Worried about the city manager

Published 8:32 pm Monday, October 28, 2013

By Joseph L. Bass

I am concerned about the well-being and professional development of Selena Cuffee-Glenn, the Suffolk city manager. Having years of experience as an organizational consultant, I see a management pattern that is now and will continue to be a problem for her and the city.

A city manager’s job is particularly challenging, because his or her boss is a committee — the City Council.

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This committee is responsible for the manager’s performance evaluation and development. This is a disadvantage in that it is rare for council members to have an extensive background in organizational management.

It is the rare council that can provide meaningful guidance in helping the manager grow and develop professionally. How many City Council members understand what is involved with sound management practices, can recognize negative patterns and know how to go about dealing with them professionally?

Also, an important aspect of leading any organization involves delegation of responsibility and authority to department managers and providing them with professional growth and development. A central organizational manager, like a CEO or city manager, gets work done through tasks accomplished by department managers and their employees. A city manager must manage the department managers, delegating responsibility and authority to them, and working with them so they and their employees can accomplish important tasks.

The negative pattern in Selena Cuffee-Glenn’s approach to city management involves her centralizing all responsibility and authority within her office. She and her staff make decisions about even the smallest issues. Only the responsibility for carrying out her decision is delegated to appropriate department managers. This delegation involves the expectation that the action will be carried out exactly as ordered.

This centralized management approach has negative results, some of which we already have experienced in Suffolk.

First, department managers interested in their own professional growth and development seek better work environments in other cities, instead of continuing to work where they have been stripped of usual responsibility and authority. Top-level department managers from the city began leaving as soon as Ms. Cuffee-Glenn became city manager.

Second, in this type of work environment people hired into vacant department manager positions do not grow professionally, having no assignments to carry out high-level decision-making typical of department managers. These individuals continue to hold department manager positions but are not assigned work at that level.

Third, two negatives eventually result. Neither will be helpful to Ms. Cuffee-Glenn or the city. The first involves her becoming city manager in a much larger city, where she attempts to institute the same centralized approach. Typically, managers attempting to apply a centralized approach in large cities experience a failure at this point in their careers.

Simply put, they do not know how to manage large organizations, because they don’t know how to delegate responsibility and authority while professionally developing department managers.

Also, as Suffolk’s government grows, eventually it will become impossible for her staff to handle all decisions and make specific orders to department managers. Department managers will not be ready to assume normal department responsibilities, and there will be serious problems with city effectiveness.

City Council members should examine Cuffee-Glenn’s management approach and provide her with meaningful performance evaluations and development opportunities. We all want her to succeed in her career responsibilities as Suffolk city manager.

Joseph L. Bass, Ed.D. is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson, Virginia. Email him at ABetterSociety1@aol.com.