By David Unmacht
The opening of my first magazine column as executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities needs to be memorable and powerful. First impressions matter, as I’ve been counseled by city officials from Ada to Zumbrota, who are eagerly anticipating the written words of the new kid on the block. With that advice in mind, I jotted down some options for openers that eventually—upon careful review by the League’s editors—ended up on the cutting-room floor:
“One score and 11 years ago …”
“Ask not what your city can do for you …”
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect city …”
I thought these openers were perfect; however, after deciding not to take on my editors with my first column, I hung my head in disappointment and, though discouraged, silently vowed to press on. It was at that very moment that I found inspiration … on the floor in front of me.
“You sure have big shoes to fill!”
What does that mean? Well, it’s a phrase I’ve heard repeatedly from friends, peers, and colleagues ever since I accepted the job as the League’s executive director. After reflecting on the distinguished career of my predecessor, Jim Miller, I felt it apropos to describe in this first column the steps I plan to take in an attempt to fill those shoes. After all, inquiring minds will want to know.
First, wear my own size. I have to be who I am. I must fully recognize the importance of being authentic, original, and true to myself and what I bring to the role and the organization. I was hired, in part, because my beliefs and values were a good match for the League. At the same time, I will bring a distinct personality and perspective to the position of executive director.
Second, walk in the shoes of others. The best way for me to learn about the League, our members, and the rich and successful history of this organization is to listen to all of you. Over the past few weeks, I have spent many hours talking to staff, Board members, Insurance Trust officials, city leaders, and stakeholders to gain insights and perspective. That assignment is perhaps the most fun and exciting part about my new job, and I’m continuing to learn that, when it comes to addressing challenges faced by city governments in Minnesota, one size does not fit all.
Third, lace up tightly and prepare for walking the extra mile. I’m eager to go the distance, to connect, reach out, and get to know city officials from across the state. The name of this column—“St. Paul to City Hall”—reflects my desire to get out and visit members on a regular basis.
Cities that are small, medium, or large; metro or rural; first class or fourth class; mining communities or resort cities; in the corn or sugar beet fields—they are all important to me. Asking questions, probing, being inquisitive and—most of all—listening, are priority items. I’ve already had an opportunity to attend several council meetings, and plan to attend many more. I look forward to wearing out the soles of my shoes.
Finally, change my shoes once in a while. Finding the right balance among personal, family, and professional commitments is an important objective for all of us who are involved in local government. We all need to seek an equilibrium that maintains a healthy environment for the sake of ourselves, our families, and the residents we serve. With that in mind, I anticipate taking off my dress shoes and stepping out in my Chuck Taylors or golf shoes every so often.
From my office window, I gaze out at the Capitol building under construction and know I am truly humbled by this opportunity to contribute to the mission of the League. I’m eager to move forward aggressively on this journey alongside some of the most talented mayors, councilmembers, and city staff in the nation.
Minnesota’s reputation for outstanding city government is the result not only of collective efforts of the present, but the contributions of trailblazers who wore out the soles of many shoes before us. Marching ahead to an exciting future for local government, the League will continue to serve as a trusted resource and a valued partner for our members as we take strides to, as Jim Collins says, make “good” government “great.”
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
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