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Well, good day to everybody. This is Bill Stark. Welcome to another LeaderGov podcast, designed especially for leaders, managers and employees of local governments, both here in Georgia and throughout the United States. So we're very excited today to have a friend of leader gov on the podcast with us, Mr. Michael Harris. He is the tax commissioner for Henry County, Georgia. How're you doing, Michael?
Doing great Bill. It's good to be on?
Oh, that's great. Nice to have you. I know we just celebrated Valentine's a few days ago, did you have a chance to get your get your Valentine's card and something nice for your wife?
Absolutely never miss an opportunity, you know, certainly take like, make sure she's got something that are at work and make sure she has something at home. So you kind of keep going. All the bases are covered.
Oh, you cover both bases. I like that. Yes, very smart. Hey, before we get started, today's topic is on trust. And how do we build trust, you know, in our government agencies, because everything really is foundational from from this idea of trust, as you know, and so excited to ask a few questions about how to do that and some of your experiences with trust. Before we get into all that stuff. Tell the folks that are listening a little bit about your background, what local governments have you been a part of and a couple of the roles that you've had over the last several years and local government.
Sure thing actually got my started my background in civil engineering. So I got my start, start start on the private sector, work with some engineering firms. And then my first foray into the public side was with Henry County government came in as an entry level engineer. From there kind of worked my way up through a variety of different departments. Starting off as as a, again, as an engineer worked within the public safety, public works, departments planning and development departments. And after about 15 years, actually ended up there as the interim county manager, stayed on there for about a year and then had the opportunity to leave and move on to a city as a city manager, so became city manager of city Stockbridge for about three years. And then from there, I was recruited back into the private sector, but interestingly enough to do public sector work. So I was actually recruited by ch to inhale an engineering firm because they were pursuing the contract for the new The city of StoneCrest. So, took left city of Stockbridge went on with ch two m and capacity as project manager, we were awarded the contract with city StoneCrest. So I became StoneCrest, as first city manager, and stayed in that position for about two years getting the city up and started before I took the position here, back in Henry County as a tax commissioner.
Wow, that's really cool. I like the fact that you've had that private experience, I'm sure that really helped you kind of see a different perspective when you get involved in local government.
Yeah, it certainly does. You know, and I think it has been, I think it certainly has helped me on the public side, having been on the private side, from a standpoint of expectations of, you know, what I expect from my, from my, from my public officials. So I think just having sat on the other side of the table, I think it kind of gives me a bit of a different perspective on again, what expectations should be and coming back into the public sector, you know, how we should, how we should, how we can how we can frame our thoughts and, and frame our, our intentions on accomplishing our goals.
Yeah. Hey, one more question. Before we kind of jump into this topic of trust? Kind of a fun question. Tell Tell us if you would like a hobby that you have, that you particularly enjoy doing, or you know, being a part of,
well, you know, I do it, probably more so than anything else I love. I love kind of exercising and being outdoors. I'd say things like hiking, whatnot, actually had my hip replaced back in May. So I'm just getting back into the port right and start engaging in somebody else did more physical activities, but my wife and I now that we're empty nesters, you know, we really enjoy kind of getting out and taking hikes and taking long walks and, and I'm doing all I can to get her into golf. So we can start doing that together.
Filming alone. Boy, I tell you that's so important. We kind of kind of skipped over the personal health aspect of local government a lot. But you know, particularly as a leader or manager, director, city manager, whatever, it can be so overwhelming the work, it can be so taxing, you know, late night city council meetings. And that's, I think what you said, it's just a great reminder for everybody listening, that's, that's in local government to take that time to unplug and unwind and, and set aside some time just to work on your physical health. Because I guess that, you know, the more healthy we are as people, the more we can bring to the table for our teams, right?
Yeah, that's so true. And I think if we don't take the time to kind of replenish ourselves, mind, body and spirit, then that it just, it just, it takes its toll anyway, I mean, it can be fairly taxing. But if you're not taking the time off, again, replenish your soul, your spirit and your body and your physical and your physical self, then it's just going to wear yourself down that much quicker. So yeah, it is I think it is critical that you do have those other outlets, and this can't be everything,
you know, yeah, so easy to say. And I think we all need that reminder, because we can get caught up in the, in the flurry, you know, so, Michael, on this topic of trust, just, you know, I'd be curious if you've ever been a part of a team, where where trust was, was difficult, where it was very low or not really exist? And and how did that affect the project or the team? You have a story that would resonate along those lines?
