Living With Strangers

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Ten tips (five each) for “locals” and the “outsiders” they hire to run their community organizations. We can make this work.If you live in a typical American community, there’s a good chance that you’re waiting for a “stranger” to take over one or more of your most important governmental, nonprofit, civic, cultural or educational institutions. If you’re not now, you soon will be.

In our community, for instance, we’re looking for a few school superintendents, a county executive and a tourism director. Not that long ago, we were looking for an economic development professional, a Chamber executive, a theater director and a couple of college coaches.

Why? Because “national searches” for managers and leaders have been touted as the cure for what ails us. In truth, though, the searches aren’t so very “national” as they are “categorical,” or job specific. United Ways hire United Way executives. Chambers of Commerce hire Chamber executives. And so it is with city managers, school superintendents, coaches, economic development directors, symphony conductors, deans, association executives and college presidents. Search committees no longer feel completely safe looking only at “inside” candidates, let alone candidates whose training isn’t specific to the job.

Just as importantly, though, the search-and-replace process has evolved to track the professional advancement of the individuals who themselves are conducting national searches for new opportunities.

So, as a nation, we’ve developed the “Next Bigger Town Syndrome,” in which job-specific candidates work their way up the pecking order, leaving behind communities and organizations that start the process all over again, dipping down to smaller towns to find promising candidates who some day will prove themselves good enough to leave.

There’s certainly a downside to this churning of professionals. Contrary to the popular belief, though, the charge that communities are resistant to the ideas of outsiders is not a big factor here. More often than not, “unwillingness to change” is a smokescreen for other issues. The disadvantages of churning are these: overcompensation in the selection process for past weaknesses; the erosion of community culture when instability reigns; the homogenization of managerial approaches based on common training grounds; and the tendency of professionals to feather their own nests at the expense of the organizational good.
But there’s no need to be cynical about it. The upsides of national searches are significant. Most folks feel that outsiders bring “new perspectives”. Translation: they’re willing to take risks. Some search committees have given up on insiders because insiders couldn’t or wouldn’t rock the boat. More valuable than new ideas, though, is the hunger that these characters bring to the task. If they fail, they know it’s a downhill slide and the next smaller town won’t have them. There’s no substitute for drive. The willingness to relocate is almost prima facie evidence of ambition.

On balance, then, there’s not much reason to change the existing process, and less hope of doing so. But for those of us who, for whatever reason, are not going on to the next bigger town, and are destined to be “locals” — meaning in some cases that we moved here a longer time ago — we need to effectively compete in this national game of musical chairs.

And why, when all the attention is given to executive performance, do we need to perform as “locals”? Well, if we don’t perform well in our communities, we’ll find ourselves caught in a mediocrity trap — meaning the good executives will be anxious to move on, the bad ones will work like crazy to hold on, but in the end, only the mediocre performers will avoid the dynamics of the game — neither promoted nor drummed out. If we compete well as a community, we have a chance to keep the good managers/executives/executive directors/presidents.

So here are five ways to get the most out of traveling executives (while they’re here) or, in some cases, retaining their talents for life.

  1. Among the finest things you can say about an individual is that he or she “has never met a stranger.” As a community, we would do well to heed that notion. Upwardly mobile execs have often complained that they are not truly welcomed in new communities. People in their late 30s through early 50s (the chronological heart of the advancement ladder ) are at times excluded from tightly formed social groups and aren’t invited into people’s homes. To make it worse, “outsiders” don’t always feel comfortable advancing their own social cause. As an aside, we need to pay special attention to spouses, especially when there aren’t young children in tow (children activities make community attachment easier coming in, harder going out).
  2. Praise them. Just as executives move on for better pay, they also — and perhaps more often — go where people are excited about having them work. When one does a good job for your organization, write a note. Pick up the phone. Visit. Be supportive at board meetings.
  3. Provide organizational leadership. It takes the combination of a great board (commission) and a great executive to excel. Keep in mind that you can help the executive grow and develop by helping the organization grow and develop. Executives won’t have to go onto a bigger job elsewhere if you’ve helped create an institution that is growing and succeeding. In some cases (with the true hotshots), this is simply a matter of making sure that your board keeps up.
  4. Offer professional development opportunities outside the executive’s field. Tell him or her to take a pass on the same old managers’ convention and get some training in sales, leadership or area that is tangential to his or her core competencies.
  5. Get your executives involved in your community. Open doors and provide time for them to collaborate with others and feel more attached to your community. That may make the difference on whether they come or go.

Of course, there are also ways that the traveling execs can be more successful in our communities. Here are five tips for them.

  1. Address specific concerns, not a community’s general shortcomings. When you attack the culture in general, feelings of inadequacy are reinforced. Locals then feel the need to keep looking “outside” because they feel something is fatally wrong with the culture. It’s a vicious cycle that is depressing and unnecessary.
  2. Etiquette counts. While this is true throughout the professional world, it is more closely watched with “newcomers.” Phone manners, accessibility, business meeting attendance, correspondence and social obligations are extremely powerful symbols.
  3. Don’t “oversniff” new opportunities, or overplay the “I’m leaving” card. It’s unsettling to your board and the community and it starts the countdown.
  4. Be a team player. If you only advance your own organization, you’ve failed to recognize the interconnectedness of the community players. The most successful executives play strong roles in organizations other than their own. This is related to the community’s obligation to provide the executive with opportunities.
  5. Enjoy it here. We’re all going to die or leave eventually anyway. People who have moved several times, interestingly, tend to know this very well. They often do a better job than the locals of taking advantage of what’s happening in the world of recreation, entertainment, sports and leisure.

In the final analysis, managing these relationships has a lot to do with the success of our communities. The better we take care of those we used to regard as strangers, the better off we’ll all be.