Listen and learn from the best in local government
At LeaderGov we want to equip you to lead well. These enlightening podcasts, from top local government leaders, will help you gain valuable insights into a variety of leadership, management and teamwork topics, so you can lead better.
You can also listen to LeaderGov Podcasts via Apple, Google Podcast or Spotify.
Go ahead and well, I am so happy to have the opportunity today to to be on our podcast with a new city that we've not talked to yet. Again, it's the city of Brownsville, Texas. With us today is Helen Ramirez. She is the Deputy City Manager at the city. How are you doing? Helen?
are doing great. Thank you for having me.
Oh, yeah, it's great to great to hear your voice and get to meet you and talk a little bit about Brownsville and South Texas where it's usually a little warm this time of year. How's the weather right now?
It's not bad at all. It's feels like springtime weather 80s. And actually, we had the best summers. That's why everybody comes I mean, winters winters, people flock you're from all over Texas. We have our winter Texans that come here. And
yeah, yeah, kind of like, like Florida, everybody comes to Florida in the winter. So before we get started, have a lot of things. You know, the purpose of these podcasts is to help equip and train and it really just provide some best practices around good ideas for management and leadership for local government. So this these podcasts are meant for any local agency, but specifically cities and counties. And what we're trying to do is really just remind them and equip them and share with them best practices in some really important areas of management and leadership. So that's kind of where we're going today. We got four topics to talk about. We'll spend a few minutes on each topic, and we'd love to hear your thoughts, thoughts on some different things before we jump into that question for you. Tell me about your background and local government and where you were before Brownsville and all that kind of stuff.
Well, I am from Southern California, believe it or not, and all Hamer California, I actually studied at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is sitting in regional planning and so I have an urban planning background, which is different from for a deputy or assistant city manager position basically worked for different sized cities from city of La Habra but small city 3000 population and to city of Hawthorne 80,000 population, the current headquarters of SpaceX. I worked on La Air Force Base project over there to the county of Los Angeles. So I did go to get to work in the construction management department there and Community Development Block route. From there I have done international planning. So I lived in Madrid, Spain for 10 years. There I was able to travel to India, South Africa, Mozambique and work on infrastructure projects there for developing countries. And then from there, took a came back to I came back to the US landed in Austin, Texas where I became I was the planning director in the area one of the fastest growing cities in Texas, which is Hutto, Texas, and was able to be promoted to assistant city manager and was recruited here to Brownsville as Deputy City Manager. I've been here a little over a year. It's been great. It's one of those cities that have so much going for it. Not only does SpaceX have itself, Texas launch site here. But we're building a new airport terminal, which is 90,000 91,000 square feet. I mean square feet. Yes, yeah. And it's just a great place to be very warm. And very happy to continue my career here in a larger population have about a over 180,000 people and 1400 employees. So the one of the best part of my jobs, I would say is I supervise departments that are in line with planning, so the planning and development department Engineering and Public Works communications and marketing, health and wellness. And so I really enjoy and Engineering and Public Works. It's just a great place to be and I really enjoyed my job here.
That's That's awesome. When you think about Brownsville, what do you like the best about the city just just as a citizen?
I would say the zoo it's hard to choose but the zoo is probably one of the things founded in 1971 is spearheaded one of the first zoos to really look at the Endangered Species acts and how we can improve, improve and preserve our animals. And Dr. Burchfield is still here at the zoo. And now we're in Bari. Working on Mizzou masterplan. Wow, how cool is that? I never thought in my career I would do a zoo Have you bout to be part of the zoo master plan really looking at its redevelopment and expansion. And so I believe it's a multi generational place that people enjoy. So that's probably my number one. And I'm gonna sneak it in number two. What's unique to Brownsville is what we call a sock as the remnants of the Rio Grande on the river. And we're, we're surrounded by meandering waterways, and streams that people actually go kayaking in, you could probably visit a park. And rather than go by foot by car, you actually can go by kayak or visit a neighbor by kayak. And I believe a lot of people are not aware of that. And it's probably one of the most unique things about the
city. Wow, that sounds exciting. That sounds fun. I love that. All right, you've convinced me I've got to go take a trip to we keep talking about going to see our cousins in San Antonio. So we'll we'll take the drive over when we come and see Brownsville. So I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. As I said, we're kind of focused on management skills, leadership skills, and one of the things that I'd love your thoughts on and has to do a goal setting? You know, the challenge that we have we have observed in local government is that there tends to be a strong emphasis on managing the day to day operations, which of course are so vitally important, because, you know, these institutions are large, and there's a lot to manage. Yet this idea of setting goals and goals are bigger than objectives. Goals are, you know, at month, two or three year goals, we want to encourage really aggressive goal setting and that kind of thing. So my question is, why is goal setting? Why is goal setting important to you? And and when you are in kind of goal setting mode? You know, what do you try to keep in mind when you're inspiring your teams to set lofty goals? What What would you what could you share with us around this idea of the importance of having clear, attainable goals?
