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Stennis Institute’s Selected to Serve holds mayors accountable

This year, a Mississippi mayor of a small town is working hard to expand the city limits to seven square miles, replace all main water lines and build a multi-purpose building.

The city official of another municipality in the state is reaching goals of seeing a city park constructed, achieving certification of Municipal Financial Integrity and completing construction of a public works facility.

Yet another elected city leader is developing a plan to provide necessary lift station sewer service to allow the development of retail businesses at a busy highway intersection, extending water service one-and-a-half miles outside the city limits, and acquiring $40,000 of new playground equipment for the city park.

These achievements were accomplished thanks to Selected to Serve, a two-part program produced by Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government that combines a goal-setting retreat with longer-term goal achievement.

“During the retreat, participants work toward developing three specific, measurable, achievable and worthy goals that they wish to accomplish in their communities,” explained Phil Hardwick, coordinator of economic and community development for the institute. “For elected leaders, the time frame for accomplishing the goals begins at the conclusion of the retreat and ends at the expiration of their current term of office. For other leaders, the time frame for reaching goals will be established during the goal development process. Along with working toward the achievement of personal goals, participants serve as mentors to three other participants.”

‘Specific, measurable and achievable’

So far, 20 mayors, including Rosemary Aultman of Clinton and Samuel Rikard of Olive Branch, have completed the program. Before the end of the year, three more sessions will be offered. An ideal mayors session: 12 participants including six men and six women; six from larger communities and six from small towns; six Caucasian and six minority, said Hardwick.

“One of the key purposes of the retreat is to identify ‘specific, measurable and achievable’ goals,” he explained, “a process that is not as easy as it sounds.”

“For example, many people consider ‘improve the quality of life in our community’ a goal statement. We consider that to be a vision statement. Planting flowers in the city park will improve the quality of life, but it’s not specific enough for our purposes. We also stress the principle that ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ During the retreat, mayors spend some time alone developing their goals after a half-day of discussing leadership principles and skills. They then present their goals to the other mayors, who critique and assist in development of goals that meet the above requirements.”

What works?

Selected to Serve is the culmination of more than two decades of Hardwick’s work in economic and community development, where he saw that certain methods seemed to result in achievement while others did not.

“I saw the value of goal-setting and I saw the value of developing goals in a group setting with people that could be trusted,” he said. “I also saw that the reason most goal-setting fails is that there is no accountability and no follow-up. I thought about all those goal setting and strategic planning sessions I have seen over the years that did not achieve the desired results. What I realized from my corporate experience is that in the business world managers are held accountable and must report regularly on the progress of goals that have been set. Those goals are very measurable.

“Things are very different in the government and nonprofit world. Success is lower. I wondered why. As I studied this issue, I learned the reason most strategic plans fail is because there is no accountability and responsibility for the goals that are set. Nonprofits and government agencies have strategic planning retreats where goals are set. But, the people responsible for the goals are usually volunteers who have no consequences if the goals are not achieved. In the case of government organizations, the leaders of the government agencies may not even be there for the long term because of our political system. There is an election and some new person comes in with his or her program. This is at all levels of government. For example, how many strategic plans have we had for the State of Mississippi?”

Leadership defined

Hardwick defines leadership simply as influencing others to achieve the desired results.

“So Selected to Serve is a method to help public officials achieve their goals,” he explained. “What is unique about this program is the follow-up. Participants stay in touch with each other, holding themselves accountable to their goals. Also, the Stennis Institute follows up asking for status reports on the progress of the goals. It’s amazing what people will do when they know that someone will be calling them asking about the status of their goals and that others will be informed of that progress. In that sense, it takes the business model and applies it to government leaders. Finally, the goals are time bound, usually goals that must be completed by the end of the officials’ terms.”
The program makes extensive use of movie scenes from “Patton,” “The Girl in the Café” and “Gandhi” to discuss effective communication, and uses “Twelve O’Clock High” as a tool to explore leadership styles. “Remember the Titans” is used to discuss racial issues.

“My personal favorite is the use of scenes from ‘Bulworth’ to discuss whether public officials can tell the truth and still get reelected,” said Hardwick. “‘Twelve Angry Men’ is unbeatable for discussing how our values and biases affect our decisions.”

The program uses case studies and movie scenes because participants relate more to them, said Hardwick. “Lectures simply are not as effective in this type learning environment,” he said. “We also want participants to share their experience with each other.”

When Oxford Mayor Richard Howorth participated in the Selected to Serve program, one of his goals was to effect change in workforce housing.

“We’ve made some steps in the right direction,” said Howorth, who graduated from the program and is attending the summer session of the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on a Fannie Mae Foundation scholarship. “Housing is going to become a critically important issue in the nation over the next 10 years, I believe, and we need to be working on it now.”

Hardwick, who completed the Harvard program last summer, also as a Fannie Mae Foundation Fellow, pointed out “one of the things Sen. John C. Stennis, the namesake of the institute, wanted to see was effective and useful training and resources for public officials. I believe that Selected to Serve is one program that Senator Stennis would be proud of.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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