Listen and learn from the best in local government

At LeaderGov we want to equip you to lead well.   These enlightening podcasts, from top local government leaders, will help you gain valuable insights into a variety of leadership, management and teamwork topics, so you can lead better. 

You can also listen to LeaderGov Podcasts via Apple, Google Podcast or Spotify


We are glad that you are with us today on the LeaderGov podcast. My name is Bill Stark, and I'm one of the cofounders of LeaderGov along with my partner, Tim Fenbert. And we have a great passion for helping local government agencies and those related to local government thrive and flourish and become whole and complete in the way we deal with each other. And in the way we get results for our constituents for our either for our staffs, within the cities and counties we serve, or to the public. And so it's our privilege, our honor to provide these podcasts to you we have a great speaker today, a guest Deke Copenhaver. And Deke is the former mayor of Augusta, Georgia. And I'll share just a bit of his bio in just a moment, and then we'll dig into some questions. Today's topic is about communication. As a leader, how should I how do I need to be communicating to constituents, to staff to subordinates to my peers, so that we can be effective and get things done? So deep? It's really great to have you with us today. Thank you so much for being with us. Well, Bill,

thank you so much for having me.

Yeah, yeah, I'll just read a bit of your bio here to bring everybody up to speed on who you are. 2005 to 2014, you were a tremendous catalyst for helping really transform Augusta, attracting businesses and spurring economic development there in the community. Amid some challenges and setbacks, we all know how that works in local government, tragedy and strife. indique really never lost hope. Instead, he's always been inspired to serve. Since the grassroot days of his campaign of hope and change to currently serving as the principal of Koppenhaver consulting. Deca remains committed to being a change maker, while helping others realize the potential they have to be leaders in their community and their lives. You've got a great background, I'll let you share a bit more of that. But I know you're an athlete, and a writer, and you've got a family and that you really about I think at the heart date, from what I know about your heart about caring for others, and developing others so they can be their best. And we're really just so pleased that you're with us today. And anything else you would share on your background, or we'll do today real quickly. We'd love love, love for you to share.

You know, I do executive coaching, I do keynote speaking, still writing. There are a lot of I have a podcast myself, the change maker podcast wrote a best selling book, the changemakers art of building better leaders. So I'm tell people, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do when I grow up.

That's good. Yeah, well, hey, thank you for being with us. And you know, give it us some insights. I know in your career, both your you know, non government life as well as your time in local government. You've learned a lot about communication, and this, this need to communicate well. And there's some things we need to do as leaders and just just, you know, for our for our listeners, we've got folks listening to this podcast, that are frontline supervisors and public works. We've got folks that are city and county manager, we have elected officials. We have Department of Finance Directors, you know, police chiefs, a whole assortment of local government. Folks, listen to the podcast. And I would just say for all of them, this topic of effective communication, and this is one of our workshops and our seven workshops. It is one of those golden threads that just goes through everything. And so we're really excited to touch on this today. Deca had some questions, I wanted to ask you to get your get you to comment and maybe share some of your experiences of local government. So just we'll just jump in, you know, Deke as, as leaders, you know, how should we be communicating, you know, to our teams, to our constituents? Because we're in this local government environment, right. There's a lot of scrutiny. And even beyond that, we're just we're on teams together. Like how, from your perspective, what are some of the the keys to successful communication, particularly in local government?

And transparency is definitely key. You know, I had an open door policy when I was in office, I didn't hide from the press or my elected colleague and just or, you know, or the constituents, anybody knew that if I was not in a meeting, you could come in my office last week, whatever you like. I think that's important. One of the keys that I found, though, too, is consistency. So whatever I communicated directly with my elected colleagues, I made sure to do it in a memory memorandum, that each of them got the same information. So it was not taught to say one thing to one person to another to another person. It's just that consistency is extremely important as well. But just making yourself available, constantly engaged at the grassroots level. And that way, you can keep your finger on the pulse of your community. But I think what I see a trap some elected officials or city employees fall into is if you get siloed, and you're not out there, you know, with the people you serve. And that can kind of be a dangerous position to be in.