Oh, it's very important. One of the I guess one of the things that we did as a city we did, we held a strategic visioning workshop and process and retreat with our Mayor and City Commission, which is here we use commission but City Council. And that was involved when the mayor and we had a significant change in the in the commission members and we really wanted them to get to know each other and really identify what their goals are and what the community's expectations are. And so we went through this process, but we we had the retreat, we held it at a in Austin, at the UT Austin, they have like a school of innovation or an IC squared innovations too. So he wanted even demand the commission to really think outside the box, really tell us, you know, one of our as a city employees, we haven't asked for aspirational aim. And part of that is both ideas through innovation, participation, communication and trust. And that's that's what we thought if you have a culture that where you're not afraid to innovate or you're not afraid to fail and then try again, one of my favorite words is pilot. So you can pilot a new idea and you can tweak it and make it better. So the strategic visioning process and itself on a commission level City Council Mayor commission level is very important. From that was born six pillars economic development, planning, zoning, and development pillar, infrastructure pillar, public safety pillar, quality of life pillar and governance. And from they were kind of the foundation right of what we then work with our directors to identify a work plans. And in these work plans, we identify how each item or activity aligned with the strategic strategic visioning pillar, so we're all kind of rowing in the same direction. And so when I have a discussion at a staff meeting with my line staff or staff in the different organization, or whether you're a supervisor or your frontline, you can really they can understand where their work planner activity fits in the overall pillars and in the overall strategic visioning process. So it's this thing where it's not this top down approach is what am I doing on my daily work that aligns with these pillars which aligns with the vision of the country Shouldn't and the city council. And so that's that's a, that's a part of what we do. And these goals that we've set work plans are measurable, they do have their time specific impact, we recently had to review our goals, our work plans to see how COVID may have affected the work plan. So in this pandemic, you one of the things we believe we should be doing, and we did, there were departments like the health department, we're very fortunate to have a health department here. And it's interesting, because it's a new department that was able to supervise in December, I thought, oh, healthy, no, I have the animal shelter. Okay, I can handle that. Never did I think that we would be one of the most important departments and my director, Dr. Rodriguez, and his staff would be leading much of the pandemic and being our number one reference, our epidemiologist, epidemiologist, Michelle, and, and their work plan change drastically. And we added many, many items, because we actually are the one of the first cities to have a city led COVID drive through test site for the insured and uninsured. We've already tested over 1900 people and it's and it's through that innovation. And and, you know, what is our mission? What is our vision? And how does my work kind of align? And when there's a pandemic? How do we then tweak it so that we are really aligning our work plans with those smart goals?
Yeah, I love the word alignment. I love the word bold and innovative, you know, alignment allows me to see how my work connects to the bigger story, which is what you said, I love that. So from a practical perspective, if you were to talk to managers, like a water superintendent clerk, you know, finance director, what if you're talking to a manager? How could you encourage them? And how do you see the importance of reviewing goal progress? To keep things on track? What how do you do that? And how important is that to you to have these periodic weekly monthly reviews or whatever that looks like for you?
