Leadership Corner – Mike New, City Manager, Newberry
• Relay Magazine: Do you remember leadership roles you had as a child?
Mike New: Absolutely. As a child I always gravitated toward leadership roles. I was heavily involved in sports and was quarterback on my teams. It was not because of my athletic prowess, because I possess very little athletic prowess, but it was because I like being involved in things at a higher level—I liked to think things through.
In school I took leadership roles, and was involved in Student Government; I was student Government President. It has been a lifelong style to gravitate towards leadership, but as I have gotten older, I have realized I don’t have to be the leader of everything. In fact, it’s been really important for me sometimes not to be the leader, and to learn from the people who are leading.
RM: So why do you think you gravitate toward that role? Is it a reluctance of others to lead, or is it a confidence in your ability to lead?
MN: I think it is a couple of things; I naturally have an internal desire to take things go from good, to better, to best. Even if I am just working on a project at home, I am always thinking of the most efficient way to be more productive. In that vein, if I am in a crowd and we are trying to accomplish something, I start thinking of the best way to accomplish the goal, and I can’t help but offer ideas. The next thing I know, I am trying to guide the process. I want to learn to yield to those who also have great ideas, especially where I am not an expert.
RM: You have a team, and some people are excelling while others are bringing up the rear. Have you thought about how to make the team stronger and get the most out of the people who are not performing at the top of the pack?
MN: I always seem to be thinking about how to make the team stronger. Some of my core beliefs are “building the unit.” I really like everyone to participate, and I try to set an example of a strong work ethic. We were taught in sports that, “You can’t control the level of God-given talent you have, but you can control your effort—and that is displayed in work ethic.” I think that being inclusive of people—letting them know that they are part of the team and an integral part of the equation, followed by showing them that they really are all valued, greatly helps. It picks up the team spirit and gives them a reason to want to strive to be better. I try to lead without directing by welcoming others input, and not make every idea “Mike’s idea.” I prefer to solicit ideas from the group and then I can be the orchestrator and set direction of how we want to perform. I can show them that this is the high-level of where we want to perform, and then ask the group, “now what are your suggestions and what do you bring to the table to get us there?”
RM: Were there early influences around you as a child that provided an image of a leader you wanted to emulate?
MN: My parents certainly had a big influence, but they often jokingly referred to me as the odd one in the family. I had great parents who weren’t heavily involved in leadership roles, but they recognized my strengths in leadership and encouraged it a lot. My Dad was more of a quiet individual and a silent supporter. But when he told his friends, “Mike can accomplish anything that he sets his mind to. He’s the most determined child I’ve ever been around,” that carried an incredible amount of weight.
Outside of my parents, I think that sports coaches taught me more than anything about leadership. Your school teachers are great, but I had a coach one time say, “what’s the name of your fifth grade teacher, Mike?” I thought about it, but couldn’t answer. Then he said, “now tell me who coached your little league baseball team?” I knew all of those coaches. He said, “People underestimate the importance of a coach in someone’s life, especially the good and effective coaches.” I have a lot of coaches that mentored me, and taught me about leadership principles in my early childhood.
RM: Do you have principles, or leadership expressions that you think of frequently?
MN: I like setting the bar as high as possible, and I believe in a “Commitment to Excellence.” It’s an Oakland Raiders theme, but I see it in other places. I really believe that you should try to do your very best every step of the way. In an organization like the City of Newberry, I try to develop a culture of excellence. I want every employee to come to work with a feeling that there is an expectation of their work, and it needs to excel because we’re making a difference in people’s lives. Those are two things that come to mind that are an overall guiding theme of what I think about leadership.
RM: I was listening to a speaker who made a comment about working with the Philadelphia Eagles, and found that their team wants to win, but their mindset is not focused on winning. They focus on excellence as an individual and as a team. They believe that if they focus on being their absolute best, everything will happen naturally. On the other hand, if they focus on winning, they’ll lose all that opportunity to be a team.
Is there a behavior as it relates to your team that you particularly don’t like to see or don’t tolerate when you see it?
MN: I struggle with people that need to be told what to do. I like to say, “This is the mission,” and encourage people to buy into the mission in their own way and contribute as best they can. It goes back to work ethic, and also my impatience for things that I don’t suffer with. In other words, I’m not a sickly person, so I tend to have very little patience for illness—which is a silly thing. I was born motivated, and I believe in working hard. I have very little patience for people that will just stand around and watch everybody else “do,” or just sit at their desk for four or six hours doing nothing when they complete one task, and you ask them “what are you doing?,” and they say “nobody told me what to do.” I have very little patience for people that don’t press and feel that sense of urgency at work.
RM: Is there something that you think makes the biggest difference between who ultimately succeeds and who fails?
MN: I haven’t really given that a lot of thought, but I think that those that succeed in accomplishing what needs to be done take ownership and take action. I think that those who don’t succeed tend to want to make excuses, blame the world, and let the world define their destiny. There’s a group of people that I notice suffer from paralysis by analysis, and I’ve really struggled with that as well. I’ve noticed it more as I get older, and as a parent. I look at kids that seem to struggle, and they have to learn to just take action. Taking the first step sounds simple, but it can be so hard. If you can’t find your way, take that one step—do something, and the next step will get easier.
I’ve often observed that people who can’t seem to accomplish a task—and frankly it’s true with me too—but, not knowing how to do something can really kill your progress. In other words, if you will take the time to show someone how to accomplish a task, then they never need that help again. I’ve learned that professionally in my own career, and it’s helped me gain confidence, and relate to younger people that are dealing with the same thing. I really struggle with the things I don’t know how to do, or how to get started. My philosophy is to lead others through a task one time, and allow them to gain that sense of security of, “oh, that wasn’t so bad, I can accomplish that.” Now that they have the confidence in solving the one thing that they didn’t know how to do, the next task that they face where they are unsure, their response will be, “well, I faced this before and I managed to get through it, so now I have the confidence to do it.” And they do.