Fix organizational culture issues at Wausau’s City Hall first

Today’s announcement that Finance Director Maryanne Groat is receiving a 10-day unpaid suspension to be divvied out as essentially the equivalent of furlough days between now and the end of year is just the latest episode in a long-running series of issues at Wausau’s City Hall. There have been other casualties, including Public Works/Wausau Water Works head Brad Marquardt, who was invited to resign last month with six months of severance pay and health insurance.

The never-ending story with the still-unresolved Thomas Street project – for which the city lost millions in federal support – and the infamous no-bid bird art projects are a couple of things that figure prominently in the storyline, but they are symptoms of something larger. Last week, Mayor Tipple held a press conference to float the idea of switching from a mayoral to city administrator form of government.

There should be a hippocratic oath for governing: First, do no harm. I’ve tried to bite my tongue on this stuff, with mixed success. Since I served on the city council for six years with Mayor Linda Lawrence and six more with Mayor Jim Tipple, of course I have some opinions and insights. I also know the people involved personally and I’m not interested in poisoning relationships by making comments that would do little or nothing to improve the situation.

Regarding the idea of a city adminstrator, it might be a good idea – but that move alone will not fix the kinds of problems that we’re seeing. The current structure of our city government is fully capable of delivering efficient services. It has done so for Wausau in the past and it works elsewhere, too. So while I think it’s a great discussion to have, I’m not all that fond of pursuing it in an overriding context of simply trying to deal with current occupants of elected offices and staff positions in the city. It is also not the first or primary way in which to approach the challenges that we have. A city administrator is a strategy. Strategies are important, but culture eats strategy for lunch, as they say.

The problems we have at city hall are related to organizational culture. They are about the way the organization and its people behave right now.

So, how do you deal with that? First, simply recognize it. Then define it and then devise ways to improve. Forbes had an article on changing organizational culture by Steve Denning in July 2011. It had a great little graphic that I’ll share with you here. Note that the things we’re seeing in the media lately come from the bottom of the Inspiration-Information-Intimidation tool box. That’s the “power tools” part, where we keep the threats, coercion and punishments. But there are a lot of management and leadership tools that we should be looking at first; vision, role modeling, learning and more. They are at the very top for a reason.


A few years back in a conversation with Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger about organizational culture in the county, I suggested that the county look at a tool that Wisconsin Public Service was using, the Denison Organizational Culture Survey.

Various factors are examined in four broad areas: Mission, Consistency, Adaptability and Involvement. The results map out organizational strengths and weaknesses, including comparisons with other organizations. They can be broken down to the department level and areas of focus for improvement can be readily identified. We did that in Marathon County and gained some valuable insight. More importantly, it shouldn’t be a one-time thing. By establishing a baseline, the organization can track its progress as it improves with subsequent surveys.

So here’s my free advice to the City of Wausau (and, as always, it’s worth every penny.)
1. Study your organizational culture with an objective tool.
2. Find and define the deficiencies.
3. Put together a plan to address the issues.
4. Measure your progress.

And if it is subsequently decided that a city administrator is needed to achieve excellence, then that is fine – but that doesn’t come first. Because altering the governance structure in the absence of an effective approach to dealing with the organization’s obvious cultural issues will do nothing but provide another person to point fingers at when failings persist.


2 Responses to “Fix organizational culture issues at Wausau’s City Hall first”

  1. Culture takes time to develop and mature. A change in culture also takes time.

    But the key to changing a culture is for those who benefit most from the current culture to “buy in”. Typically, this does not happen.

    When looking at culture shifts over the years in all shapes, matter and forms, the one of the key items needed is a change in the top layers.

    As a general rule, people seldom change. When people do change, it because of motivated self interest. There has to be either negative consequences to undesirable behavior or positive rewards for desirable behavior.

    Consequences or rewards appear to be tools not available in this case. So without that, the first thing that needs to happen for any type of change of culture to even have a small chance of success, is the removal of anyone or anything whom has embedded themselves in the current culture.

    In other words, clean house of the “old guard” needs to be step 1.

  2. Linda Lawrence Says:

    Jim: well-observed and definitely not over-stated. Check out the public library and how it now operates at the bottom of your
    leadership chart–over 40 people have left in the current director’s tenure having tired of intimidation, coercion, threats and punishment but the illustrious administrator who may purport to operate in the “Inspiration” module actually adds an “Ignore and Reward” module. Commissioners like to show up for meetings and enhance their public service resumes but, as we know, shall do nothing. Who, I ask, shall?

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