Yeah, I do. And I think my story probably is similar to those of many other government leaders, that they've dealt with, you know, those of us that work in government, you know, typically, we most often work for a body of elected officials. And, you know, during one of my students did have a kind of came into a situation where the, there was a lot of dysfunction and contention at the elected level. And that challenge is sometimes you know, how that can resonate down to the, to the staff both, you know, top management, middle management rank and file that can take its toll. And, you know, unfortunately did have a situation where that was kind of the that was kind of the culture that we can kind of came into, and just seeing how that how pervasive that can be, and the impact that it can have on everyone, to the point where, you know, you see individuals trying to kind of pick sides, who are they going to try to appease at any given time? You know, so what happens in that in those cases is you don't have a you don't have an organization or a team structure that's fighting for the good Have the organization and good or the public in his case, you know, people kind of turn to self preservation mode. And I think we have that I think it's really just counter to what we're supposed to be as public servants.
Yeah, there's the whole, if you can't trust the folks or haven't spent the time to develop that trust, you're right, you do end up kind of picking corners, and it's us versus them. And then, of course, getting things done as a team is nearly impossible. Yeah.
And it was really kind of kind of driven by just, you know, changing priorities on a regular basis and stability, the top levels, and, you know, so from a trust standpoint, it's trusting that once you make a decision, we're going to move in that direction. But when that when that that bullseye, that Mark is continuing continuously being shifted, it's tough, you know, so then it kind of discredits when, when new priorities come forward, like, well, you know, this may last for a month or six months, but at some point, this is no longer gonna be the priority anymore. So, again, trying to keep people engaged when, you know, they see over and over again, there's an inconsistency and they can't trust in some decisions that are being made at the top levels.
Yeah, and I guess, I mean, the some of the effects of that kind of environment, lack of trust are pretty obvious, we don't obviously need to spend a lot of time outlining all the negative implications of that. But you know, you've got toxic culture, you know, definitely communication silos, paying people not being on the same page and projects taking forever to get done because of a lack of trust, and so forth. What are you, you know, just some of your thoughts around what teams can do, particularly with some of the limitations and added complexities of having elected officials? What are some things that teams and local government can do to build trust, you know, between individuals, or maybe between departments, or maybe between elected officials and staff? What are some things that, that you thought of, or maybe implemented in the past that have really helped, you know, build some of those bridges between people?
Yeah, I think you touched on a little bit at the end, I think a lot of it stems with it starts with communication, just being able to have one creating a culture where communication is welcomed, and, and encouraged. You know, have a, you know, when management at every level is inclusive, of the of all the staff members, you know, so when you have conversations, when you're looking at a setting of goals and priorities, everyone within the organization as much as possible is included within that process. You know, that setting clear goals and expectations, and priorities, I think gives everybody a clearer picture on what our focus is going to be, you know, as an organization, as a group, as a team, what all those things are really, I think, at the core of those things, is really, from the very beginning, establishing what the culture of the organization is going to be, you know, to start developing trust, I think, if you have a have a cooperative and collaborative effort in trying to determine, you know, saying, This is what our culture is going, these are the things we like about our organization, these are things we really want to build on. These are things we know we need to work on, or eliminate from our, our organization. And be and be in be very precise, and very direct on addressing those issues. And conversely, being very precise and direct and intentional on, on working on the things that you want to make sure you build and things are going to be promoted as a culture. But again, I think it starts with being able to communicate back and forth and be able to having shared ideas, and getting people to give input and really feel as though their input is being taken, taken into taking into account.
Yeah, I love that. It obviously at the end of the day, all these behaviors that we engage in, like you're talking about, they directly impact the culture to your point. And when the culture gets broken or toxic. It's so hard to get things done in an effective way. And work just is no longer fun. So I'm truly I really like what you're saying here about, you know, getting clear on what the culture is first and building that together. And that that really helps build a strong trust foundation. Have you ever been on a team or any example of you know, where there was a high level of trust? And really, what was the outcome of that we can share a story along those lines?
