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How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer (Part 2)

January 23rd, 2013 by KU PMC

by Kent R. Austin, CPFO
City of University Park, Texas


Good leadership and good management require intolerance. Not intolerance for the ethnicity, culture, or race of others, but rather intolerance for mediocrity, unproductive behavior, and suboptimal performance.

Pain with a Purpose

Profound theories aside, management ultimately means the infliction of pain for a purpose.  No manager wants to discipline, reprimand, or terminate a likable but underperforming employee.  But continued tolerance of subpar performance becomes an organizational cancer that lowers the standards and effectiveness of an entire work unit.

Inner confidence in the manager is essential for confronting and correcting poor performance.  Many times managers will be hesitant to correct employees because they know their own example is not what it should be.  How can a manager punish a chronically late employee if the manager himself is often tardy?  Punishment without credibility communicates hypocrisy and erodes trust.

Alternatively, the reduction of fear and self-doubt can unleash energy and a heightened sense of intolerance.  The manager constantly asks, “why do I put up with this?”  This unleashing of energy is captured artfully in the “Courage Wolf” Internet meme shown above.

Acceptance of Responsibility

The ability to manage takes another huge step forward when managers reject voluntary helplessness and resolve to take full ownership of everything within their domain.  Managers acknowledge their “responsibility for the quality of work at the radio station,” as Billy Crystal’s boss says in the movie “City Slickers.”  Confronting the Crystal character’s low performance, the boss steps in and temporarily takes over Crystal’s decision making authority.  It required the infliction of pain, but it was the right thing to do.

The Power of Pushback

Constructive intolerance can also begin with one simple word:  “pushback.”  While the term is an informal synonym for ‘resistance,’ it suggests a more active, assertive response—physically pushing back on statements or actions that conflict with one’s desires.

Amazing things can happen when people reach the point of pushback and beyond.  Much of history is the story of individuals deciding they will no longer tolerate oppressive conditions or behaviors, from the flight of the Israelites in Egypt to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights movement.

Punk Rock Primer

Even punk rock is instructive on this point.  Punk grew directly out of the economic malaise and social unrest of mid-1970’s Britain, coupled with a vehement rejection of the perceived pretentiousness and consumerist nature of contemporary rock music.  The punk spirit advocated a three chord, do-it-yourself approach that eschewed instrumental skill or elaborate production values in favor of full, free expression.

Leading the anarchic charge were the Sex Pistols, whose vulgar yet energetic pushback struck a nerve with a generation of young Britons similarly disaffected and despairing.  Even though the BBC refused to air the Sex Pistols’ music, in 1977 their single “God Save the Queen” shot to the top of the charts—at the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s 25th anniversary jubilee celebration.

As jarring as the music was, the lyrics were even more shocking and despairing:

“God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being.

There’s no future/In England’s dreaming.

Don’t be told about what you want/Don’t be told about what you need.

There’s no future, no future, no future for you.”

Although the Sex Pistols imploded in 1978, they changed rock music and popular culture in ways still felt today. Their explosive pushback was horrifying and inspiring, depressing and liberating. While the nature of their expression has little in common with the life of a government finance officer, the energy released by the Sex Pistols’ pushback and their ability to initiate change are worth remembering.

Cultural reinforcers:  Intolerance, Pushback and Willingness to Impose Change

  • Books:  That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory, by John Eisenberg (2009); The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work, by Peter Block (1991).
  • Movies:  City Slickers (1992); A Bug’s Life (1998); Rocky (1976); Erin Brockovich (2000); District 9 (2009).
  • Music:  “God Save the Queen,” the Sex Pistols (1977); “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy (1989); “Get Up, Stand Up,” Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973); “A Little Less Conversation,” Elvis Presley (1968).
  • Historical figures:  Spartacus; St. Thomas More; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks

This is part 2 of Kent Austin’s article “How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer” which will appear in GFOA’s Government Finance Review in February 2013. Find part 1 here and look for part 3 in the coming weeks. Kent is a 1988 graduate of the KU MPA program. He serves as the director of finance for the City of University Park, Texas and is the 2012-13 president of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas.

How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer (Part 1)

November 15th, 2012 by KU PMC

by Kent R. Austin, CPFO
City of University Park, Texas

A famous management handbook, first published in 1946 and reprinted continuously since then, opens with this memorable sentence: “You know more than you think you do.”