Yeah. Yeah, I like what you're saying. And we, I know that there's some folks listening who are maybe still in the habit of being in those silos, right? It, we grow up with it, we sort of get sucked into it. And all of a sudden, you look up and you're in a silo not communicating? Well, what have you seen as some of the will maybe focus on the negative for a minute, what have you seen as some of the negative consequences of not being transparent of not being available not being consistent?

Well, it's interesting, I was speaking to a Master's of Public Administration class, recently at Augusta University. And there was a young man in the class that was a camera ran for a local TV station when I was in office. And he said, when when you were in office, we could come to your office any day, and walk right in and ask questions. He said, But the current administration never made it past the lock. And he said, Why was transparency so important to us, because if even if you've got nothing to hide, if you start limiting access to the press, and the public, it gives the appearance that you do. So transparency really builds trust with your constituents, I was transparent with our city employees. But that transparency and consistency really builds trust. And in any organization, particularly local government, trust is of the utmost importance.

Yeah, you know, here's here's the trap, though that we we witness a lot, and we're a victim of it as well, maybe it's a universal trap, is that we get so busy in our work. And we call it you know, it's the grind, we're in the weeds, its management, its day to day. And, and we should be about doing our work, right? But but we just get so trapped in it. We never like rise up and look around at 30,000 foot, we never sort of get out of our silos you call it and I just wonder if you would just speak to that this this, this trap. That is a dangerous trap for people. What's your perspective on

it is easy to fall into that situation? I will say because most people unless you've never worked in local government, mental environment, people don't understand I mean, your typical job, it's not, you're putting out fires every single day. And so it's it's hard to stay focused on the big picture. But but you need to maintain that focus as difficult as it may be at times, because I understand, you know, you never know what you're gonna get when you go to work every day. And that's unusual. Most jobs, I don't think are like that. So I have the utmost respect for people that serve their local communities at the local governmental level. But you need to remind yourself to lift up and get out of that silo and look at the big picture and tell you one danger that I saw with elected officials. And I think it may be the case with city staff too. Is that to be distracted by the vocal minority. You know, people will look at websites or whatever and see the comments. And they sometimes think that the vocal minority is really, you know, basically the mindset of the community as a whole. And generally, that's not the situation, you know, the majority of the people on any given issue you don't hear from, you know, it's that vocal minority that want to call and get your ear but I've shared with people don't make a decision based don't let the critics and the cynics drive the debate. There's a place for them. But don't be can don't think that that's prevailing public opinion, because most times it's not.

Yeah, I want to go back to this topic you mentioned of transparency. Again, I think that maybe not the younger generation, perhaps, but certainly the older generation is my experience. that we hold tight to our failures. We don't let them out if I dropped the ball, I'll just not talk about it. Right. But but being transparent in your communication, you're actually suggesting here date that we kind of share some of our failures and where we dropped the ball and, and that that somehow builds trust. Can you Can you just elaborate on that? Because it's not our tendency to share our failures, right?

No, but but that's the thing to me is, as a local governmental official, or staff member, you live in a fishbowl. And if you make a mistake, you know, it's gonna get out there. So it's better to own up to it, because none of us are perfect. But But I think that's owning up your mistakes, because we all make them I made, you know, I was better for nine years, there were not every decision I made was probably the best decision, but I would own up to that. And I think that connects you with people too. And it goes back to the transparency, they people understand mistakes, but when you hide them, and you know, they're gonna come out, that's when you have a problem, because you're gonna get blindsided. And if you're not transparent, with your staff, you know, they're gonna get blindsided. And that that erodes the Trust for sure.

