By Marisa Helms
It’s late August, and David Unmacht, the League of Minnesota Cities’ new executive director, is walking into a conference room in the League’s St. Paul building. He’s telling a story about how, on just his second day at the helm, he flew out to Detroit to attend a national meeting of municipal league executive directors.
“So, I go out there, and we’re going around the room, saying how long we’d been on the job,” explains Unmacht. “We’re talking 20 years, 30 years, six years, 15 years … two days! I asked a lot of questions, had great camaraderie with everybody. One thing I learned is there is the highest respect and admiration for Minnesota and the work my predecessor did.”
Unmacht’s predecessor, Jim Miller, retired in July, after 22 years on the job. Miller was considered a highly effective leader who stabilized the organization and solidified its reputation as one of the best-run municipal leagues in the country.
Unmacht says following Miller would be a challenge: a test of his mettle and his skills.
“Jim and I are different; we don’t have the same styles,” says Unmacht. “At the same time, we have the same passion for local government, the same values we bring to the workplace, and the same strong professional ethics. Those fundamentals won’t be any different, but my approach, style, and delivery will be.”
Unmacht’s first day on the job was Aug. 3. As he was starting his third week, he talked about being in full-on learning mode about the business of the League. There were volumes to read: budgets, reports, history, and studies.
Unmacht also talked about the power of personal relationships and his practice of having an open and inclusive management style. He has already begun a deliberative process of seeking input from League staff, and meeting one-on-one with Board members to get their assessments of where the organization has been, and where they would like it to go. Planning to attend LMC Regional Meetings around the state to meet with the League’s membership was also in the works.
“I’m at a point right now where I’m building relationships and trust with people,” Unmacht says. “Nobody’s ready for ‘The Dave Unmacht Agenda’ yet. They want to know: ‘Who is he? What’s his style? Do we like working with this guy?’ For the first 120 days, that’s my obligation.” Unmacht’s method of introduction and immersion into his new role is a strategic approach based on three decades of experience working collaboratively with colleagues and building relationships with hundreds of public officials across Minnesota.
“It would not be uncommon for me to call officials I work with and just say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’” says Unmacht. “No need to talk about the street project or the budget, there’s time for that. Instead, I ask—at a level that’s appropriate—‘How’s your family?’”
Unmacht’s personal touch also extends to his passion for note writing. His handwritten notes are simple greetings to staff and colleagues, sent on sad or joyful occasions. “That’s very meaningful for me. It’s connecting on a personal level, and that’s really important in a position like executive director,” says Unmacht. “I’m the executive director of everybody, not just a management team. You set an example, and you are charged with the responsibility of working with the entire staff, not just key leaders. And that’s what I believe.”
A depth and breadth of experience
In 1983, the City of Belle Plaine, Minnesota, hired Unmacht to be its city administrator. (“They took a chance on a young man, and I’ve been indebted to that community ever since,” Unmacht says.) In 1985, Unmacht moved on to Prior Lake to become its assistant city manager, and a few years later, Prior Lake promoted him to city manager.
He says he never thought he would waver from his long-held desire to be a city manager. But in 1992, he began a 16-year career in county management after a county administrator friend convinced him to make the move. Unmacht served as deputy county administrator for Dakota County from 1992 to 1997, and then was the Scott County administrator from 1997 to 2008.
From 2008 until becoming the League’s executive director in August, Unmacht was a senior vice president for public sector consulting firm, Springsted Incorporated, where he advised cities and counties across Minnesota, as well as the upper Midwest, including local government collaboratives, associations, and special districts. As a consultant, Unmacht specialized in strategic planning, executive recruitment, human resources, and organizational development.
“After 30 years, I’m very proud that I’ve been able to move in my business and still retain credibility and integrity in local government and serve local government in different capacities,” says Unmacht. “Not everybody is either lucky enough or blessed to be able to do that.”
Unmacht’s depth and breadth of experience are key reasons why the League’s Board of Directors chose to hire Unmacht over other qualified candidates, says Board President Steve Nasby.
Nasby says that the Board voted unanimously to offer Unmacht the position based on three important criteria for the position: a very deep background in public service; being held in the highest regard both professionally and personally; and being forward-thinking and able to lead the organization.
“Dave’s a quality individual, both personally and professionally, and he has a very good statewide reputation,” says Nasby, who is also the city administrator for Windom. “As a Board member, I’m very excited to be entering the Unmacht era at the League.”
Engaging with humility and humor
If you ask Unmacht’s colleagues and clients what his personality is like, you will quickly hear about his professionalism, kindness, and especially about his sense of humor and appreciation for a good practical joke.
“I can give it, and I can take it. I want people to know that,” Unmacht says with a smile. “I appreciate and understand the value of humor in the workplace and how it can help. Appropriately timed, of course.” Not taking himself too seriously is essential to what makes Unmacht a successful leader, according to St. Anthony Village Mayor Jerry Faust.
“I’ve never seen Dave without a smile on his face,” says Faust, who hired Unmacht when he was a consultant with Springsted to help develop St. Anthony Village’s strategic plan. “He’s a very approachable person and doesn’t hold himself above anybody else.”
Faust believes Unmacht’s social and communication skills are an asset, and central to his innate talent to connect with all kinds of people.
“There is a certain ability to be able to move through groups of people and be sociable and accepting of them without hurting anyone’s sensibilities, and Dave epitomizes that well,” says Faust. “He’s a professional who is technically and tactically competent, and you don’t always find that.”
Unmacht’s former colleagues at Springsted say they already miss his mentorship and positive outlook.
Sharon Klumpp, a former city official who worked at the League in the mid-1990s as the associate executive director (a position that no longer exists), has known Unmacht for more than 20 years. They first met in city administrator circles and worked together for several years at Springsted.
Klumpp says that she has immense respect for Unmacht, calling him energetic, phenomenal at networking, and a good person to have on a team.
“He is also a confident person,” says Klumpp. “And he inspires confidence in others, which is critical in local government, because sometimes you’re taking a tough stand and you need someone who understands and gives you the confidence to do what you’re doing.”
Klumpp says Unmacht’s collaborative nature and passion for local government uniquely qualify him to take the League to the next level.
The Unmacht era
Unmacht says the League has been a resource for him throughout his career. When he first began his public service path in the 1980s, he joined the League’s policy committees as a way to meet people and to learn from others. He wants to make sure future League members can do the same.
“I want to continue that tradition and the services provided by this organization, so that people can say 30 years from now that the League was a great resource for them, too,” he says.
As Unmacht ushers in a new era of leadership at the League, he asserts he will carry with him a confidence that he can make a difference, add value to the organization, and maintain, if not strengthen, the League’s success.
“I love what I do and I’m blessed and pleased to be in this position,” says Unmacht. “The Board could have hired any number of people, and [it] made a selection to pick Dave Unmacht, and I’m not going to let the Board or the members or the staff down.”
Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
Read the November-December 2015 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine
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