By Amber Nelson
Whether as school district superintendents, city managers or administrators, or college presidents; executives in public service have a unique set of responsibilities and challenges that merge many of the demands of executives in the private sector with those of public servants.
Like an executive in a corporate setting, those in public service are often responsible for managing the major business functions of an organization such as human resources, finances and long-range planning. They lead staff in implementing strategic processes and keep their key stakeholders informed. But, unlike those in private life, every decision, appointment, and discussion a public executive has is exposed to public oversight.
Not all those with excellent executive skills will thrive amid the special circumstances of a public position. Several Southern California leaders contacted by the Latino Policy Connection weighed in with their insights on what makes a great public executive.
As both a retired city manager and former president of the International City/County Management Association, Dave Mora has first-hand experience in the role of a public executive. Transparency is paramount for success as a public executive, he says.
All managers have to have ethical standards consistent with their responsibilities.
“Ninety-nine percent of the business conducted by a city manager is done in public,” he explains. This impacts the pace of business and sometimes frustrates those with a more corporate mindset. Motivation can also be a major factor in success as a public executive. According to Mora, it has to come from a place of wanting to serve. “You’ve got to have a feel for the quality of life and the needs of the community,” he says.
El Monte City Councilmember Victoria Martinez emphasizes character when it comes to excellent public executives.
“I know a great executive is someone who wants to be a great servant for the community,” she says. That dedication to service is elemental in identifying exemplary public executives. She points to the numerous audiences an executive must serve.
In El Monte, there is a five-member council, each with his or her own personalities and special areas of interest. Add to that the staff an executive must lead and their accountability to their community and you end up with a lot of hats to wear and a lot of agendas to navigate.
Councilmember Martinez believes “a chameleon ability to adjust to each individual personality,” will contribute to a public executive’s success. The commitment and dedication required of a great public executive necessitates a great deal of stamina. Public service is “like running a marathon” she says. “You’ve got to keep going until you hit that finish line.”
For Maria Ott, an executive in residence at USC Rossier School of Education who leads The Urban Superintendent Academy, the key components of a great public executive include outstanding communication, a clear vision and an ability to deal with and recover from adversity. Communication skills contribute to an “ability to collaborate and build consensus” and support navigating “a complex environment,” she explains. Optimism and commitment go a long way toward implementing a strong vision and dealing with delays, disappointments and difficulties so often a part of work in pubic life.
As the Mayor Pro Tem in Downey, Fernando Vasquez has had ample experience working with public executives such as city managers. He believes a big part of the job is developing a strong staff that understands their mission is to implement the policies of the elected officials. “You’re only as good as your team,” he says. Building a winning team means staff diversity. “It’s just the right thing to do,” he explains, pointing to the impact varying life experiences and perspectives can bring to a staff.
Mayor Vasquez also underscores the importance of realistically managing expectations. Whether a public executive is delivering updates on staffing to the elected officials or engaging with residents, taking a strategic approach to communication can set up appropriate expectations and pave a smooth path forward. No elected official wants to “be reading about something for the first time on the front page of the paper,” he says.
Maintaining an open mind to the opinions and expertise of others and continually learning are two of the most important attributes of a public executive according to Yolanda Rodriguez-Peña, President of the Azusa Unified School District Board.
“Really look to and trust those who are experts in their fields,” she suggests. Public executives need to “stay in touch with those they serve” while reaching out to get the insights and opinions of others. Rodriguez-Pena also stresses the importance of humility when serving in a public capacity.
“You need to be humble, you need to remember where you came from,” she says.
Institute for Local Government (ILG)
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Amber Nelson is a writer and strategic communications expert. As the president of Lingo Consulting, Inc., she works with individuals and organizations to clarify the complex and create meaning that makes a difference.