The same concept holds true for finance officers, and for public managers more generally: they know more than they think they do. Why? Because experience and learning are continuous processes, resulting in an enormous aggregation of memories, thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes in each one of us.

First and foremost, individuals are hired to be problem solvers, whether in government finance or any other line of work. Consequently, what an individual brings to a job is far more than simply specific technical knowledge in a given field. Individuals bring a lifetime of learning that originates from an untold number of sources. Consider:

• Every book, magazine, comic book, and newspaper you have ever read
• Every family member, friend, co-worker, or acquaintance you have ever met
• Every movie, TV show, and Internet video you have ever watched
• Every vacation, business trip, or daily commute you have ever taken
• Every meeting, public hearing, conference, and celebration you have ever attended
• Every class, seminar, training session, and workshop you have ever taken.

Each one of us has massive amounts of information that we carry around every day. Why limit on-the-job problem solving abilities to the technical skills required by the job description? Each one of us knows so much more than we think we do.

To help harness this huge knowledge base, think how it relates to three traits traditionally considered undesirable—indifference, intolerance, and selfishness. Turning these negative traits inside out leads to an understanding of how to renew one’s approach to life and work—a personal “reboot.”
Traditionally, “indifference” refers to a lack of caring or a deliberate decision to ignore or avoid certain ideas, places, or people. Around 1543, Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Roman Catholic order of priests known as the Jesuits, developed a radically different definition.

To him, the purpose of man’s existence should be to love and serve God. Everything else should not matter.

Thus, by centering one’s being on the single goal of loving and serving God, a Jesuit would seek to be indifferent to all other things—being rich or poor, fat or thin, intelligent or slow-witted, and so on. All else paled besides pursuit of the central mission. This Ignatian indifference gave a tremendous clarity and focus to the Jesuits, which drove them to accomplish incredible things in the service of their goal.

Mission Focus
While theological concepts from the 16th century seem far removed from local government challenges of the 21st century, the Jesuit emphasis on mission is instructive for today’s finance officers. So often it is easy to become consumed with an increasing number of tasks, which seem to accumulate with each year. We become busier and busier, never feeling caught up or never spending the time on planning that we claim we want.

Barnacle Theory
This phenomenon is similar to the accumulation of barnacles on the hull of a ship below the water line.

Over time, the barnacles increasingly act as a drag on the ship’s ability to move through the water; although everything looks fine above the water line, more effort and engine power are required to make the same rate of progress. Periodically, then, the ship must be taken to dry dock so that the barnacles can be removed and the ship’s performance restored.

Lyrics from the song “Reboot the Mission” by Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers (2012) sum up the solution succinctly:

“Eyes on the prize/Reboot the mission.
I lost my sight/But not the vision.”

Periodically one must stop and remember, or formulate for the first time, what the essential mission of their unit is. This does not require lofty vision or mission statements, elaborate goals and objectives, or detailed action plans.

Instead, it simply requires some reflection on what it is that an organizational unit brings to the services delivered by the organization. Is the department helping or hindering this delivery? Is the department an overprotective watchdog or a helpful resource for departments trying to provide front line services?

Popular culture reinforces: Indifference –> Focus on the Mission
• Books: The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (2004).
• Movies: Moneyball (2011); Twelve O’clock High (1949); The Untouchables (1987)
• Music: “Reboot the Mission,” Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers (2012)
• Historical figures: Abraham Lincoln; Ulysses S. Grant; Vince Lombardi

This is part 1 of Kent Austin’s article “How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer” which will appear in GFOA’s Government Finance Review in February 2013. We’ll publish part 2 & part 3 here on the blog in the coming weeks. Kent is a 1988 graduate of the KU MPA program. He serves as the director of finance for the City of University Park, Texas and is the 2012-13 president of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas.

Gaining the Trust of Your Citizens

November 8th, 2012 by KU PMC

Reprinted from the Kansas Government Journal October 2012 issue

Kansans enjoy autumn for many reasons. For farmers, the last harvest of the year is a time to get paid for months of hard work. For others, it’s a brief respite from our often-brutal summers and winters. But for me, autumn’s always been about football.

My dad got me hooked at a young age, but once I started playing the sport I had no chance of ever kicking that addiction. I know it’s cliché for a grown man to think back to the “old playing days,” but one part of those Friday night battles has stayed with me–how much teamwork was required for success. You’ll never gain one yard on a football field unless you work together with your teammates, and that requires a commitment to an important value—trust.