Yeah, yeah, sure. Um, you know, I mentioned earlier kind of, part of my one of my one of my 10 years involves the new startup city of StoneCrest. And that was really a unique experience in that it provided me with an opportunity. One, it provided me an opportunity to kind of combine both my Public my love for public service, and my love for the private sector and how things are done. And then the operations that take place, it kind of combined the two. So while I was working with a private firm, it was in a public setting. And the thing that stood out more than anything else as we started that process, because again, I'd never seen a new city emerge from literally from, from someone's idea that actually come into fruition to actually be in a brick and mortar establishment. And to be able to come into an environment and organization from the very beginning. And every all the staff members with the mindset of, okay, we're going to set this up, we're going to establish this in the best way possible. Now, certainly I haven't, you know, as my first foray into this, but I knew what a good government what a good structure should look like. So for me to be given the the, the freedom to be able to kind of move in that regard. You know, I can't tell you, you can imagine kind of how, you know, how inspiring that was, and to be able to take that same kind of energy and passion. And to be able to share it with the staff and telling staff members, you know, to tell your code enforcement threats in your building departments right there. Listen, here's what we have, we don't have anything in place right now you have a blank canvas, set it up the way it needs to be set up. You know, it'd be I can't tell you how many times you know, people's eyes would light up, like, really, I mean, this way, no, like, set it up the way. Autonomy, you're not, you're not, you're not, you don't have to deal with the constraints that you've had before. You know, we often deal with the, you know, the historical inefficiencies of an organization. And we're kind of forced to kind of walk down those same roads. But I think we give people the freedom and take some of those constraints away. And we let them kind of think through what it should be. I think it's so empowering. You know, and and making sure you're once we get to that point is certainly things have to be tweaked and guided along the way. But I think that being able to provide that kind of freedom for people and give them that opportunity. It really did, from the very beginning of the onset of the city, it really helped develop the trust amongst the amongst the staff, and as well as with the elected officials, because they were looking at us as, as a subject matter, matter experts. And now we're really able to kind of put that into fruition really kind of walk through that process and show them why this was the best way. And just because someone's doing it this way, doesn't mean that's the best way. And this is the reason why
so Oh, what oh, yeah, what a wonderful story. I liked that. I've got a got a thought I wanted to ask you about on that story. But first, we're going to take a quick break. And then we'll be back in just a moment. Okay, we are back with Michael Harris. Michael was just sharing a great story about a start up local government. And Michael, what really occurred to me as you were talking was the fact that you said you had given the team freedom to create their departments and so forth, kind of as they best saw fit. And I'm wondering, how do you and I can see where trust would really build in that environment. We're giving people this kind of freedom to innovate. How do you do that in a city that's or a county, local government that's already in existence to do you simply sort of relook things and wipe the slate clean and kind of start over? How would you how would you do that in an existing community?
Yeah, I think it's a great question, I think, you know, in because while that was a unique experience, taking that and translate it into coming into a newer, another organization where it is established, and you may go back into some of those historical inefficiencies, it's to your point, so working through those things, and what we did here was coming in, and I've been here a little over less than a year now. But one of the first things we did was, you know, first take the time to kind of reset out, get to know, learn to staff, but then sit down with everyone, you know, I've come to find out that, you know, the folks who know more about what works and what doesn't work are the folks who have been on the frontlines doing it over and over and over again. So we spent spent days going through a series of, of planning sessions, we call them, as you well know, as you participate in facilitated them, to get to give people an opportunity to look at how we've been doing things, and let them identify this and we've been doing this and we do this very well. On the other unethical side of the coin, we've been doing this and it's inefficient, it doesn't work. And then it becomes Okay, let's let's identify same same kind of process. What works well, let's keep it continue to build on those things. But let's really find out what it is we're not doing well with doesn't work, or simply because technology or times of change that we need to update. What are those, identify those things? And then let's come up with a plan for rectifying those things. Either eliminating them yeah, we're amending them.
Yes, something magical happens in those moments. I agree, Michael, and I remember that from the little mini retreat, little planning time that we had was people actually get together, they're able to get together, take the blinders off, make the slate clean, and say, How can we redesign this process? How can we do this differently and, and when you're collaborating together, there's just this element of trust and camaraderie that's built, just inherently that's very powerful. And it does something for the team and for the trust level, you know, beyond just fixing the problem. So I really like like, where you're going with that, you know, with that idea. And we do that, of course, in our in our city council commission type retreats that we do we see the same kind of trust, grow during those those types of retreats as well.
