January/February 2004 · Volume 86 · Number
Earn Allegiance with a New Model for Change
Successful organizations are dynamic, not static, always looking for a better
way of doing business. With a vision of what they want to become, they set goals
that make the vision a reality. Their employees have a clear understanding of
the mission and feel a driving commitment that sets the organization in motion.
Two key components go into leading a dynamic, visionary organization, in my
opinion. First is the ability to transform a community’s old paradigm (or
archetype for itself) into a new, widely held and well-defined community vision.
And second is the capacity to create a distinctive environment in which
employees feel an alignment with and a deep commitment to the ideals and mission
of the organization.
How can an organization that is stagnating in the safety
and security of an old operating mode develop the desire to move into a brave
I’ve been asked many times why I went to Rawlins, Wyoming, to be its first
city manager. In fact, my wife’s mother said to her upon viewing Rawlins for the
first time, “Why did John bring you to this Godforsaken place?” Oldtimers from
the area used to say, “Rawlins isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it
What drew us to this wind-swept, dust-blown community of 12,000 people? It
was a vision of what the community could become. A key group of people from the
Gear Up for Growth Committee had begun shaping a new paradigm, or model, for
Rawlins. This group was committed and dedicated to a new vision of the city.
They had politically orchestrated a change in the form of government from strong
mayor to council-manager by a slim margin of 21 votes.
They wanted the yellowish hue filtered out of their drinking water. They
wanted to eliminate the annual infestation of freshwater shrimp, which traveled
through their 75-year-old, wood-stave transmission line. They wanted parks,
playgrounds, and a community recreation center. But most of all, they wanted to
change the image of Rawlins from that of a community that had squandered much of
its municipal wealth to one of a locality respected by its sister cities for its
wise use of taxpayer dollars, its efficient services, and its technology-savvy
staff. They wanted to instill a new pride in every aspect of city government. In
1981, Rawlins was clearly a fresh canvas to work on.
Where to Start
Where does a leader begin when confronted with a challenge like this? How do
you bring a community together to generate a shared vision with common goals?
One of the first things I did was to convene the councilmembers to discuss their
visions and major goals for the community. This meeting had the makings of a
contentious affair. Remember, the form of government passed by only 21 votes, so
there was no consensus about the community’s future direction.
Not only was Rawlins geographically divided by the Union Pacific Railroad
mainline, but it was also racially divided. Two councilmembers represented the
south side of the community, which had one-third of the population but a
majority of the community infrastructure needs, including leaky water mains,
collapsing sewer lines, a city park that had returned to its native condition,
dilapidated housing, and no fire station.
During the first goal-setting session, I asked the councilmembers to set
aside the fact that they had been elected from different parts of the city and
focus on the greater community needs, and the meeting went amazingly well. The
council agreed on an overall vision for the community. And the south side of
Rawlins garnered the majority of number-one priorities on the city council’s
list of goals.
Significant changes occurred because of the goals and new vision. Within four
years, six parks and playgrounds were either constructed or reconstructed, a new
fire station was built on the south side, housing rehabilitation grants were
secured, and the city accounting and utility billing system became fully
The greatest achievement for the council, however, was its newfound ability
to articulate with one voice and enunciate a single vision to the five top
elected officials of the state. Conveying one clearly defined vision got
impressive results and helped the city secure grants from the state’s
substantial infrastructure account to address critical city needs.
The ability to speak with a unified voice and to make
significant progress in a community starts with a leader or group of leaders who
analyze the past as they contemplate the future.
Each year, when the freshwater shrimp infested the water system, the city
became the subject of unfavorable news articles across the country. The council
used this negative media coverage to convince the state that it needed
assistance to build a water filtration plant. And it worked! A water treatment
plant was built to eliminate the yellowish-colored water and the freshwater
shrimp. The state granted half the capital construction money, and within seven
to eight years, the state of Wyoming had also funded 60 percent of the
replacement costs for the 75-year-old, 26-mile wood-stave pipeline. That was
How Does Progress Start?
The ability to speak with a unified voice and to make significant progress in
a community starts with a leader or group of leaders who analyze the past as
they contemplate the future. They consider the history and traditions; unique
physical characteristics, nature, and driving force of the economy; and the core
community values. They capture in words their dreams and ambitions for a renewed
community, bearing in mind what it is they want to bequeath to the next
A wise city manager discovers early on the community’s vision for the future
and, if it has not been developed fully, orchestrates the process to bring it
about. It’s the manager’s job to help elected officials to understand that a
community is more than a series of connecting streets that share a common water
and sewer system, dotted by an occasional park or playground. Instead, it is a
dynamic laboratory where paradigms are changed, where diverse individual dreams,
ambitions, and economic interests are intertwined into a community fabric called
An excellent leader will not only help break down old paradigms and instill
vision but also find a way to earn the respect and win the hearts and souls of
the people who work in a public organization. Public employees don’t have the
same tools as a private company has to motivate people. A public employee cannot
earn an equity interest in the company or receive shares or dividends,
six-figure bonuses, or trips to exotic places. The public’s business is
conducted under a unique set of rules and ethical considerations.