Yeah, yeah, I just Yeah, I again, encouragement to everybody listening to this podcast, this idea of transparency, this idea of consistency, I love the idea that you follow things up with something written, after you had some verbal conversations, breaking down silos. I wanted to shift gears just a bit and ask you about when we talked earlier, you mentioned this idea of, of sort of thinking through your communication, you know, being thoughtful, being accurate, and taking time to actually organize your thoughts. So you come across as, you know, having a sense of purpose. And so can you just speak to that, because I know that again, you're right, it is a fishbowl, and we want to take extra time, but sometimes we get we get in a hurry, and we don't?

Well, and that's the thing is, you know, my dad always told me to measure twice and cut once. And I know particularly with social media, you know, people want answers immediately, they're going to reach out to their elected officials, city staff members, you know, what's what's up with this issue. But if you haven't thoroughly researched it enough to say something that's that you can really, you know, have some knowledge of the situation, just to use something as a soundbite. That's never a good idea. And in the press is gonna bait you. I mean, they want you to react immediately. But I would share with members of the media when they come in my office, I'd ask them what's the question today? And if they asked me a question, I might want to look more into that because I don't know everything about that issue. It's better to measure twice and cut once and just don't react, you know, too quickly. Because it puts yourself puts yourself and your government and your colleagues and your employees in a bad situation.

Yeah, Deacon in one of our workshops, we do a lot of training around the DISC personality assessment. And the DS the dominant personalities in the eyes. Those we call influencers aren't big on details. And it's it's in our nature as a D or an R personality not to come with details and thoughtfulness. Sometimes we just kind of barge right in and, and get going. So I love this idea. This reminder, hey, we need to think things through we need to be thoughtful in our approach. Also, that this idea of of waiting to provide an answer, hey, you know what, I need a day to think about that. Can I get back to you? Out? what a what a simple idea, right?

Yeah. And it's, it's difficult to execute. But it but it is the better way I can guarantee you that it's, you know, when you make snap decisions, the law of unintended consequences kicks in almost immediately. And I've even for our listeners, I mean, I had a local reporter that came to ask me a question or an issue that I thought, you know, it was done. And he said, Well, it's not done. I said, No, once you're going to do is you're going to take my comment, and you're going to show it to somebody else and ask them to comment on my comment. And so you've started the story again, when you're just effectively beating a dead horse.

Yeah, well, I want to shift a little bit of the conversation again. I don't know what percentage but uh, I percent of the people that listen to this podcast our staff members of a city or county, we have elected officials that listen as well, of course. But but there's this connection between these two entities, you've got our staff, and you've got the elected officials. You've got City Council counselor, county commission meetings. And I'm just curious how can these two entities with different purposes this the commission electeds are about vision and strategy and the big goals and 10 year ideas? The staff has about execution? I get that? How can how can we utilize better communication techniques, principles, concepts, to build those bridges better? Because in some cities and counties, it's a rough ride right now, you know?

Well, and I think it all starts with mutual respect, and understanding of what people's roles are, you know, I would, I would oftentimes go to bat for our department heads and our city staff. And we had an engineering director that was getting his doctorate in engineering. And we didn't have anybody with an engineering degree on the county commission that were consolidated city county. But I would ask them, when they try to override him, I'd say, Look, do you have an engineering degree? And are you getting your doctorate in engineering? So I think it starts with a respect from the elected officials to the staff. And but that's, you know, admittedly, I would share with my elected counterparts, you know, we had one city attorney, and he was only down in the room with a law degree. And so I wouldn't say I'm gonna listen to the guy with a law degree. But I think you need to respect staff and support staff members, I think, too often, I've seen from the elected side, you know, department heads can get called to the carpet in front of the elected body. And I just don't think that contributes to a really functioning good working relationship with staff. So it starts with mutual respect, and understanding everybody's roles.

