The transition to a new manager

This topic may seem off the beaten path for WACD. But since we all want our conservation districts to run smoothly and to deliver services efficiently and effectively, discussing this topic is entirely appropriate. The reason for this article at this point in time is because we are seeing several conservation district manager positions changing hands.

WACD supports conservation districts in their work with government, partner organizations, businesses, private landowners and working lands managers to implement best management practices, to utilize innovative equipment and materials, to provide technical assistance, and to develop expertise to address resource issues.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://wadistricts.org/about-wacd" target="_blank">ABOUT WACD</a></span>

I’m not going to pull any punches in this article. The importance of it merits direct language. The lessons I share come from my 29 years in our community, with a smattering of additional lessons gathered from peers over the years. All observations and views expressed herein are mine and may not represent formal positions of WACD, nor should they be considered a final compendium of information. This article should serve as a starting point to help you plan for transitioning to a new district manager.

The best time to think about changing managers is before you need to do so. Understanding what the manager does – as expressed in a clear job description – is important because it helps the board govern appropriately and helps the manager know that they are meeting expectations. A good job description also helps the current or new manager understand the framework they are working in.

Short notes for outgoing and incoming managers

For the outgoing manager

Write things down! You have so much knowledge and much of it is not recorded anywhere. Create a Word document on your computer desktop to capture important thoughts, reminders, and notes that will be valuable for the new manager to know.

Governance should be at the top of your list. What are your district’s policies and where are they found? Are there important policies and procedures that are in the process of being developed or updated? Does your district have written policy on the role of the board and the role of the manager? Governance is a great topic to explore with your Washington State Conservation Commission (WSCC) Regional Manager (RM). If you don’t already have governance policies on the books for your district consider taking that step now.

A good practice (even if you are not currently transitioning your manager) is to have a succession file. In a smaller conservation district, this would be a sheet of paper (yes, paper, not a computer file) with key accounts and passwords written on it. Seal that in an envelope, sign and date it across the sealed flap, and secure it in the district’s safe deposit box or give it to the chairperson for safekeeping. This simple step provides a much smoother transition for your district if something unexpectedly happens to the current manager!

This is the time to help prepare other staff for a new leader as they may feel abandoned and/or uncertain during such a transition. This is also the time to find the money to have at least a week or two of overlap with the outgoing and incoming manager to smoothly transition from old to new.

If you are leaving the district on a positive note, don’t disappear after your last day. Be willing to take an occasional phone call from the new manager who may need more history or context about their work with the district. If your departure is on a sour note, don’t do anything to damage the district. Even if the board is not wishing to see you again, you may still be able to help the new manager and staff adapt to a new regime.

For the incoming manager

This is the time to come up to speed quickly on your district’s governance policies. Get to know your WSCC RM! I recommend a weekly check-in with your RM as you come up to speed.

If you were promoted from within, you will have some special challenges overcome. Colleagues may now be direct reports and navigating that change can be difficult. Some staff may not easily accept the change from being a peer to reporting to you. You will need extra support and backing from the board to wear this new mantle. (The board should resist the urge to micro-manage the new manager or get involved in intra-office staffing tensions.)

This is also a great time for you to get to know each other a little bit better. When you are new, you often have a bit more latitude to explore relationships and backgrounds. Ask your staff and board members about why they do what they do, what they love about it, what they’d like to see change or improve, and things they think you should be aware of. At the same time you can communicate things like your preferences for ongoing feedback, an open door policy, etc.

It may be helpful to have someone widely known and respected to personally introduce you to key partners, community leaders, cooperators, and grantors.

This is a great opportunity to take a guided driving tour of the district and see projects, identify needs, and meet some cooperators.

Seek to understand your district’s funding challenges. Depending on the district, there may be a sense of stability or there may be a sense that the district’s house is built on shifting sands. You can’t make financial decisions without understanding the mood of your district. This would be a good time to also clearly understand the spending authority your board has delegated to you.

Get to know the laws, regulations, contractual requirements that you must operate within, and the timing of reporting deadlines.

Be aware that as a district manager, you operate at the intersection of tensions and expectations that vary widely. Conservation districts are a nexus where different beliefs and desires come together so don’t be surprised to hear about property rights, environmental degradation, open government, and much more.

A note to conservation district board members

Changing your day-to-day leader is hard. It is disruptive. Your actions can pave the way for a smooth transition or feed the sense of unease that will permeate your district. This is a time to not let the perfect get in the way of the good. No transition is perfect.

You can’t build an adaptable organization without adaptable people – and individuals change only when they have to, or when they want to.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://www.inc.com/dave-kerpen/13-quotes-to-inspire-greater-adaptability.html" target="_blank">Change Is Hard</a></span>

If your manager is leaving on a positive note, this is an opportunity to reinforce the threads that bind your people together. Celebrate your successes together as you send your old manager off to the next chapter of their life.

If your manager is leaving on a sour note, it becomes even more important to focus on the values that hold your people together when times get tough. Somewhere in those values are trust and respect. Be respectful, even if you are secretly pleased the manager is separating from service. If you are not respectful, the new manager will come into a situation where trust may be clouded. That’s not a great way to continue your district’s success.

If your board is making a leadership change because you want to change the culture of the conservation district, focus on the values and behaviors you wish to see.

