Recently, Colorado’s City of Lakewood was voted as the “best place to work” by its employees. In the eighth annual contest created by the Denver Business Journal, this year a public entity beat high-profile “mega employer” private organizations that offer employee incentives and perks, including trips to tropical paradises.

It’s rare for a public entity, anywhere, to win a contest like this–especially in a tough economy where many cities and states across the United States are cutting hours and implementing involuntary furloughs in an effort to deal with reduced incomes.

I spoke with the City of Lakewood’s City Manager, Kathy Hodgson, to find out what was behind their win. What I heard were crisp, concise comments that should be used by anyone in a leadership role in any organization:

1. Provide the opportunity for growth–Hodgson started working with Lakewood as a lifeguard about 30 years ago. Over that time, she’s moved into ever-more demanding roles and up the career ladder. She attained the top job about one and a half years ago.

Her strong belief is that it’s important for any employee to know that he or she can make a long-term career decision with an employer–particularly in today’s environment.

  • Takeaway: When we believe we are in for the long haul, we’re more likely to do what’s right for the entire organization.

2. Build for the future–People planning goes “top down” as well. The city tries to identify its future leaders and then gives them new challenges to grow. Succession planning is done thoughtfully on a regular basis. Many organizations will say they do this of course. But these days I don’t often hear much about long-term planning when speaking to organization leaders or HR execs.

  • Takeaway: Succession planning can serve to encourage the best to stick around without fear that “the good jobs get filled by outsiders.”  It also identifies opportunities to build new skills for future leaders, ensuring they are prepared for the next step.

3. Engagement and creative problem solving--Using an organization’s talent pool to develop the best solutions at the right cost is often preached by leadership gurus, but it’s rarely done.

But Lakewood seems to have it figured it out for the real world: City Manager Hodgson shared many examples with me involving collaboration in the accounting areas and ways in which the City Police work with other police departments to keep costs low while actually improving levels of service for citizens.

One example was about a street employee who, unsure he had the best bid possible, continued to have a paving job rebid until he felt the city was really getting the best cost and quality equation.

  • Takeaway: Encourage your teams to work as part of a bigger whole and then celebrate their successes. Stories like this can become like a kind of organizational folklore. Others hear and want to do the same good stuff. A circle of success ensures.

4. Anticipate problems--With an eye on the future, Lakewood has been able to stay within budget during a time that other cities, businesses, and organizations crashed into the red as a result of this tough economy.

The city was smart enough to create a “rainy day fund” before it was even needed. Of even greater interest to me was that they haven’t had to draw into that fund because they’ve made running changes to standard operating practices during this period.

  • Takeaway: Everywhere you look, across all fields, because many leaders failed to plan for a demanding economy, programs have been cut, service levels have been reduced, and morale has plummeted in a lot of them. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When speaking with Hodgson, it quickly becomes clear that she is a leader who cares deeply about the people she works with. She does not take personal credit for the City’s accomplishments, preferring to talk about others in the various departments and their contributions. That style, always seeing the greatness in others while minimizing her own contribution, reminds me of some of the finest leaders and executives I’ve worked with in the past.

I expect the City of Lakewood to continue to do well in these “best of” contests and–more importantly–in the real world.

Here’s to your success.


Leadership Coach