It Takes Two to Tango (Part 1)

By George B. Cuff

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The above aged expression refers to the fact, as Pearl Bailey sang in 1952, that a relationship – like a marriage or like the tango dance – needs more than one person. The expression has been a metaphor for everything from international diplomacy to domestic arguments. At its core is the sense that a conversation or a marriage needs two people in it.

The relationship between a council and its chief administrative officer (CAO) is – or should be – considered as much the same. That is, regardless of what the current relationship in your community might suggest the council-CAO relationship is, it is not (or at least should not be) akin to a teeter-totter, with the council seated comfortably and the CAO precariously. Such a “balance” is imbalanced, and such a relationship is one of “boss-slave,” rather than two entities working cooperatively towards mutually agreed ends. Unfortunately, that describes far too many of today’s council-CAO relationships.

Relationships begin at the beginning. While they may evolve into a more mature understanding based on time and connections, the tone is often established when two parties first meet. Based on my work in situations wherein the relationship has soured and confidence has been irreparably harmed, and on my relationships with others who have managed to develop and preserve a harmonious environment, it is evident to me that there are certain principles that ought to define this critical relationship.

Principle of Value

When a candidate sees an advertisement for a CAO position and it lists the council as the body to whom the application is to be sent, the prospective candidate should be thinking, “Is the council doing the recruitment because they are too cheap to retain qualified recruitment advice or too small to afford such expertise? Or, are there other reasons which prompted this council to become headhunters? (i.e., they had a bad experience last time and have vowed not to repeat it.)” If the latter (i.e., a bad experience), that may be understandable. If the former (i.e., let’s save money on this critical decision), what does that say about council’s decision-making capacity on what must surely be its most important decision in this term of office? Does council see itself as the experts in all such matters? Does this council not understand its governance role? Will council manage to keep the process confidential so as to preserve and protect the reputations of all such candidates? What is the message? How much does this prospective new employer value their senior administrative officer?

Principle of Currency

When a candidate applies and asks for the current position profile or job description and contract, are they current? Is the job description simply the advertisement? Has this council taken the time to think through the process and determine in advance the kind of person they are trying to find? If not, what does that say about how proactive and forward-looking this council is? Has it rushed to judgment, or has it pondered first and considered what changes needed to be made subsequent to the last CAO leaving? Has council had a full discussion over the departure of the predecessor CAO, and were there any insights gained? Has council redefined the role based on those experiences and exit discussion? If I take this position, am I being assured of a fresh start – or a jaundiced beginning?

Principle of Openness

Is the recruitment process conducted in such a manner that all the cards are displayed on the table? Is council fair in its assessment of why the “dearly departed” departed (i.e., the last CAO left us because ...)? Does the mayor give a complete and fair description of how this council prefers to function and what its battles have been (i.e., “We don’t much like each other, and we generally use the CAO as the meat in the sandwich.dz). Or, hopefully, “we are a council of seven different and distinct personalities, but we appreciate each other’s uniqueness and value our diversity of views.” Does the council commit to being open and candid with their new CAO about the state of its collegiality and respect, or does it expect the CAO to gradually realize the mistrust that envelops this council? 

Principle of Fair Compensation

The candidate needs to determine if this council wants to pay for good value, or is it one that views its task as getting the cheapest candidate at a very low price. Has the council surveyed the market? Does it understand what its CAO position is worth? Does it know what a quality person is worth? Is it prepared to defend a decent salary in front of a possibly hostile public audience? How did it compensate the former CAO? Did it try to find the average and stay there, or was it prepared to lead if it sensed that their CAO was at the top of his or her class?

Principle of Valuing Apolitical Advice

A candidate needs to determine whether or not the council is looking for first-rate non-political advice on all policy issues – or a “yes person” who gives the council what he or she feels the council would like to hear. Does

this council appreciate a CAO who can stand up to its questioning, or do they prefer someone whose modus operandi is to find out what council wants and then repeat it? If you, as a council, want or expect the latter, be prepared to pay less. If you want someone who has the courage of their convictions and can express those articulately, compensate well. You’ll still be way ahead.

I continue to be amazed at how badly many municipalities treat their senior administrative officer and how much patience is displayed by longsuffering CAOs. I also, as one who is all too frequently involved, watch with concern as a new council jumps fairly quickly to the conclusion that the incumbent CAO will no longer be satisfactory and that change is needed. What is not considered is the cost of such a decision in terms of the morale of the organization, the loss of face by the council with its constituency, and the difficulty such a community may have in finding a comparable replacement.

GEORGE B. CUFF, FCMC, our governance zone expert, has been involved in local government in one way or another since 1970. He has been a recreation and youth specialist, a department head, a mayor for 12 years, and a consultant/advisor to municipalities since 1976. He is the author of Executive Policy Governance; Off the Cuff: A Collection of Writings by George B. Cuff – Volumes 1, 2, and 3; and Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders, Volumes 1 and 2, published by Municipal World, as well as dozens of magazine articles and columns since 1984.

as published in Municipal World, September 2011





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