Yeah, want to go back to this word you used earlier related to communication, which is trust. And you kind of just touched on it there. Because if the staff lets the council or commission down, if they failed to get a project completed on time, over budget, whatever, then there's going to be some trust, it's the same question rights and trust, it might get eroded. But it's like, that's life that happens, right? I mean, you have incompetence, and then you have things that happen that you don't intend to happen. And I just wonder, when when the chips are down, when there is this sort of lack of trust between even staff members or staff and elected officials. You know, what, what sort of communication as a leader, how do I step up, and ensure that there's good communication when the trust level has been has been damaged? Well,

I think you'd go directly to the source. And it's not to what I see. And eroding trust at a local governmental level. It's not just here to Gaza. But when people start to play issues out in the media, if somebody makes a mistake, and you know, like, an elected official wants to take them to task and immediate, you know, it's better to go directly, don't play these things out in the media that just that erodes the trust, and erodes the trust of your constituents with local government. And for me, local government is where the rubber meets the road, if we're ever going to rebuild trust in government in general, it has to start at the local level, but you realize, once again, that people are watching and I will tell my life to counterparts I said, you know, I'm very involved in economic development, which is very competitive. And the more you know, don't think these companies aren't researching our city based on local media reports. So when you decide to play these things out in public, it's the world is watching and you just need to remember that

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it has such a wide ramifications yet again, we get caught up in this need to be right, our ego, our pride, whatever something kicks in, and, and we don't just go back to the source and say, Hey, can we sit down and talk about this? Because I think maybe that opens us up to scrutiny ourselves. Or maybe we're partially wrong, right? And so we don't want to don't want to open that box for some reason.

No, and but you know, I I understand that elected officials want to show that their constituents that they're addressing an issue, and I get that, but I think, you know, my dad taught me to be a gentleman. And so people to ask me, Why do you not raise cane with your elected colleagues, um, like my dad taught me to behave in a professional manner. And I'm not going to try to act like a typical politician, or what people perceive to be a tough decision, just to suit somebody else's idea of what I should be doing. I'm going to, I'm gonna treat everybody with dignity and respect. And I'm going to behave in a professional manner. Yeah,

yeah. So, so important that this topic. And I love, I love the way you phrased it, you know that this robust communication, effective communication does build these bridges of trust, I wanted to end with something that I know is near and dear to your heart. And that is racial unity. In having in the United States, you know, some, some local governments are predominantly white, 80 90%, white, some are maybe majority African American and other minorities. And I just would love for you to share for a minute, your heart, your desire, and maybe some things that you're doing or thinking about writing about to begin to bring healing to communities, and maybe some words of inspiration to folks that are listening about this important issue in our nation. And this is a little off script. This is no communication. But I know it's near and dear to your heart. And I wanted to get you to just share with it about briefly, you know.

So basically, when I was in office, I focused on three things I said, I'm going to keep it simple, stupid. I'm focused on economic development and job creation, running more effective government and healing the racial divide, because a house divided will never stand. But I was invited into African American churches regularly while I was campaigning in 2005, I ended up doing one to two a day, and it was heartwarming, because I was invited in. But what I heard continually was, will politicians come to these church services during election season, and then they don't come back. And I'm like, I wouldn't trust anybody that did that. So intentionally, I continued it and continued to go in the churches and into different parts of the community, and just did constant outreach. But it wasn't just the African American community. It was to the Indian community, the Asian community, you know, the Latino community, and who often felt like, you know, they didn't have any representation in local government. But it's that constant focus on outreach. But one of the things that we did that I'm most proud of is our Laney, Walker, Bethlehem redevelopment initiative. So we, we bonded, I believe it was $30 million to go into historically African American neighborhood in the city that had been the chamber. I mean, really, the center of commerce and that community, been disinvested, you know, just was blighted. So we were able to really become I mean, the city had to step in as the master developer and be the market maker, because there was no market in that area. So it has been it has flourished. It is. I mean, it's amazing to see what has happened in that neighborhood. But during the Martin Luther King for eight, one year, in the parade, went right by this neighborhood. And I had an older black gentleman say to me, he said, thank you for what you've done for our neighborhood. You know, we're so proud of this and everything, but it's intentional. And I think it's got to be heartfelt. I mean, if your heart's not into racial reconciliation, and you're just sort of dialing it in, it's not going to connect, and I had an elected official, tell me once after I get off this, he said, Well, I need your help in the black community. And I'm like, if if outreach as many years as you've been in office, if outreach to the African American community has not been a priority, you know, it doesn't matter if what I say it's, it's actions speak louder than words. But but it really, you know, economic development, job creation, more efficient government, and race relations. They're all part of the same coin. I mean, a healthy community and healthy neighborhoods throughout a community are a benefit to everybody. And so it's just we're all in it together.