Unfortunately, beyond the gridiron, America is experiencing a trust-deficit. Public trust in institutions has been decreasing since the 1960s, and it’s now at record lows. Only 44% of Americans trust organized religion, 29% trust the criminal justice system, 25% trust the media, and 21% trust banks and big businesses. The federal government is possibly the least trusted, at only 13%. And although institutions closely connected to people like small businesses and local governments are still trusted (65% and 61% respectively), they too are garnering record-low levels.1

This diminished trust should matter to local governments. Studies have shown that as trust in government diminishes, so the does the rate of compliance with the law. Additionally, trust is necessary for a community to work together to fix problems, and without it there can be paralyzing inaction. Trust is also a fundamental component of a healthy democracy, as it encourages citizen engagement in politics and enhances support for democratic ideals.2

Why is contemporary trust so low? That debate is best left to the thousands of academic papers on the topic, but there are a few key factors worth mentioning, many of which are beyond the control of city officials. There is a strong relationship between economic growth and institutional trust, and sometimes trust just depends on the individual (citizens who are younger, have lower life satisfaction, and have more education, all tend to have lower levels of trust). Residents of bigger cities are also less trusting of local governments than those of smaller cities.3

But luckily, there are trust factors that local officials can influence. For example, residents that participate in community improvement activities tend to manifest higher degrees of trust in their municipalities.4 One organization in our state that’s been instrumental in coordinating these trust-building activities is Kansas PRIDE. The Kansas PRIDE Program is a partnership of Kansas State University, the Kansas Department of Commerce, and Kansas PRIDE, Inc., that assists local governments and volunteers in making their communities better places to live and work. PRIDE has facilitated the restoration of a mini-park in Smith Center, maintained historic structures in Greeley, started the farmers’ market in Elk City, and initiated hundreds of other projects in cities across Kansas.

Fighting the perception of corruption is another way to build trust. Even if corruption is non-existent, citizens are skeptical of entities managing large amounts of public funds, so municipalities should be as open as possible. Although transparency on its own is ineffective, educating the public about the local governments’ structure and decision-making processes is a proven way to build trust.

Overland Park, which was one of three Kansas municipalities to receive a 2012 Sunny Award from the Sunshine Review, a non-profit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, has taken some great steps to build trust with public information. The City’s website,, gives the function and contact information of all governing body members, City departments, and City boards. The City also posts their own governing body manual online, which describes how specific decisions are made. These small steps demystify local government and increase citizens’ trust in their city officials.5

As many city leaders would probably guess, the most powerful explanation of public trust is the degree of satisfaction with municipal services. Recognizing the importance of high-quality city services, the City of Wichita has set up “Neighborhood City Halls.” These halls are in several convenient neighborhood locations, and allow residents to meet with city council members, talk to representatives of the city police, inspection, and health departments, enroll in parks and recreation programs, and get assistance with issues like trash, loose dogs, and dangerous structures.6

The City of Gardner has also taken action to improve municipal services. Each year, the City conducts a citizen survey to see which services its residents are satisfied with and which it needs to improve. This survey provides a comprehensive overview of the quality of municipal services, and is an important tool in its resource-allocation decisions. By providing tools that respond to citizens’ service demands, Gardner and Wichita have increased their residents’ trust in their local governments.

Any municipality trying to gain the trust of its residents needs to remember that trust can only be built up over time, and that any initiative requires the involvement of both parties. Whether that means creating volunteer opportunities, educating residents about how local governments work, staffing centers to respond to service requests, or simply asking residents how they feel about their community, trust can only be established by creating tools for residents to interact with the local government. Once that happens, the city and its residents can work together as a team to build great a community.

Michael Koss a student in the KU MPA program and serves as the Membership Services Manager for the League of Kansas Municipalities. He can be reached at or (785) 354-9565.

2 Sofie Marien and Marc Hooghe, Does political trust matter?, European Journal of Political Research, Volume 50, Issue 2 (March 2011).

A Win-Win? Wellness Programs and Employee Productivity

April 14th, 2010 by KU PMC

A report on the Business Wire indicates that, according to MetLife’s 8th annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, 68% of employees said that over the last 12 months they were affected by increased feelings of job insecurity, a decrease in the quality of their work, an increase in their workload or being distracted at work because of financial worries.