The great thing about it for us was, you know, while a lot of our top level managers, you know, they've may have gone through the process before, but we'll find out a lot of the rank and file staff members have never participated in somebody and simply never been asked their opinion on, how do you think this works? How do you think it doesn't work? So just the kind of seeing that epiphany when, when it occurred, like, and seeing that in them kind of realization, you know, my voice is equal to the person, everyone at this table has an equal voice in kind of sharing their ideas and their thoughts. You know, I think that to some extent, it's about building trust, I think that's a big, that's a great first step, just kind of helping people to see why it's important. And it really, in let people know that there's value to their years of experience, or in some cases, you know, they may be brand new, so they're coming out with fresh eyes. So but all that has value and seeing how that data can be can be utilized to help build and make the organization stronger.
Yeah, we just did a workshop on servant leadership. And I have to tell you, you know, what you're talking about really, is very much in others orientation, it's an orientation toward the value of other people, it's listening to others, it's valuing their input, their thoughts, their impressions, their ideas. And, you know, the opposite of that is, of course, an orientation toward myself, you know, to be selfish. And what you're really talking about is just taking the time to listen and value, what others have to say. And in that process, trust is built, I love that, I think that's brilliant. If we had to wind up here, if you were to sort of zoom out 30,000 foot and think of city county leaders, tax Commission's all around the country, any sort of governmental, quasi governmental agency that might be listening to this podcast, on this topic of trust, if you could just give them one or two, sort of thoughts, you know, high level thoughts on things that they might want to think about pay attention to as they go about maybe building or rebuilding trust? What what what would you have to say to him?
You know, I will start with being open and honest. I mean, I think, I think that's a kind of a foundational principle. But also, I think it's important for people to know, especially those of us working in the public sector, of the why we're doing things, you know, we are doing things for a public good. And I think all of us, you know, whether we're altruistic preceded ourselves as being altruistic or not, but we want to know that what we're doing has a greater good, I mean, we're helping how we're benefiting people. So I think that really needs to be emphasized and help people to understand, you know, whether it's, you know, in our case, doing motor vehicle tax or collecting property taxes, or its parks and rec, keeping the parks, you know, clean or, or whatever, whatever your function in the public sector may be. But why that's so important. I think that really needs to be highlighted, everyone needs to have a clear understanding is why what it is we're doing is so important. And then as far as getting to, you know, the what we do is again, for us, we collect taxes, the why we do it. And I think as leaders, we have to make sure that that that picture is clear for everyone, the greater good, why we're why we're doing these things. And then how we get there. I think, as a collective, I think that's we start building a trust, and you get your team together and you collectively determined, okay, how are we going to get to this point? You know, and I think that's something that involves everyone, I think leaders need to kind of make sure that we're emphasizing the why and showing the good and what we're doing. But I think when you get down to the nuts and bolts and implementation, then that's where you get everyone's input and everyone's buy in, and everyone everyone owns the process in that in that setting.
Yeah, love it. And I have to tell you, not to brag on you too much, but I have watched you firsthand. live out those principles of, of respecting others and listening to others, genuinely listening, listening to them to learn from them. Not just as a courtesy. And I've seen your employees that trust level build because of that, and I've seen that just sort of naturally occur in you because of you know, the kind of man you are. And so just want to tell you, thank you for leading in the way you do we need more servant leaders out there in the world of local government. And I appreciate your commitment to leading with others, keeping others in mind as a priority. So thank you for that. Well, well, thank
you. And thank you for saying it was natural, but I don't know that I wish I could take all the credit for it. But certainly having mentors like yourself, a number of others I've had along the way to help guide me because lord knows I paid more than my share of mistakes along the way.
But that's a it's a journey.
Yeah, it really is. You know, and when you make those mistakes, owning it and keep it moving.
Yeah. Well, your mentorship. Thanks so much. Yeah, thank you for your time today, my call and what you're doing in Henry County, and I would love to have you back some time to talk on another topic. But I really appreciate you sharing what you shared with the local government leaders on the podcast and hope you have a great blessed afternoon.