Out of every difficult situation comes an opportunity to learn, grow and renew a focus on the future. Aiken is at that crossroads currently. As we begin the search for a new city manager, we have a chance to select an individual who can raise the bar and set expectations at a higher level.
If we study the recent report prepared by USC Aiken experts for Economic Development Partners and the Chamber of Commerce, we learn many important facts, but for me, the over-arching message is that, as a community, we simply cannot continue to do things the way we have been doing them.
Innovation is imperative for effective city governance. We are confronting economic stress, demographic and social shifts and facing opportunities posed by new technologies. We must respond to these challenges. A great first step is hiring the best possible city manager. Three questions come to mind to accomplish this first step:
1. What is the environment the new city manager will be entering?
• The best way to get rid of some of our issues is to change the economy by creating more business opportunities and jobs. We need to focus on changing the economy by being more business-friendly and removing any roadblocks for potential businesses.
• We need to continue to support and develop our fabulous downtown while not ignoring the rest of the city.
• The city needs to create a position that could be a conduit between the city and members outside the city – such as businesses, universities and other entities – to find solutions to solve specific civic and government challenges. The position should be filled by a person who has the ability to create change and inspire others to implement it.
2. What do we need in a new city manager? The new city manager needs to be:
• A leader willing to work as part of a team to continue the positives we do have.
• Someone interested in collaboration, as we do so much more working together than individually – and I’m referring to seeking out partners both in Aiken as well as in the neighboring communities – a more regional approach.
• Someone with a proven track record as a city manager in an environment similar to the one we face today. There are cities that have achieved spectacular success leveraging the assets they have. We need a leader who has done that and can replicate it here.
• Someone who maintains and values our sense of history, but is a visionary about what we could become as a community.
• Not only someone who can embrace innovation but someone who can initiate and champion positive changes.
3. How do we set a new city manager up for success?
• When elected officials support collaboration and finding new ways to meet residents’ needs, local governments become truly advanced. Local professionals are not afraid to innovate when they know that elected officials encourage and champion state-of-the-art service delivery.
• In order to continue providing the services, staff members must be more original than ever. Empowered employees will help the city find better ways of doing business.
• By focusing on synergies between departments, leadership, process improvements, and other key areas, we can see great savings, increased customer service and engagement from employees.
• Innovation requires risk-taking – not wild gambles, but calculated, “smart,” risks. Elected officials must provide a professional safety net to encourage responsible risk-taking and ensure that change is not just talk from leaders.
• Specifically, it would be helpful to conduct assessments to determine what employees feel they need in the person who will lead them and the issues the new leader will face.
Focus groups with key community leaders would shed valuable light on issues needing attention. That information would result in identifying skill sets necessary for the new city manager. We could ask each of these groups four questions:
• Given our goals, what has gone well?
• What has not gone so well?
• How did we respond to inevitable problems?
• What did we learn for the future?
Selecting the next city manager in a deliberative and thorough manner will ensure that Aiken, the community we all love, will be all it can be.
Liz Stewart is the president of Stewart and Associates, Inc., a national management and training consulting firm, and a community volunteer.
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