Natasha Stubbing, Marketing and Engagement Manager at Northland Regional Council, was a recipient of the Taituarā 2022 Emerging Leader Award. As part of her prize AskYourTeam sponsored her to attend the 2022 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Conference in the Ohio. In this article, Natasha reports on what she learned about leading for the future – with empathy, energy, equity, and a listening ear.

Former Chief Executive Malcolm Nicolson and Natasha Stubbing pictured holding the trophy.

First impressions are important – you only get one of them, and ICMA 2022 left a positive impression on me as well as memories to last a lifetime. Arriving at Ohio's Columbus International Airport, we were greeted by a team of welcoming volunteers keen to offer up a local delicacy, the ‘buck-eye’, and ensure we knew where to go and how to get there. As a local government employee, I opted to take public transport and was once again met with a welcoming face, with the bus driver offering a warm smile, outstanding customer service, and genuine interest in ensuring we had great start to our time in his city.

The same hospitality and excellent service continued at the hotel and conference registration. By this point, I was beginning to see common themes emerge from my ICMA experience - passion, pride, positivity, and people.

The other theme which comes to mind is 'extra'. The size and scale of the conference and the number of attendees and speakers was nothing like I’d ever experienced. There was a DJ, a live band to welcome keynote speakers on and off the stage, a puppy pen, relaxation zone, and so much more!

Besides the abundance of amazing food, giveaways, networking, functions, and socialising, my time at the ICMA conference was full of listening, learning and, most importantly, reflecting. There was an abundance of inspiring speakers and fellow attendees who challenged my thinking and way of leading.

One of the keynote speakers that stood out was DeDe Halfhill, a retired US Air Force Colonel, whose talk was titled ‘Leaders connect’. The main takeaway from her speech was that as leaders, we make a plethora of choices each and every day, and one of the most important choices is how we choose to communicate. Do we communicate to connect, command, or control? Connection is a choice.

At right: DeDe showing her vulnerability.

She also spoke about the struggles and roadblocks that can get in the way of leaders having 'real' conversations. DeDe stressed the need to provide 'space and grace' – to slow down, listen, and be more curious. She also encouraged leaders to show vulnerability, which is often the last thing we want to do, but the first thing people look for in a leader. If we can do this and get the balance right, we can ignite courage. As DeDe so rightly said “leadership is an ever-growing journey” and one we need to work on every single day.

Innovation also requires an investment in time, commitment, and effort. Like leadership, it is a journey which doesn’t happen overnight. Nick Kittle led a gamechanger session titled “The power of Sustainovation” – a thought-provoking session with some practical takeaways.

Now more than ever we want results yesterday, and to stand out by coming up with the latest and greatest idea. The reality is that not everything happens overnight. To be creative and find solutions to new challenges we must do things differently. We can’t turn on a creativity tap and expect it to flow. Like many people, I often have my best ideas in the shower or the middle of the night, yet I’ve fallen into the trap of organising an hour ‘brainstorming session’ at work on a Monday hoping to solve complex issues like increasing voter turnout.

As Nick said, creativity comes in waves, so we need to change our mindset and approach to generating ideas. Like moving from brainstorming towards brain dumping – a shift from convergent to divergent thinking.

At right: Natasha feeling stronger about the future.

Another takeaway from the conference was how, although we should strive to be forward thinking, our past can be our biggest asset – making us stronger, more resilient, and more determined to create a positive change for the future. This was highlighted by the energetic and inspiring closing keynote speaker Derreck Kayongo, a Ugandan refugee-turned-successful entrepreneur. Derek reminded us to see opportunities in problems, and that through simple observations, innovative ideas can create meaningful change and solve complex issues. When staying at a hotel Derek observed how much soap is available at hotels and how much is thrown away. From this simple observation he founded the Global Soap Project: a humanitarian aid organisation that collects discarded and unused soap from thousands of hotels worldwide, reprocesses it, then distributes it to in-need populations around the world, solving a global health issue.

He also talked about the importance of getting out into the community to learn and listen. Given the major challenges ahead for the local government sector it is important, now more than ever, for us to get out from behind our desks and to be present in the community to engage and listen.

Another takeaway from Derek’s closing address is that we should strive to be consistent. People trust consistency, so it’s especially important for leaders in the local government sector to be consistent. Our challenge working in the sector is how can we strive to be more consistent with our communities, if it is what they desire, when we are often constrained by multiple competing factors.

Besides the inspiring keynote and changemaker speakers, I also attended some in-depth workshops and received an ICMA Micro Certification after attending a full-day workshop on “Shaping the culture of your organisation”. One of the things I enjoyed most about the workshop and my conference experience was interacting and having a kōrero with people from a range of diverse backgrounds.

It was incredibly interesting, and at times sobering, to hear the experiences and issues facing local government professionals globally – none more so than the two attendees from Ukraine.

During my interactions and conversations with my local government peers, I often found myself on repeat, explaining the differences between the structure of local government in New Zealand, our roles, functions, and responsibilities and how different they are to other countries, especially the USA. Despite the many differences, the fundamentals remain the same. We all experience challenges in the work we do, but the reason we entered the profession and remain in local government is that we are passionate and driven to make a difference and to serve our communities.

Natasha and other attendees at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum

He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people it is people.

To best serve our communities we must start navigating future challenges today. We need to focus on building trust, helping unite communities, encouraging participation and action, allowing people to speak up and challenge what’s been done. How will we do this? Through allowing space, changing the pace at which we work, through seeking balance, focusing on wellness and resilience, listening, seeking different perspectives, and being vulnerable, brave, and bold!

Like the conference, I thought I’d close my reflection with a challenge from Derek Kayongo that I hope we can all seek to achieve as we lead and navigate the future - “Don’t seek perfection. Seek balance. Seek consistency. Seek justice. Seek passion. Seek a cause for humanity and your life shall have meaning”.

The Kiwi team members who attended the 2022 ICMA Conference.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and thank the sponsor of the 2022 Emerging Leader Award, AskYourTeam, for providing this incredible opportunity and for choosing to invest in the next generation of leaders. I’d also like to thank Taituarā and my employer Northland Regional Council for their support and assistance. 

Lastly, a shout out to the wonderful people who I shared this amazing experience with – it wouldn’t have been the same without each of you.