

Association of our decisions to impacts: Recognize that an ethical culture affects decision-making. Ask yourself: Have you created the right lens to examine the issue? Have you asked the right questions? Are you re-assessing? Are you open to different perspectives? Culture can be insular, so it is important to learn from one another.

Use real words and avoid self-deception: Keep talking about ethics in real and frequent conversations for ethics to become and stay a part of the culture. For example, instead of saying, “we’re ethical”, ask staff “how will we define ‘ethical’”? Develop a shared language so that everyone understands each other. Questions to get the ethics conversation started: How do you want people to be treating one another in this organization? How do you want this organization to be perceived?

“Our teams thrive when they are watered. Get in sync with staff and keep the pulse on the underlying current… And remember HR is a most critical resource in achieving mission as they are often the eyes and ears of what issues bubble up to you.” —Fran Robustelli

Your Role in Building Culture

Graham Mitchell outlined an approach to building and maintaining an ethical culture in an organization.

Influence: Make an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the culture and people of the organization by kicking off a “values and culture” tour. Graham held 25 different meetings across his organization, conducted small-group exercises, and narrowed down the organization’s top values. Guess what? Ethics was not in the top 10 values when he arrived (neither was innovation), but it is now! Listen, learn, and know that your potential to influence others is powerful. Your messaging matters.

Manage: Keep ethics at the forefront of every staff person’s mind. Consider inserting a question about ethics into performance evaluations. From personnel to purchasing, your decisions set the tone for the organization and your actions back up your words. People are paying attention.

Mitigate and Coach: You’ll likely face a time in your career where you have to mitigate damage to the organization because of ethical lapses in judgement from individuals. Be prepared to stand firm and demonstrate that ethics matters. It is equally important to educate and work with your elected officials and staff on the importance of a strong ethical culture and their role in creating and maintaining it.

“We can’t manufacture culture; it’s a reflection of the people and values of the organization.” —Graham Mitchell

Early Manifestations of Ethical Creep

Rosanna Bayon Moore warned that slippage in contracts, purchasing, hiring, and promotions are the kind of erosion that destroys ethical culture. “When you find yourself struggling to assemble a sequence of events or you’re in a quandary over basic justification, there’s usually a reason for it. Before you validate or promote anything, evaluate with the technical skills that landed you in leadership.” Rosanna also provided warning signs of ethical issues arising from the elected body:

  • Narrow and oversimplified issues.
  • Pressure to reach pre-determined outcomes.
  • Impossible expectations with timing and timelines.
  • Memory loss — weak delineation of staff versus elected roles.
  • Persistence to influence draft recommendations.
  • Direct and indirect omission requests.
  • Encroachment on daily operations.
Image of monster chasing man

If any of these looks familiar, remember there is a map and a compass to working with the elected body!
Incorporate the ICMA Code of Ethics into your contract. It’s the framework that establishes clear lines of division of things we will not do and cannot happen.

  • Get council protocols in place before there’s a problem.
  • Keep your eye on the ball. Think big picture and strategic policy.
  • Know your audience and dig deep to best appreciate everyone’s interests and potential for conflicts.
  • Help elected officials to see and stay on the well-lit path and know that courageous conversations are part of the journey.
  • Demystify and focus on policy; not operations.
  • Never lose sight that serving the whole community is our profession’s end game.
  • Put management techniques to work in well-written policy documents with facts and professionally developed content that identifies policy options.
  • If elected officials as a body stop accepting professional guidance or adhering to standards, give serious thought to your fit at that organization.

“How we, as city executives, respond is a reflection of the culture we establish and cultivate… in the final analysis, honesty and integrity are the rubric for culture.” —Rosanna Bayon Moore

We Reap What We Sow

Building an ethical culture in your organization benefits everyone.

  • Devote attention and time to supporting a healthy environment.
  • Recognize and reinforce the value of professionally trained staff.
  • Welcome analysis whether or not its conclusions were fully anticipated.
  • Seek and encourage best practices from trusted networks, learn from others’ lessons, remember issues across agencies are more common (than not).
  • Recognize challenging moments with staff, especially when swimming in the darkest of waters, and embrace the importance of honesty.
  • Keep in mind that sound research and staff recommendations lead to political compromise, not the reverse.
  • Sometimes the hardest message to convey is simply the truth, but it is our duty and responsibility in public service.
  • Employees welcome ethical certainty and clear rules of engagement.

Key Takeaways

Final thoughts and reminders from the panelists for local government professionals seeking to promote the highest standards of ethics in their organization:

  • What we do when no one is looking is who we are in public service.
  • When it comes to ethics, walking the talk is our most valuable currency.
  • It’s our duty to lead and support a healthy work culture.
  • Welcome honesty.
  • When something is awry, pause and get your bearings! Reach out to an independent third party.
  • Always err on the side of transparency.
  • Measure accountability, trust, and respect from all levels of staff. If a department or staff tier are low on any of these, your organization may face ethical issues. Consider using a staff feedback survey as a measurement tool and look for weak points or breakdowns.
  • Remember that ICMA has resources to support its members facing ethical dilemmas.
  • It can be a lonely profession, but we are not alone. We have each other.

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