03/21/05 — City manager shares leadership decisions

View Archive

City manager shares leadership decisions

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on March 21, 2005 1:50 PM

Joe Huffman is trying to change city government, but the ultimate goal is to change Goldsboro.

Two months after becoming city manager, Huffman has begun converting the city to a "learning organization," a management style that he learned and used in Laurinburg.

"This is my heart and soul," Huffman said recently.

Huffman has been briefing department and division heads on how this will affect them and their employees. The latest meeting was Friday.

"I expect resistance, but so far everyone has said they are willing to try," he said.

Traditionally, city managers have tried to be experts on all aspects of city services, Huffman said. Authority flows from the top down, and employees are treated as subordinates.

"The manager makes all decisions. He has to be an infallible leader," Huffman said

In a learning organization, a manager is "more of a coach," he said. Employees are treated as partners who share in decision-making.

"Collectively, we know more than any individual," he said.

A traditional manager is focused on policies and procedure, while a learning organization manager concentrates on values and beliefs. City government has been stable, and Huffman wants it to be flexible and adaptive.

It may sound "touchy-feely," Huffman conceded, but a learning organization is actually a good model for making tough decisions. To illustrate, he gave an example from his tenure in Laurinburg.

Nearly all cities in North Carolina have morale problems arising from their inclement-weather policies, he said. Many police, fire and water-plant personnel have to report to work, but do others get the day off with pay? If so, the essential personnel feel burned. But the other choice is to tell the office workers to stay home and give up pay or annual leave.

A traditional manager cannot make an inclement-weather policy without irritating half his workers, Huffman said. "That's the one thing they'll remember about you -- how you took away their pay or days off."

In Laurinburg, Huffman pulled together a group of employees to write the policy. "We talked about our values, which was protecting the safety of the citizens and the employees," he said.

The committee members eventually presented a policy "that was a lot tougher on them than I would have been," Huffman said. While it required essential personnel to report, it also allowed office workers to come in if they could do so safely.

Employees more freely accepted the policy because they had been asked to share in the decision, he said.

A learning organization relies on "advocacy and inquiry" to solve problems, he said. That means people get as much information as possible, take positions but also remain open-minded.

"It's asking questions, listening and learning," he said. "Employees are free to disagree with me. If they can give me a good enough reason, I may be forced to abandon my position."

One of the principles of a learning organization is personal mastery, he said. Employees need to be focused on improving their education and training so that they can advocate for solutions.

Huffman plans to use these techniques as the city takes on problems such as litter, dilapidated housing and other concerns raise during the City Council's retreat earlier this month.