CAOs: Mene mene, tekel upharsin

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Leaders in the ShadowsThe title, as you well know, dear reader, comes from the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, translated as, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Those words came to me as I read David Siegel’s recent book on Canadian municipal CAOs, Leaders in the Shadows.  It’s subtitled, “The Leadership Qualities of Municipal Chief Administrative Officers.” Interesting stuff for any municipal politician engaged in the recruitment of a CAO.*

Siegel suggests CAOs lead from the shadows because, in part, “…a CAO whose name is in the media frequently is probably in some kind of trouble.” I also suggest that such a CAO may also be so I-centric that he or she feels the need to subordinate the politicians and community to be in the forefront of attention; to be in the media simply for the egotistical delight of seeing his or her name in print. Such a CAO is not a good leader.

Siegel looks at general ideas of leadership within the complex and often byzantine context of Canadian municipal governance, and provides five case studies of successful CAOs from around the country. He examines their careers in depth, their personal attributes, and looks at their leadership skills in leading down (to staff), up (council) and out (community and peers).

That three-way balancing act is crucial to Siegel’s analysis. Good CAOs manage to engage all levels and all directions simultaneously. Staff and council, of course, have more direct interaction with the CAO, thus more opportunities to engage (therefore more opportunities to lead down and up).

I would put leading out under the microscope more because I believe it requires much more effort, more passion, more dedication and more professionalism to be involved in the community outside the office. To actively go out of the town hall doors and engage businesses, groups, to be involved in events, to walk the streets and speak to residents. That’s where a truly great leader would shine, in my estimation. Conversely, any CAO who doesn’t do at least minimal and regular external engagement is not, in my eyes, a leader, merely a manager.

A CAO who isolates himself or herself in the office and does not engage the community would, I believe, be more of a liability to the administration than an asset.

Siegel identifies a municipal CAO with good leadership skills as having “…the ability to move the municipality forward by interacting in a mutually influential way with and motivating council, external stakeholders and organizational subordinates.” This extends a more general definition from Joseph Rost’s book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. The key words here are interacting and motivating; not bossing, not ordering, not demanding.

He notes that good leaders “…minimize their personal ambition and emphasize ambition for their organization” (p256). His exemplars, he further notes, were not I-centric, but during interviews deflected discussions away from their own accomplishments to those of their subordinates and their organizations. I expect they were comfortable working in mutually-beneficial partnership situations (like we had with our own Collus/Powerstream partner until this term) and with staff as valued members of the organization, rather than attempting to destroy any relationship for ideological or personal reasons.

The five CAOs were chosen as role models in different categories and styles of management: the generalist, the task-oriented leader, the relationship-oriented leader, the partnership-building leader and what he calls the “I think I’m a better employee…” leader. In truth, all of the CAOs chosen show some degree of strength in every category. Conversely, I would expect there are those around who have none of these skills but have risen through the ranks by sheer ability to outlast everyone else. One can never lose sight of the Peter Principle in which “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Siegel bookends his five case studies by, first, an examination of the nature of leadership and how it applies to municipal CAOs, and at the end by a general conclusion that examines the qualities of the five identified leaders and how they represent the general idea of CAO leadership. In all, I could find attributes, behaviours and actions that serve as good measuring sticks for any CAO, and especially in the recruitment process.

These general rules and observations about leadership in a municipality do an excellent job that sets the bar high for any and everyone in the field of municipal administration. It also provides solid grounding for councillors who do regular performance evaluations of their CAO (an action every council does unless they prefer to neglect their responsibilities).

In my time in the media and on council in this town, I’ve experienced four permanent CAOs, and two interim CAOs. I’ve participated in three recruitments, and advocated for Collingwood Council to hire a much-needed and well-deserved full-time, permanent CAO. However temporary, even interim CAOs can prove a boon to council, staff and community, as did Ed Houghton, when he more-than-ably filled that role.**

I am interested in Siegel’s observations and comments in general, but also how they relate to Collingwood’s current interim CAO situation and – impending, we hope – hunt for a permanent CAO  who is fully invested in the community (which as I’ve said, we deserve). However, that opinion isn’t shared by most of council which wants to keep the interim – and allegedly unpopular – CAO in place. All done without public input or open discussion, of course (why start being open and transparent so far into the term, eh?).