The importance of transferring culture

The longest-lasting people are the culture keepers

The keepers of a conservation district’s culture are sometimes board members, sometimes staff, and occasionally close partners. Employees are almost always part of this equation because they do the day-to-day management, administration, and delivery of services. They know where the skeletons are buried. In some districts, staff outlast board members, while in others, board members outlast staff. I refer to those who know the long tail of the district as the “culture keepers.”

What is organizational culture, and why is it important? Simply defined, it is “the set of written and unwritten rules by which people function to get their work done.” If you choose to ignore organizational culture, you do so at your own peril.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://www.amanet.org/articles/understanding-and-adapting-to-a-new-organizational-culture/" target="_blank">Understanding and Adapting to a New Organizational Culture</a></span>

Onboarding takes time

There is much more to onboarding a new person than just going through a checklist of responsibilities and tasks, especially when that person is in a position of authority and leadership. The basic rule of thumb is that it takes a year for a new district manager to come up to speed. Learning the tasks and deliverables and deadlines isn’t the part that takes a lot of time, though. Instead, it is learning the district’s culture which I will also refer to as the district’s style or flavor.

Why does it take so much time? Because most of the way that an organization actually functions is not written in a set of policies or procedures. Most of the who and how and why is not written anywhere. It is transferred between people in the organization every day through oral interactions, and most of that knowledge is transferred in the first year. This is the “coming up to speed” period.

When the style or flavor of a conservation district is not memorialized in writing, it takes time and interactions for new people to understand how things really work. You should identify your culture keepers and budget time for those folks to spend with the new manager.

Transferring culture

The culture or style or flavor of a district is part of what makes it unique and special. If those core values and ways of working together are not effectively transferred, the transition period can take much longer. Indeed, sometimes new people never come up to speed and that can severely impact district operations. Usually, those folks don’t last, and when that happens, the district has to repeat the process of recruiting for the key position. That can take a lot of time and dilute the district’s effectiveness.

One of the most important aspects of transitioning key staff members is effectively transferring core values and styles. Each conservation district operates somewhat differently.

  • Who do you serve?
  • Who is the district accountable to?
  • Is your district a service entity for the entire community or does it focus on particular aspects or industries present in the district?
  • Does the board of supervisors lean on Roberts Rules of Order to maintain decorum in meetings or is it a more relaxed, “Bob’s Rules” kind of style?
  • What is the expected management style?
  • Is there a solid sense of teamwork as demonstrated by staff leaning on each other for help, or do staff work independently in their own siloes?
  • Is there coolness or distance between people, or is there a sense of partnership between the board and staff? Do people smile and laugh, or is the mood more dour?
  • Does the staff have regular meetings and how are they run?
  • Do people feel free to speak their particular truth or is there fear or reticence to speak out?

As you read those bullet points, I’m sure that some of the flavor of your particular district will begin to emerge.

Onboarding reminders

Hopefully, your conservation district has a checklist of things to cover with new employees. If not, please develop that checklist! Some of the common items on an onboarding checklist for any employee might include (in no particular order of importance):

  • Hours of operation.
  • Personnel policies or employee manual.
  • Pay periods.
  • Overtime policy, i.e., is prior authorization required before working overtime?
  • Employee benefits, including waiting periods before some benefits become available to the employee.
  • Keys, security, and related topics.
  • Policies that govern employee safety, like: a buddy system when working in remote work areas; checking in when coming back from remote areas; weapons in vehicles or the office; violence, threats, or harassment; whistleblowers and non-retaliation.
  • Line of authority, who to contact, how to get support, and what to do if your direct supervisor is the problem.
  • Accounts used for work and associated usernames and passwords are the property of the district and must be surrendered upon separation. This includes any cloud storage accounts.
  • What is the policy on social media use?
  • Policy and law on public records.
  • Review of the job description and responding to any questions the employee may have about required and desired tasks and duties.
  • Vehicle usage, including whether personal vehicles may be used, whether permission is required before using a personal vehicle, and how costs will be reimbursed.
  • Is there a training plan for the new employee?

For the manager position, there are additional key points to cover, including:

  • Do you have hire and fire authority? If not, can you at least require an employee to leave the workplace (often called placing someone on administrative leave) in order to keep the people in your workplace safe?
  • Do you have spending authority. If so, what are the dollar limits, what are the restrictions on materials or services that can be purchased without prior approval, and is there a budget that you need to work within?
  • Where do you as a district manager go when you need help?
  • Internal controls on assets, including property and money. Who opens the mail? Do you have first access to source documents like bank statements, credit card statements, phone records, contracts, and invoices?
  • Who else has access to accounts and key documents? If the district owns real property, where is the deed and how is it secured?
  • What is the process for crafting messages for public consumption? Who approves? If there is a website and/or social media, what oversight role does the manager play?
  • What do the district’s adopted annual and long-range plans say? Is there a regular reporting schedule so that your board and staff are kept apprise of progress (or lack of progress) toward goals?

This is just a start

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

Making the changeover between old and new managers can be an exciting growth moment or it can be a painful exercise. As noted, every conservation district is different, so your process will probably not look like the steps in this article.

I hope that the thoughts expressed here are helpful. Please consider this article a starting point for your own conversations about helping your current or new manager be most successful.

My thanks to the handful of folks in our conservation district community that contributed their thoughts on this topic. I modified many of those items and included as many of them as I could. I take responsibility for any confusion or misstatements!

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director

UPDATE August 9, 2021: I just ran across this helpful article: How to Plan and Execute an Emergency Succession. Creating an emergency succession plan can be very helpful when you unexpectedly find yourself needing it!