Yeah, you know, I love the big, bold $30 million real redevelopment effort, a bold leadership idea and a community that that needs did it. And in addition to that, there are a lot of small things that we can do. We can we can reach out to the minority community and to say, How can I better serve you? What do you need that we're not doing for you very well. Pretty simple question from an elected official or staff member, you know what, it builds bridges, right? It does.

But here, again, grassroots engagement is so important for elected officials. And, you know, I went to the why every morning, I still do. And until people you know, if you're sitting in I mean, race relations or whatever, if you're, if you're sitting in the same room at the why you're on the same level with everybody else. And I'm like, inevitably politics come up. And if you're sitting around with a bunch of sweaty dudes, you're not up on a Dass, you know, you're connecting with the people, and they'll shoot you straight. But that that really constant effort to bridge build in the community is something that I'm passionate about, I'm still passionate about. I love helping local governments with that, because it is important. And I think here again, change starts at the local level. Yeah.

Yeah, I love what you said earlier, you made reference to this idea that we have much more in common than we don't have in common. And that's such a comforting idea. And it's true. As people as humans, you know, we have a lot in common. It was just the just the deep, just the desire to connect in that way.

Well, and that's, that's what I tell people I, Martin Luther King is a hero of mine. And, you know, seeking common ground, I'd say for a leader, sometimes, if you want to find common ground, you've got to become the common ground. But I was elected three times with an average of 64% of the vote. In a city that's majority African American, it was on every one of those. So for me, I said that's, that's showing Dr. King's dream is alive, because I was judged based on the content of my character and not the color of my skin.

Yeah, wow. Beautiful. I really want to encourage anyone that's listening, a city official, a leader in local government, elected or staff. If you if you want to engage deep in, you know, challenges, issues that you have consulting needs, elected official, community engagement, economic development type issues, please reach out to him. And I know he would love to love to chat with you and help in any way, what's the best way for folks to reach you, Deke,

my email is MI, M E at Deke Copenhaver, the EK UCOP and HIV You can Google me, I'm on LinkedIn, I'm on Instagram. Unfortunately, I think I'm the only decoding diver at least that I've ever met. So I'm very easy to find. But but, you know, I love helping local governments. And it's it's truly, I don't think the nation is as divided as we think it is. But it really the place to come together is at the grassroots level. And that starts with local governments.

Yeah, yeah. Thank you for that. And thank you for just some of these nuggets, you know, around communication, we talk about communication a lot, but it truly is a golden thread and for leaders, whether you're a supervisor, at the managing frontline employees all the way up to city county manager, elected official, taking the time to communicate accurately, thoughtfully, consistently, Trent in a transparent way. These are really, really just wonderful reminders for all of us today. And I know this is going to be a benefit to a lot of people. So thank you for being with us. The

well thank you for having me, not, people would ask me after I got that office, do you miss being in politics? And I said, well, the politics I don't necessarily miss but I got to work with great people, you know, staff members and department heads for nine years. Those are the people that I miss. So if God bless everybody listening that's in public service that's working for local governments, and just know you're greatly appreciate it. Yeah. Wow,

what a great word. What a great way a great way to to end this time together. Thank you again, and it's great to be with you and we want to say thank you to all of our listeners. If you have a topic that you want us to talk about in the future. Just let us know you can get me a [email protected]. In the meantime, hope you have a great day make it a great day