The key to developing an extraordinary environment in which employees have a
deep-seated commitment to the ideals and mission found in some organizations is
summarized in the words of Mark Willes, former chair and CEO of the Times Mirror
Company: “People will work for money, but they will die for something they
believe in deeply. They will give their all for a cause to which they are
committed. If a leader is to lead, he or she must kindle the passion of the
organization, give energy rather than take it away, and help people feel
There is a connection between the visioning and goal-setting process and
helping employees become fully engaged participants in a public enterprise.
Exceptional organizations have a shared vision, common goals, a clear sense of
purpose, a mission statement, and guiding principles or values. The process of
identifying shared values builds an effective bridge to the hearts and souls of
the people with whom we work.
How can an organization that is stagnating in the safety and security of an
old operating mode develop the desire to move into a brave new world? Henry
Kissinger once said, “The task of the leader is to get his people from where
they are to where they have not been. The public does not fully understand the
world into which it is going. Leaders must invoke an alchemy of great vision.”
On to the Present
Bringing about a new operating paradigm has never been more challenging than
in my present setting. Richland, Washington, was built on the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation during World War II to house people working on the super-secret
Manhattan Project, the effort to build an atomic bomb. It was a government town
in every respect. The government owned the houses, schools, stores, and utility
Consequently, when Richland was incorporated in 1958, it inherited all the
government-run systems and mentality. These systems all came with pages of
rules, regulations, and detailed procedures on how things were to be done—the
old operating paradigm.
In August 2001, after six months on the job, I wrote a memo to the council
describing what I thought needed to take place in Richland. It read: “As the
Board of Directors of the Municipal Corporation, I invite you to participate
with the staff and me in what I have called an ‘odyssey of discovery.’ It is a
process by which we will discuss and agree upon the core governing principles or
values that we would like to espouse as an organization.
“At present, our operating manuals and policies continue to thicken as more
situations and conditions are confronted and a ‘rule’ or ‘regulation’
promulgated. We can’t do away with these operating manuals entirely, but
certainly we can separate the minimally essential regulation from the rest. In a
values-based environment, employees are empowered to make certain decisions
within the framework of the agreed-upon core governing values of the
organization. We want to unleash the energy in this organization that is bound
up in rules.”
The process of identifying and agreeing upon the core values of Richland has
been challenging. There were those who advocated and, in fact, helped to
continue the old government model. They were deeply invested in the policy
manuals and had a difficult time imagining an operating environment without a
lot of structure and prescribed ways of accomplishing each task. They enjoyed
the safety and security of the current system. Flexibility and innovation were
regularly sacrificed on the altar of “one size fits all.”
A larger group sat on the fence. Some viewed this emphasis on values as a
“flavor of the month,” like the total quality management (TQM) movement or the
Richland logo, which reads, “Remarkable! Resilient! Resourceful! Ready!” These
approaches to bringing about change were viewed by employees with cynicism and
seen as without substance, depth, or commitment.
Why should Richland employees believe that shared values would be any
different? I suggested that a values-oriented system would give greater
flexibility to the employee in figuring out the answers to a question or issue
posed by internal or external customers. The employee would have a set of
agreed-upon values, along with supporting statements describing the general
intent. Expected outcomes would be creativity, innovation, and empowerment of
There would be less emphasis on “knowing all the rules” and more emphasis on
“understanding our governing values” and acting responsibly, based upon them. We
would still have policy manuals, but ideally they would diminish in importance
(and weight?) over time. Tremendous power and energy are unleashed in a person
who is authorized to act upon shared principles or values to get a job done!
Fortunately, we had a significant group of people who saw the wisdom of the
new paradigm of shared values. They were identified early in the process and
volunteered to be champions in helping the organization make the transition from
a rules- to a values-oriented culture. From the values identification process,
in which every employee participated, the governing board and employees agreed
to fly under the flag of integrity, teamwork, and excellence. The values
champions defined what each “value” meant and held training sessions on
These universally shared values make up the building blocks of our city
organization. They have become the basic structure upon which employees are
empowered to make decisions and resolve problems.
Forever a Challenge
Moving to a new way of doing business will always be a challenge. Leaders
must create an atmosphere in which new paradigms can develop and mature. Every
day, people show up to work and go through the motions without being fully
engaged in the mission of the enterprise. Most people, however, respond
positively to change when they perceive that it will help them perform their
work better. They want to work in an environment where their contribution is
valued. They want to be associated with an organization that kindles their
passion and is worthy of emulation.
Changing paradigms in any organization occurs most effectively when the
workforce is thoroughly involved and committed to the ideals and mission of the
enterprise. As employees are immersed in the process, they formulate a widely
held vision, goals that support that vision, a clear sense of mission, and
universally agreed-upon principles or values that guide the day-to-day
operations of the enterprise. The processes of visioning and involving can help
leaders change paradigms and earn employee allegiance—in turn, producing
successful public organizations.
Mark Willes, “Principles of Leadership,” Exchange
(Marriott School at Brigham Young University, Annual Report Issue, 1995/96), p.
Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of
Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Warner Books,
1982), p. 282.
© 2004 International City/County Management Association.
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