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  • Ian McCormack

Speaking about Relationships

4:30 a.m. is way too early for a wakeup call, but that’s what it was. At least I was headed to the eastern time zone that day, where it was a much more respectable 6:30 a.m.; or that’s what I told myself anyway.


I was headed to Charlottesville, Virginia to speak at the winter conference of the Virginia Local Government Managers Association (VLGMA). They call it a ‘winter’ conference, but they really don’t know what winter is. Some of the trees even still had leaves. I am perplexed by their concept of winter.

This was the third trip of the past two weeks. In the last blog post, I wrote about speaking on ethics to gathered town and city councillors of Municipalities Saskatchewan in Regina, and in between that talk and this sojourn, I spent two days in Cranbrook working with City Council on a new four-year strategic plan.


Having a chance to address Virginia’s city and county managers was a fascinating experience. I was there to conduct an ICMA University workshop on the relationship between senior managers and elected officials – essentially how to build a good relationship, how to understand each other, how to know when things are trending poorly, and what to do when the end is nigh. Everyone working in local government management knows that when push comes to shove between elected and appointed, it’s always the city or county manager who departs.


Getting used to speaking in American local government terms takes a bit of translation. For example, the term ‘bylaw’ means next to nothing, and they have a mix of strong and weak mayor systems. It is also common for Councils to have two employees (CAO and City Attorney), where that does not transpire in Canada.


All that said, good governance is good governance, regardless of which side of the 49th on which we live. The expectations for senior leaders are pretty much the same. Examples of these include;


  • Finding quality people;

  • Knowing who fits and who doesn’t;

  • Having the ability to inspire confidence in the chief elected official and that person’s colleagues;

  • Providing unfettered, apolitical advice; and

  • Willingness to hear, respect and integrate the voices from below that add value.


My colleague George Cuff is always a focused advocate of setting the ‘tone at the top’. He regularly points out that it’s council that sets the political tone for the municipality and the CAO that sets the administrative tone. Woe betide the CAO who gets that mixed up.

Authority has a real tendency to cascade downwards on a regular basis. Almost never – actually never – does it cascade upwards, much to the chagrin of the guy on the Parks department lawnmower with great ideas that Council never listens to.


The ICMA workshop was three and a half hours long, much of it me providing information, but I know there is always expertise in the room so I’m fascinated to hear the advice that local government administrators have for their colleagues on either side of the border.


There is much more to say on this topic, and I’d be happy to share it. Please reach out; I’m at ian@strategicsteps.ca


One final note; I had six Delta Airlines flight legs in all. Each of them departed on time (even from LaGuardia in New York), and my bags arrived with me. It was a minor miracle somewhere north of 34th Street!

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