There are, of course, many other worthy books on leadership. I have a dozen or so such titles in my own library – a tiny sliver of what is in print. As far as I know this is the first on Canadian municipal CAOs since Plunkett’s 1994 book on City Management in Canada. And it’s a welcome addition to the canon.

In a policy brief to the AMCTO, Siegel wrote that good CAOs are NOT micro-managers, and must trust subordinates and delegate responsibility and authority, rather than try to run everything themselves:

Being responsible for everything that happens in the municipality at a high level means being cut off from direct involvement in many day-to-day service delivery issues.

He added:

Most CAOs preferred to rely on influence rather than authority to accomplish their goals… Many CAOs probably underestimate the power that they possess to influence their organization through simply modeling appropriate behavior… Having assembled the team, the CAO then let these competent people do what they do best—manage their functional areas… Visioning is more complex in municipal government, because visioning is clearly the role of the council… The CAO must respect this role of council… Good CAOs discover how to balance their system of monitoring their municipality’s activities. Being too intrusive would signal that they lacked confidence in their department heads…

For example, I suggest a good CAO would not force staff to route residents’ calls with questions and concerns to his personal phone line; he or she would have implicit faith in the abilities of the department heads to answer appropriately on behalf of the municipality.

The Institute for Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) has numerous articles and books on public sector administration and leadership, including some that look at Siegel’s book (many are presentations from IPAC’s 2015 conference on the Incredible, Credible Leader, which, of course, the most dedicated Canadian CAOs attended). ***

In its guide for new civic administrators, the CivicInfoBC site notes:

…a CAO must be a skilled, effective, open and honest communicator with Council, staff and the public. The CAO is a people manager and must have excellent human relation skills, an ability to understand personalities and to motivate and facilitate others to do their mandated responsibilities. A good CAO is not a micromanager; rather, he/she facilitates and adds
value to the work of his managers.

In its guide to hiring a new CAO, Municipal Affairs Alberta notes that CAOs must be able to:

  • ensure all programs are developed according to… legislation, industry standards, and best practices;
  • provide strong leadership and direction;
  • work in a team environment as well as work independently;
  • communicate their ideas effectively in person and in writing;
  • deal effectively with high pressure and challenging situations.

Teamwork appears a key point in all discussions about what makes a good leader. There is no I-centric administrator in team. The guide adds,

They should have experience in, and be comfortable and competent with, managing information and making decisions, negotiating with people, finding innovative solutions to problems, and administering and monitoring budgets. Although more subjective in nature, the successful candidate should also have the ability to adapt their management style to the needs of council and to understand the culture of the organization and community.

The ability to adapt to circumstances and situations, rather than force a personal style on the organization – the metaphorical round peg pounded into the square hole – is surely an attribute most welcome in any administration. Attempting to force a style or ideology on others can be viewed as bullying and intimidation.

There are many indicators scattered throughout the book of what Siegel thinks makes a good administrative leader. He focuses on the positive aspects of leadership, rather than on the negative, and provides few, if any examples of bad management. Hence readers can only make mental comparisons with these attributes and those of their own local CAO. Like I said, mene mene tekel upharsin.****

To communicate well, you must be able to listen well. You must know what sorts of things are important to people around you, and what sorts of things will push their buttons, in both a positive and negative sense. (p.76).

When describing the skillsets of Michael Fenn, Siegel writes,

Many interviewees described Fenn as an exceptionally good writer… clear fashion with emphasis on a style and language that his audience would find appealling and understandable. (p77)

Communication skills are vital to good leadership. Any CAO who cannot cobble together a clear sentence, cannot spell properly or doesn’t know how to punctuate a simple sentence will not able to communicate effectively. It’s not just a matter of English style or grammar: it reflects mental capacity. If a top official doesn’t have the skills to communicate well, it follows that their other organizational or administrative skills are equally diminished. Siegel doesn’t say this directly, but the implication is there.