I believe that with any document, it should be fluid. It should not be something that you look at once a year, oh, I filled out this requirement. And I don't I really don't. It's not a living document. Like I said, we reviewed it during COVID to see what we needed to change and we presented it to the city council. Same thing for our directors when they do have their stuff. The expectation is that our directors would we'll be going over those work plans during their weekly staff meetings, you know, where we are? Or where our target? Is there a red flag, that's okay, what's going on? How can the director or the assistant director or the manager support the staff? Is it equipment problem is it you know, is something getting stuck on a different level with another outside agency? What's going on, I believe our role is to be supportive of our staff. Not this not to be this authoritarian to kind of command and control our culture is actually counter to that. It's a lot about that communication and participation. So the expectation is that our directors, our assistant directors, our managers, there is and you know, our employees that they're also communicating with us, I have received, you know, emails or calls from our frontline, you know, maintenance workers. And, you know, one of the first things that I came up with, the boots are taking too long to get here and, and, and we need that equipment. Absolutely. I'm glad you came to me, it's okay that I'm the Deputy City Manager. That's why we're here My door is open. And also the I believe also city manager's office going and participating in the staff meetings. Our engineering staff meetings have about 300 people in the staff meeting. And and in those staff meetings, I really enjoy them because they're once a month, and you know, they're they are very participatory. We talked about leadership too. There's always some sort of article or or message from the director. And and then staff are encouraged to acknowledge other departments, how they worked in a multidisciplinary level to accomplish certain goals. So people are encouraged to say good things about their fellow co workers, and all that translates into goals being accomplished and and you know, just because you are you have great soft skills doesn't mean you're not accountable, or you're not held accountable for your work. It's just a better environment in which to work.
So so it sounds like you all have a all hands on deck employee meeting In that one department. Okay, and that's monthly. And in that meeting, it sounds like you cover some sort of leadership learning topic. It sounds like you talked to have some recognition. And you also review gold progress. Is that kind of what I heard you say? Sure, yes. Yeah, that's a great, I think that's a great formula. Just when you think about meetings in general, we don't want to have meetings to have meetings, of course, we want them to have purpose. And either it's inspirational or collaboration. And those kinds of things I love, I love what you're doing there. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about internal communication, which is kind of connected to the meetings topic, we were just on. A one of the most significant areas that we hear about from frontline employees and local government is this lack of clarity, or lack of communication from management to the frontline employees? For whatever reason, it's hard to say probably varies by city and county. But in terms of communication, how do you effectively communicate to your team? And then of course, you've got teams, undertakings, you got probably hundreds of people, potentially, how do you do that effectively in your role today?
Well, it is a challenge you always worry about are we not getting to all our employees and how we can better improve, we use a different type types of tools. From we just actually COVID We had this plan and enterprise applications work plan in two years to go to office 365, and Microsoft Teams, and with COVID that got on fast track. And now we started with directors. It's been great. We're calling each other which we're creating teams. video conferences is so easy. Now we're sharing files. So we we have a call every single day. It's our we used to have you know, in person meetings Mondays from three hours in person meetings from eight to 11. And now we have one hour calls Monday through Friday as a check in. And it's it's been really great. And what we did is we first rolling out with director is never going to roll it out to the to the rest of the staff. And so that's an effective way to communicate streamlines. It's easy to use, you can actually use it with external partners. So we're all on one platform,
and a lot of Microsoft product, you're saying Microsoft,
office 365. And so, so at one point, we're using that, but we also have one on ones I have one on one meetings, calls with my directors once a week. You know, we're checking heart set, how are you and mindset where are you within projects. So it's not just about your, your projects are important, but the people are important as well. And and once a week, I also have a leadership meeting that I I look at maybe Harvard Business Review HBr articles, or I use different types of governance articles and Simon Sinek we also use leadership tools. You we all are directors took the effective motivational leadership course for a year, a year long course. So we go back to much of that leadership training. Many of our employees are assistant directors are right now reading a book or calling it it actually, I just got it delivered by the library. So I'm going to share it
it's called The Rise of the robots because we're thinking that it's AI and you know, technology and government and how we become more efficient and communicate. You know, that's kind of our book club that we're going to read we have a month to read it. And we actually take you know, four hours, five hours to go through it. Talk about the different points, how do we innovate within our current organization. So communication takes much different types of use different types of tools, from a book, to more leadership course, to maybe a handwritten notes, those thank you notes. Some people are going back many organizations are going back to the thank you notes. I still do those two departments when we've taken on a difficult task. It's those it's just personal notes, not always an email, and our city manager in our whole leadership journey, he's kind of our sponsor of our culture. He is because of him that we have such an such an important emphasis in the leadership. And so he will do an inspirational video with our communications and marketing and message and that goes to all our employees. And one of the last things that we've done recently is the city manager's office is sending a no a leadership, no. With maybe something a personal experience, on a monthly basis, we're rotating, I get into July. So we may be looking at a different leadership article, you know, included, how we've, what we've learned from that, and then share with all All employees are those who have many Spanish speaking employees?
