Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Throwing Rocks" vs "Fixing Windows"

A lesson we all learned growing up is that it is a lot easier to break something than it is to make something. I am sure we have all had the experience of either intentionally or unintentionally doing damage to something only to regret those actions later on, wishing we could take back that moment of frustration that we acted on.

Despite this common experience for all of us, I am continually amazed to see people so anxious to tear down the activities of local communities by “throwing rocks” from what they believe to be a place of safety. This can happen through the anonymity of the blogosphere, through uninformed letters to the editor, through newspapers articles that fail to do balanced reporting, and the like.

I have worked in local government for nearly a quarter of a century. During that time I have had the opportunity to have been part of a number of successes and failures. I have received both constructive and destructive criticism, and I have worked with people who have been either supportive or frustrated. I have learned a number of lessons over the years, some of which, I will comment on here.

Lesson One: Throwing rocks is far less rewarding than fixing windows. Anyone can be a critic, but few people take the time and effort to step up and make a difference in their community. I remember a City Council candidate running for election several years ago that I will call “Betty”, not the candidates real name. Betty was set to be elected by the community and elected to use a “rock throwing” strategy throughout her campaign. I sat down with Betty at one point and suggested to her that she would be more successful if she could find things in the City to support and stand behind, in addition to wanting to make changes. Betty could not bring herself to do it; she only wanted to be a rock thrower. She continued to try to tear everything down, and in my opinion became viewed as standing for nothing. Betty lost the election by a large margin because she had no interest in “fixing windows." My advice is to not tell people what’s wrong unless you are equally willing to work at making the community better.

Lesson Two: Things are never as good or as bad as you think they are going to be. People often fall into the trap of thinking that one candidate, one vote, one change, or one program, etc. is going to forever define the future of an organization. I have found this to be untrue. Certainly there are both good and bad changes that take place. When good things happen, there is still the work needed to build on that item or it will not achieve its full potential. When bad things happen, there is still an opportunity to look for ways to turn failure into success for the common good of the community. You often see this played out in elections. People think “when my person gets in everything is going to change.” The truth is that issues are very complicated and there is seldom a one-size-fits-all kind of approach. Becoming entrenched in political rhetoric only makes solutions more difficult. We must all work together to get real improvements made. I suspect that both our State’s Governor and Country’s President would be the first to say, “amen” to that.

Lesson Three: Problems should be viewed as opportunities for new success. Set backs are a part of life. It is our reaction to those set backs that define the make-up of our character. I recall a time, several years ago, when I developed a strategy for a road funding/construction project that I believed was important to the community’s success. I took the item to the City Council for approval, thinking that I had worked out all the issues and expected to be received with praise and accolades. What I received instead was opposition and frustration. I could have taken the response and sulked about it and moved on to something else. Instead, I listened to the comments from the City Council, expanded the scope of the project, and repackaged the idea with a long-term city-wide strategy. When I resubmitted the idea to the City Council it was met with glowing support and became one of the lynch pins for success in Fontana. My advice to all is to look for the opportunities in everything that happens. You will be surprised by what is possible when you maintain a positive attitude.

Lesson Four: Give credit for success and take responsibility for mistakes. We have a simple management approach in the City of Fontana. It is each employee’s job to make their boss successful. It is my job to make the Mayor and City Council successful. It is the department head’s job to make me successful and it is the mid-manager’s job to make the department head successful. It is one of the truly amazing things to see. When you focus on giving the credit away, the organization flourishes and everyone wants to be part of the success.

So my advice is:

1. Support what you can and be willing to be a part of it.
2. Don’t be carried away with unrealistic expectations.
3. Accept new challenges as opportunities for success.
4. Let those around you accept credit for good work.