Shyamal Ram, one of the two Taituarā Emerging Leaders of the Year in 2022, recently attended the International City/County Management Association or ICMA Conference in Ohio. He reports back on his experiences at the Conference as well as some observations about how local government works in Maryland where he was hosted at Gaithersburg City following the Conference.

Since the Covid times, I, just like many others, had not had an international trip for a while. The ICMA Conference was the perfect getaway. Together with Karen Thomas (Taituarā Chief Executive) and Sanchia Jacobs (Taituarā President), I was on my way to Ohio, USA. The 13.5-hour flight from Auckland to Houston was behind schedule and a slight delay during the security checks meant we were almost certain to miss our connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio. That was until we saw Usain Bolt in Sanchia. After a shorter flight, we checked into our hotel, and I could not wait to explore the city and the conference venue the next morning. Through the magic of time travel, we departed New Zealand on Thursday and checked in at our hotel on the same day.

While we were on the tram, I started a conversation with a couple sitting next to me. To my surprise, they knew about Waitomo District and had visited the breathtakingly beautiful Waitomo Caves, just three months earlier. This just goes to show how small the world truly is.

The next day, we met the full-of-life Jason Marris and decided to explore downtown Columbus on bicycles. In many of my conversations with locals, a subtle theme of changing racial dynamics stood out. Many shop fronts also highlighted the posters of “Black lives matter”. It was heart-warming to see the dialogue open.

Fast forward to the conference day, the full Kiwi contingent including Cameron McIntosh and Natasha Stubbing attended the opening ceremony. We were amongst over 4,000 local government leaders from around the world. After the International Committee meeting, I ran into an emerging leader from Ukraine. Bogdan Kelichavyi is the Mayor and City Manager of a city in Ukraine. We shared several stories, and I was quite moved when he described how he has to prepare bunkers with food and medical supplies for school students to evacuate to when the siren goes off.

The conference had hundreds of sessions and I had to shortlist the sessions to attend. All the keynote speakers were a must. It included topics such as The Power of Sustainovation; Self-Compassion - A Key to Resilience; Cracking the Code on Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Culture; The 3 Pillars of Community Mental Health: Residents, Employees and You; and Harnessing Your Power to Change. Several topics were covered during the conference, but the two themes were how to be an effective leader and how to be resilient in the current environment.

Several leadership techniques were covered but the overarching theme was - create an organisation with good chemistry and a family atmosphere; at the same time communicate often and empower staff by providing them with the freedom to run things and take risks. It is necessary to make mistakes and learn from them. Leaders should not seek perfection but rather seek balance, consistency, justice, passion, and a cause for humanity. This will provide additional purpose to your life. As leaders, we should be helpful without any expectations in return. That is true leadership.

There were many anecdotes on how poor communication is normally the main cause of issues in an organisation. A successful organisation needs a strong foundation of culture, strategy, and talent. Clear communication is the thread that binds it all. Respectful, meaningful, and direct communication leads to good governance. Effective communication leads to trust and trust leads to successful relationships.

Towards the end of the conference, I enjoyed the session hosted by renowned thought leader and artist, Betty Hart. She highlighted that the key to resilience is self-compassion. Love for yourself leads to compassion for others. Develop a genuine love for self, acknowledge your humanity, respond to the inner critic with affirmation, refill your cup and tell yourself that you do not need to be great at everything. Be stretchable and elastic, not brittle in the current atmosphere. With all the changes happening in local government space in New Zealand, rather than stressing about it, we should view them as opportunities.

After the conference, I went to Washington DC to visit Gaithersburg City in Maryland. Waitomo District Council encouraged me to foster relationships with local governments while I was there. The USA has over 8,000 local government organisations and to say the structure is complicated would be an understatement. Gaithersburg is the city (local government) with a population of 70,000 in the County of Montgomery, and the state is called Maryland. The chief executives are called city or town managers.

On the ground, local governments around the world face similar issues. Every autumn, the collection of piles of leaves appeared to be a big exercise. Gaithersburg City has an impressive collection of snow ploughs and large tanks of brine solution to manage snow in winter. While the medical services are managed by the County, the local government manages their own police department. Due to the number of fleet vehicles and plants, they have their own service station at the depot. Several strategic issues were discussed with the Director of Public Works and later we had site visits to some innovative projects that required cooperation from the federal and state government. Such discussions with our counterparts, albeit halfway across the globe, provide us with a different perspective on how similar jobs are managed differently.

The Deputy City Manager, Dennis Enslinger had also organised for me to attend the Wellness Day and meet his staff. They received free health evaluations, learnt about signs of stress, practiced mindfulness, and about filling their cup. Several local support organisations were assisting employees with items such as insurance. I finished the session over a vegan lunch while sharing stories with many others in the hall.

The whole conference, the USA local government experience, and listening to stories from around the world made me realise how fortunate we are in New Zealand. Sometimes we get so immersed in an issue that we lose perspective and so attending such conferences gives us an opportunity to reflect on the bigger issues in life. I am grateful for the opportunity the Emerging Leader of the Year Award has provided me.