Yeah, good. Sorry.
And because we have many Spanish speaking employees, we many times we write everything is in English and Spanish to be made sure that we we get to all employees, regardless of their their level of English, that's important to us as well.
Yeah. And that sounds it so it sounds like you use a lot of you use email, probably you're using Microsoft 365. You're using video, it sounds like you're using in person meetings on a regular basis. It sounds like using a lot of different methods to get messages down within the organization. Yeah, that's, that's good. That's great. Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead. I think we have a little
list here we do. And I everyone kind of everybody kind of engages in their own way. And we figured that we can use different type of media, it'll it'll, you know, really hone in on some everybody kind of adapt. So it takes in information differently. So we figured what the different types of media people may get more excited about books versus video versus some people need a phone call. And so they'd be able to communicate in these different ways we can actually, and sometimes it's a Survey Monkey as to, you know, to our staff, or we, you know, how's the telework clan doing? Is there something we can improve upon? And so the fact that we have a department that is organizational development and human resources, it's the organizational development part that says, How can we as as our leadership improve upon, and we want to hear from you?
Yeah, that it sounds like you all have really built a you focus on culture a lot is what I'm hearing. And in particular, it sounds like you all have are trying to build a culture of learning. That's what I'm hearing from you a lot about learning and development, which is really exciting. I, you know, we get so caught up in the project of the day, and what's on our to do list. And that is so important. But it sounds like you all are taking another look at people and developing people and investing in people. And I think that's it. That's just wonderful to hear that. I wanted to ask you about customer service. Why is customer service such a big deal? In the city of Brownsville? You know, what, how would you? How would you define customer service, you know, you're over you have planning under you, I come in, and I want to get to show you an architectural plan for a parking lot, I want to expand and I need to get permitted and all those kinds of things, right? And I'm going to be working with your department, you all are providing me with customer service, right? And how how do you go about ensuring that you all provide high quality, effective customer service?
While customer service is in our aligns with our mission and vision, through service responsiveness and satisfaction and what we do, I'm glad that you bring up the code because we have gone through we are going through a whole code rewrite right now. And it was because we historically the city has received many complaints and the code, you know, being an urban planner, I really got it. You know, in the first 10 minutes of reviewing the development code, I realized that it was just a labyrinth and we call it like an onion, you try to appeal and appeal and appeal to get to the answer. But you'd have to go through all these layers and you're still wondering what the answer was. So I believe that when you use that feedback, not taking it as an attack saying, Well, you know, maybe I should look at it from a different perspective. And so what is that perspective, I believe many of our citizens need to just they just want to be listened to, you may not be able to improve their street reconstruct the street right away, but knowing that you that you have Plan, and you have a work plan, and you eventually get to my street and you have a certain goals, then they feel that there's at least a process by which they can be heard. And so part of being able to our leadership is very participatory. And that is not only with our employees, it's also with our external partners, and with our community. So participatory means being able to sit down with them, with return call within 24 hours, under Listen, improve processes and structures. One of the things that we did because there was a lot of silos. When we first started here, we created a new structure and a new structure, aligned some departments, for example, public works and engineering became one department, we understood that sometimes public work was was paving a road that maybe engineering was thinking of putting a new utility line under. And so there was there was this lack of communication until we thought that one of the ways to improve customer satisfaction and improve our own internal working is to consolidate planning, I mean, engineering with public works. We did that also with, with planning, we created a planning and redevelopment department to be able to assist more with our Main Street, we have one of the second most historic downtown's in Texas after San Antonio. And so we felt it was very important to support our local businesses, and to preserve our historic preservation. But we didn't really have a department in that. And so we've, we kind of did what we did, we're we're Main Street, we did receive this designation. But let's make it part of our title, that redevelopment is important. So we've created a planning and development department. And then thirdly, we created a multimodal department, which is our transit provider B Metro, which is one of the largest transit providers are the largest in the valley. In addition, with a ridership of over 1 million people. And we include mobility, so because trails, we have about 64 miles of trails, trails to an important part. So that multimodal, which is not just about vehicles, it's about our trails, it's about our bikes. And so we gave it that importance, because it's important to our community, right. And so recognizing those, the importance of what our community feels is important and identifying in your structure on how you structure the city. So we never called it a restructuring, we called it a new structure, born of the needs of our community, and what they were asking us to, to improve upon, or just be more open to changing.