For example, Siegel says of CAO Keith Robicheau’s “…ability to explain relatively complex issues in a clear and straightforward manner.” Robicheau himself is quoted as saying,

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Listen, listen, listen. Recognize and value difference. It’s not terribly profound. (p186)

Probably the most important attribute for a CAO that Siegel describes is integrity:

We want our leaders to be honest because their honesty is a reflection upon our own honesty. (p251)

Of course, we don’t want our civic leaders to be discovered foisting on us the efforts of their personal agendas: for example, we don’t expect to see reports and studies based on knowingly incorrect information, unfounded allegations, deliberate misrepresentations of facts, or even lies, often written by friends or family. We would be mortally offended if our leaders tried to fob off a trumped-up report based on allegedly anonymous sources, or went behind closed doors to misinform council about alleged legal advice.

Siegel adds:

…it is much easier to explain how the decision was made following certain transparent, ethical principles than to bob and weave trying to fabricate an explanation of why the contract was awarded to the CAO’s good buddy. Integrity is desirable not only in terms of high ethics; it also makes the day-to-day management much easier. (p.252)

Certainly it would take a lot of bobbing and weaving to explain why a CAO’s “buddy” was given any role or contract. That’s why a CAO with integrity doesn’t merely hand out contracts: they are all brought to the table through an open, transparent and accountable RFP or RFQ process and decided by a proper, open vote. That way there will be no blemish on either the process or the results. I would assume anything less would show lack of integrity.

A combined credibility, integrity and trustworthiness also ranked top of competencies in a study of CAOs conducted for a PhD dissertation on CAOs for the University of Victoria.

Along with integrity, says Siegel, goes respect:

…all our successful CAOs treated all officeholders with the high level of respect that is owed the office. They never showed their frustration with councillors even when everyone could see everyone could see that the CAO was not receiving the level of respect he or she deserved… Interviewees frequently commented on how CAOs were respectful to everyone they dealt with, from senior administrators to cleaning staff, and everyone else around them. A prime way of earning respect seems to be to respect others. (p253).

One expects a good CAO is the very model of respect (even beyond the Gilbert and Sullivan metaphor). A respectful CAO would not make a councillor cool his heels in a hallway for 45 minutes after a meeting was scheduled. A respectful CAO would not send critical and condescending emails to councillors, staff, or even residents. A respectful CAO would not phone members of the public to criticize them for ‘liking’ a contentious Facebook post critical of the administration. A respectful CAO would not demand the authority to call special meetings without approval by the mayor, just to do so at his or her whim.

Another attribute, says Siegel, is “being politically sensitive but not politicized.” That’s a bit nebulous, because a CAO must be aware and sensitive to political currents not only in council, but in the community at large. Of course the CAO who “leads out” into the community will be fully and actively engaged outside the office, and will be keenly aware of what is being discussed in the greater public, and thus be more attuned to those political winds that affect how the public perceives the government. Not to be so attuned to the public is, as I said above, a liability to the municipality.

There’s a lot more to Siegel’s book than I can encompass here. And it’s a good read: I expected a dry, academic dissertation and was pleasantly surprised at how easily readable it was. The narrative approach with its biographies provides many memorable insights and examples. Any truly dedicated politician or CAO will want to read this.


* Given that our own council stopped its subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the beginning of its term in order to avoid getting advice from peers, or reading outside ideas that might pollute their own ideology, I doubt this book will ever be read by them. Reading is, of course, so very difficult that it’s best not to task a fragile mind with facts or different viewpoints when your opinion is already determined.

** Houghton set an example for collaborative, cooperative management here that is hard for any administrator to live up to, permanent or interim.

*** Many of these are free for non-members and provide a wealth of information, advice, and support for municipal councillors who are dedicated to learning, to doing their best – and are open to the ideas of others. See the footnote, above.

**** I wonder what Siegel would think of Collingwood’s current interim CAO and his $4million lawsuit against his former employer, the City of Oshawa. It was settled for about $300,000, the EB noted. How would Siegel have measured that in terms of his definitions of leadership?

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