The challenge, of course, is that managers are asking more from their employees because of the very conditions that are causing these stresses.

What would help? The MetLife report suggests that providing access to health and wellness programs, work/life balance programs, and financial advice and guidance in the workplace could be a win-win as approximately eight out of ten employees say that they believe their productivity would be favorably impacted by these programs:

* 77% of employees said financial advice and guidance programs would improve their productivity.
* 81% said that health and wellness programs would improve their productivity.
* 82% stated that work/life balance programs would improve their productivity.

Many employers have yet to act on this information, however, even when they recognize the value of such wellness programs. Read more.

Next ASPA KC luncheon to feature Matt Meyer, CEO, American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City

April 11th, 2010 by KU PMC

The next Greater Kansas City ASPA chapter luncheon is scheduled for Wednesday, April 28th and will feature Matt Meyer of the Greater KC American Red Cross.

The luncheon will run from 11:45 to 1:00pm at the Hereford House Hollywood Room, 20th and Walnut Streets, Kansas City, MO.

As the Chief Executive Officer of the American Red Cross of Greater Kansas City, Matt Meyer serves as both the chapter executive for the Greater Kansas City Chapter and the regional chapter executive for the Greater Kansas City Regional Grouping. At the Greater Kansas City Chapter, Matt works with a 30 member board of directors, 35 full-time staff and more than 700 volunteers to ensure the effective delivery of Red Cross services throughout a 16 county area in western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

To register for the luncheon, visit the website of the Kansas City ASPA.

Join Us on April 12th for “The Impact of a Catastrophic Disaster on Government Operations: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina”

April 6th, 2010 by KU PMC

On Monday, April 12, join us at the KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park for a presentation by Steve Adukaitis, Retired, Director of Management Operations, FEMA Philadelphia Regional Office.

The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the City of New Orleans is approaching. Mr. Adukaitis was assigned to the City in the weeks following landfall and spent the following 8 months assisting local officials in their initial re-entry and recovery efforts. He will review his personal experiences and offer some lessons learned based on his work with the City of New Orleans and surrounding parishes. His observations are applicable to government and community officials at all levels who will be called upon to respond to a “big one” in the Kansas City area.

The presentation is scheduled for 4:30pm in room 155 Regnier Hall. The Edwards Campus is located at 127th and Quivira in Overland Park.

FDIC chair and KU grad Sheila Bair to give 2010 Dole Lecture

April 3rd, 2010 by KU PMC

Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and University of Kansas alumna, will give the 2010 Dole Lecture. The free event is open to the public and is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 19, at the Dole Institute of Politics. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Bair has spent most of her professional life in public service, beginning her career as a civil rights attorney in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 2007, Bair warned of the impending sub-prime mortgage crisis. Bair organized a meeting to persuade financial institutions to reduce monthly payments, but bank investors were not convinced.

Forbes magazine named Bair the second most powerful woman in the world in 2008 and 2009 for her role as chair. She also made Time magazine’s “Time 100” list of the most influential people of 2009.

Read more about Bair and the Dole lecture.

Kansas CPM student wins national award for Olathe recycling project

March 22nd, 2010 by KU PMC

Kent Seyfried, City of Olathe Solid Waste Manager, developed a recycling plan for the City as his capstone project for the Certified Public Manager program. The plan will save Olathe $500,000 in dumping fees and it won Seyfried the 2009 national Askew award from the American Academy of Certified Public Managers. Read more.

See what past participants have said about the Kansas Certified Public Manager Program.

Developing great leadership requires ongoing organizational commitment

February 17th, 2010 by KU PMC

This article in Business Week reflects on the importance of a continued focus on leadership development, even in times of economic strain. “The best companies for developing leaders recognize the value of strong leadership in both the good times and the bad,” says John Larrere, who heads Hay Group’s leadership and talent practice in the U.S. “Culturally they just cannot do away with leadership development, even in a recession. They don’t see it as a perk but as a necessity.”

We face even tighter constraints in the public sector than do the private sector companies examined in the article. Yet leadership development remains critically important for our organizations, especially when so many people are being called on to cover the responsibilities of positions that are vacant. Managers have the opportunity to see the next generation of leaders in action, and must continue to invest in their development.

Welcome to the blog!

January 23rd, 2010 by admin

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