Wow, that's that's I really, really resonates. Because essentially, what I hear you saying is, in order to buy to provide the best customer service and address the citizens needs, in the best way, you had to do some organizational change within the city. And and that's a pretty big lift. I mean, that's a big deal. But it allows you to face up better to the public and provide a better service. faster, more efficient, whatever, I guess, how do you know if you're providing a high quality of customer service?
What are the things when we first first of all with the new structure, it was something that because to for US culture, leadership is so important, the journey of the culture and leadership, the training began in December. So when the new structure came into effect, it was probably June, July, there was a time sometimes what happens with city managers is they come in, they kind of analyze and now we got a restructuring. But this was very understanding the why behind. Why behind the new structure, not only identifying understanding that our employees understood the why but our community actually understood the why behind this new structure. So we've already we spent a lot of time with change management. When we rolled out the new structure. It's not to say it's easy, because it's different. It's a change and there are always going to be fear with innovation. But I believe that we're well behind that and people really, really get it and so it feels good. How I measure customer service. One of the things I mean I used to receive probably two or three calls of complaints a day when I first started in Brownsville, and sometimes it's it's because there's new management. It's like new blood you know Alright, let me go, let me go tell him what I would I. But but those are good I met in many of my first, my first days were 100, you know, on my first three months, were pretty much talking to community meeting, talking with developers listening, and really taking note of the complaints, you know, and meeting with them. So a lot of it was taking in that information. And so now, I literally probably have maybe, I don't know, one or two complaints a week, maybe, if that. So for me the level of, of complaints, we have also a 546 helpline, which is a helpline and you notice that those calls are different, some of them some of the helpline, you they were, you know, for example, something it's like, does it really make sense, really understanding what our helpline questions were? And should, when should we change the way we handle calls, for example, all our building inspections are going through this five or six helpful because it didn't make sense for them to call directly the building or planning department. And so if there's a question, there's another question that leads to another question. It's not like, Okay, you're waiting for a call back, you're actually have that person right next to you that can answer the question. So it's some of those things where you change it with with strategy and process, right. But you really have to get to an important part of customer service is understanding the root cause. It's easy to handle just the surface, right, let me handle that complaint. That's it. The hard part is understanding the why the root cause of that problem. And so that's a lot of digging and questions. And, and sometimes, we have a problem with trash and debris, sometimes, you know, we have a lot of palm trees, beautiful palm trees, but you know, wind, and so wind and palm trees, and then you have like this vegetation and debris that that's through our right aways. And so it wasn't something that just one department could handle, we actually had to create a multi departmental subcommittee, from our, you know, people from health to people from to code enforcement, to our arborist to our you know, information systems, people to our engineering department, a whole host of departments, voluntarily, at one end, it's always a volunteer basis wanted to be part of the trash and debris from this was reborn, a new recycling pilot. So sometimes when you allow the subcommittee's to happen, I think that's when you get the most innovation, then from there, it really morphs into something else. And so you end up innovating more, not only you fix them or or assists with fixing the root problem, but usually leads into a new project of innovation within that group.
