Richland City Manager Gets the Job Done with Guts, Personality, and Key-Shaped Cookies

Cindy Johnson, Richland City Manager since 2008, has used guts, personality and key-shaped cookies to lead the change in Richland to a high performance organization.   She’s focused on developing a team of leaders to help her.

She leads a 500-employee, full service organization that includes the typical city functions and an electric utility, landfill, and library.  I sat down with her to learn more about how her style, passion, and vision have shaped her team approach in Richland.

What motivated you to initiate change in the organization?

My motivation when I started as City Manager was to get the city organization to live up to our city’s promise.   Richland has the reputation of being a smart, forward-thinking city – lots of PhD’s and an abundance of technology-oriented jobs.  But as a city government, we were lagging behind.

We were working in silos.  We thought we had all the answers and didn’t reach out to our peer cities for innovation or best practices.  We’d fallen behind on technology innovations.  We didn’t have a strategic approach for establishing priorities.

I could see the change we needed, but I couldn’t do it alone.  And I challenged my senior staff. “Let’s be all that Richland represents.  Let’s be the ‘go to’ city that is a model for others.”  I challenged my directors to become executive leaders.

What was the turning point in getting your leadership team to step up to the challenge?

It happened as part of our strategic planning process.  I hired a consultant to help with that.  Right off the bat, she asked me “Do your directors know what you are trying to accomplish?”  My answer was “Of course they do, I tell them all the time.  I say it every day.”

Then she asked me to write down my expectations of the directors.  So, on the back of an envelope, I just poured out what I was feeling in my heart.  “I want you to love your job.  I want you to love Richland.  I want your commitment.  I want your firstborn.”

The eye-opener was when we sat down with the directors and the consultant asked them, “Do you know what Cindy wants from you?”  And they were all over the board.  I realized that I hadn’t been as clear as I should be.  I was using flowery language.  I hadn’t been definitive.  So I spoke to them from the heart and I told them I wanted them to be leaders and I challenged them to help me run the city.  I told them I wanted them to love their job and to love Richland.   I was asking them to do something different from what they had become used to doing.  I was asking them to be responsible for the direction and vision of the organization.

How were you successful in getting your organization to embrace the strategic plan?

Our strategic plan focuses on “What kind of city do you want to be when you grow up?”  The plan has seven keys to unlock the future.  So, I had batches of cookies made in the shape of a key and I met with every single employee.   For six months, I went out to staff team meetings with everyone – parks crews, firefighters, engineers.  I went out armed with my key cookies, I asked them “Do you know this plan?  Do you know your part in this plan?”  I let them know how important it was for them to know the plan and to see themselves as part of it.

Really, the plan content is pretty basic.  The important thing is that the council owns it, community owns it, and the organization owns it.

How have you dealt with the difficult decisions that go along with change?

There’s nothing really special about being a city manager.  You just have to have some guts.

I dealt with unhealthy stuff that had been going on for 30 years.  It took me a long time to get comfortable doing that.  I found that when I did make a difficult decision, I would get thank you notes and e-mails from fellow city employees.  Some were very heartfelt notes of support.  I keep them and when I’m having a bad day, I just look at them. They were so grateful that I had the courage to act.

You are a successful woman in city management – a career path that’s still dominated by men.  How did you do it?

I don’t come from the typical city manager mold.  No disrespect, but if you go to most city manager conferences, you see a lot of balding, gray-haired men in the profession.  Thank goodness I’m not balding, but I am a little gray.

If I’m successful, it’s because this job is really an extension of who I am.  I believe you have to put your personality into it.  I love what I do and it’s contagious.  My style is that I am very approachable and I have high expectations.   And I try to live by our organizational values: Teamwork, Excellence, and Integrity.

Books on Cindy Johnson’s Management Bookshelf

Good to Great  by Jim Collins.  Cindy buys this book for all her directors.  “We talk about it at leadership meetings.  We’ve picked out the parts of the book that work for us.  Jim Collins’ concept of ‘piercing clarity’ works for us.”  In Collins’ view, in going from good to great, you must attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and must then exercise the relentless discipline to say “No thank you” to opportunities that fail the test.

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.  The Seven Principles of Fierce Conversations address how to: overcome barriers to meaningful communication; expand and enrich conversations with colleagues, friends, and family; increase clarity and improve understanding; and handle strong emotions on both sides of the table.

It’s Your Ship by Michael Abrashoff.  An inspiring story of innovative leadership and organizational transformation; Mike Abrashoff took command of the worst-performing ship in the fleet and made it #1 by changing his leadership style and the culture.

The Way of the Shepherd by Kevin Leman and William Pentak.   A personal touchstone book for Cindy.  “I try to have a servant’s heart, and this book resonates with me.”  It teaches you how to lead the people close to you so they will view their work as a calling rather than merely a job.

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.
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