Running for and winning an office such as Erie County Executive is an accomplishment to be proud of. Mark Poloncarz starts office with a clean slate and an opportunity to make a difference in government. Leadership is a topic that I study due to my own personal interest and something that I have had an opportunity to observe up close at the local level through 17 years of experience in various government positions (Chief of Staff of the Buffalo Common Council, General Counsel to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, Erie County Department of Social Services etc.)

As Erie County Executive Poloncarz has a platform to raise new ideas in government and I truly hope that he does so. In no particular order here is some unsolicited advice.

  • Start with the end in mind – At the end of four years what do you want to be known for? What three things do you want to be able to say that you accomplished? Most elected officials simply move from crisis to crisis, without any priorities or they can list 20 things that are important at any given moment. To be successful you need to focus on no more than 3 key items. Most people are not disciplined enough, focused enough and passionate enough to accomplish something big.
  • Focus on big ideas –  Big ideas create energy and inspire people. Elected officials, who seek to create something, draw energy and people to them. Creating is how you make a difference in your community and how you stand out among your peers.
  • Focus on good government not politics – When selecting people to fill positions in your administration focus on talent and not politics. Who cares how many petition signatures someone obtained, how much money they contributed, what a particular Town Chair wants, who is going to be the next County Chairman. Spending time and energy on the endless political moves people focus on simply drains your energy and time from focusing on good government. People who are smart and driven will be a huge part of your success.
  • Reach out to people. Find more ways to interact with your subordinates. Practice management by walking around. Initiate conversations and be constructive. For some reasons executives whether they are a Governor, County Executive, Mayor or Town Supervisor neglect to communicate with the legislative body they must work with to be successful. Time after time, I see executives submit budgets and resolutions with the demand that their ideas not be changed or questioned in any way. Democracy is not supposed to work this way. Building respect and a working relationship takes time. Nothing prepares one to run an organization as large as county government, spend more time listening than dictating and you will be successful. As a side note it is amazing to me that most government executives do not gather their top department heads for regular meetings to discuss their goals and any obstacles to achieving them.
  • Set performance goals  – exercise leadership by consulting with others on establishing three high priority goals for each department.  Setting more than three goals causes people and departments to lose focus. Clearly defining what goals governmental departments are trying to accomplish will bring a new clarity of focus and will make government more effective and efficient. In order to be successful high priority goals for local governments should be established in the following manner:
    • In consultation with the Legislature and those affected by the department’s programs.
    • Each goal should have a named owner who is a Commissioner or senior official accountable for accomplishing the goal.
    • For each goal, the lead department should set out annually how it and its agencies intend to accomplish the goal. This information should be publicly available and should form a prominent part of each department’s budget submission.
    • Progress towards the high priority goals should be reviewed by County Legislature committees and publicly reported at least every six months.
  • Don’t let power go to your head – It is amazing how a little bit of power can transform people into self absorbed assholes. I have seen it happen with government officials at all levels from Governors, Judges, legislators to even commissioners on government bodies such as the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. Don’t surround yourself with people who are afraid to challenge or question the path you are taking.
  • Engage employees – Employees have ideas for improving the bureaucracy that they work in everyday, but rarely are their opinions sought. Spend one day each month working in a different county department. You will learn a great deal about the inner workings of county government in a first hand unfiltered way. Utilize the process Jack Welch as CEO of GE did to tap into employee ideas called WorkOut. Move from Six Sigma to Lean as a proven process for engaging employees in an effort to continuously improve government.
  • Transparency/engage the public – Private sector companies and governments around the world through the use of technology are co-creating products and services by tapping into citizen knowledge. Host a government apps competition, where citizens are encouraged to make government data more interactive and useful.
  • Further your own learning – It is amazing to me that for many years the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie have not participated in organizations such as the New York State Conference of Mayors, the New York State Association of Counties or the International City County Managers Association. These organizations are a wealth of information as to best practices being done in other locations that could work in Erie County as well. Don’t be afraid to attend an out of town conference to bring back new ideas.
  • Use lunch time to network – Often times leaders isolate themselves in their offices, spending significant time with their inner circle only. Eat lunch at different places with different people. It is exciting for a small business and their customers to see the County Executive eating lunch at their establishment. Doing this once a week gives you a lot of visibility in the community and builds a lot of good will. Call up people working on interesting projects and invite them to lunch to hear their thoughts and ideas and to bounce your ideas off of as well. People will be flattered to get such an invitation, use your power to build bridges and not just to say look at me at press conferences.
  • Have a sense of humor – Life is short and being County Executive is going to demand a lot of time and create physical and emotional stress in your life. Don’t lose the ability to laugh. Laughter can be a powerful tool in building relationships as people connect with someone they can share a laugh with.

What do you think about this advice? What items would you add or delete?