Well, I'm hearing you say the word innovation a lot. And I love that. Because it just again speaks to the culture of the city, that you're innovative. And if something needs to be changed, or process needs to be redone, to serve the citizen better, well, let's change it, let's find the root cause I just really love where you're going here. Last question for you. Is has to do with with how we get along with each other, in teams and as peers. And I mentioned to you earlier, we do a lot of disc training, personality style training, with cities and counties, and we help them understand how what their personality style is, and then how their style might impact someone else's style that's different. And we all know this sort of in theory, but of course, when you get to work, you know, real life shows up, right, you've got this an overbearing personality, say a D driver. And they're just going so fast. They're not letting an S or a C, a more thoughtful person, have the time to process things, you know, they need process time. But a D in an eye, they don't need time to process, they just want to go get the result. Right. So you have these conflicts between personalities. And I was just wondering, you know, without of course saying any names, you know, how have you seen personalities be so overwhelming that they tend to hurt the productivity? Or maybe where have you seen personalities get along and really give and take, you know, so I think of the person who's a s or a C A C is someone who likes quality. They like process. They're like things to be done, right? And a lot of times what happens with C's is they get they get caught up in their office doing spreadsheets and process management. And they never get out and ask people how are you doing? You know, they never they never enter into that people element. Because that's just the dominant where they see the world and that's fine. But but we have to morph, we have to shift a little bit. So I guess kind of a long question, I guess I'm just asking you, How have you seen personalities either end up being disruptive around teamwork and performance? Or have you seen them be productive in how the personalities get along?
Sure, I, we do believe in this. When we when we are hiring, for manager positions and director positions and directors, we do take them through that we consider as part of the whole evaluation and interview process. So that's an important, you know, it's like everything, you know, it's not everything. It's not everything, but it does, it is telling you, it gives you some insight as to the personality of the person that you're hiring and how they problem solve and working teams. From their most times, they're there, they're interviewed, and at times, if you're a director level, you actually have to give a presentation on what culture means to you, and what it is. And so we do, really, if we really believe in culture, and people and most like you said, soft skills, and it's okay, being a person and being authentic, then we need to reach out, we need to ensure that the people that we hire fit are the right fit for this culture, right. And so when we come upon a personality, that maybe it really is having a difficulty fitting in the culture, that coaching and mentorship is a really big part of what we do. And that's why we have so many leadership, material. So they understand that culture is important to us. And, and we will coach them as much as possible. But we understand if they're trying to be counterculture, that that is a problem. And so, you know, part of that is having those conversations with your staff, and saying, of course, mentoring and coaching and understanding the why we we value this in the argument is organization and kind of bring them along. But if they're trying to hit a wall, maybe that is we don't, we're not the right fit for that person in our organization. And sometimes you do have to make those tough calls. Other times I see when it's very participatory innovation, you see a lot of rising stars, we talked about, we just started a professional development program with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which is our ut here. And part of those forces are for our rising stars, our future leaders, what you would consider your rock stars to ensure that they grow with your organization, we understand that they are future leaders. And so we want to ensure and we're going to have this is our first cohort, our first class. And we hope to have additional classes because we're we have a lot of these those rising stars with an organization. And so that speaks to, if you're you're selected because you have that type of attitude and behavior and, and skills and technical skills, and you can really work with people, then that's the kind of leadership we see you being a leader in this organization. And I believe that sends a message as to what is important to us. And all the performance just follows.
Yeah, I like that working with people, you know, we, you're right, you need to bring your skills and know how to the job, but you also need to bring your people skills to the job. And they say that the people skills are like a multiplier, like a two or three times multiplier on your actual technical skills. They they have more influence, you know. And so I love to hear that you all are investing in helping your up and coming leaders and all of your leaders understand the nuances of personality and, and how it works to help the organization. I know we've covered a lot of ground. And you've been so kind to impatient just to help help kind of share some ideas here with your peers and local government. But thank you so much for spending some time with us and sharing with us your insights and what you've learned over your career in local government. We've cut a lot covered a lot of areas goal setting and customer service communication and personalities. And it really sounds like the city of Brownsville has a lot of great things going on right now. And we're excited to have our podcast be distributed and for people to learn about how great Brownsville is and get to see some of the hear about some of the great work that you all are doing.
Sure, I think reach out to us if you want any additional information or more information on the strategic vision aim plan or work plans and and everything that we're doing. We also want to be a resource to other cities and actually learn and also from Other cities and best practices, very open minded and come on down and visit us whenever you'd like as well.
Absolutely. Thank you so much again for your time and I appreciate Mr. Romero also helping us in this process getting things set up. So hope you have a wonderful day and we'll talk to you again sometime. Thank you