Darin Atteberry: Informed Optimist
Updated: Dec 11, 2018
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Darin Atteberry is City Manager for the City of Fort Collins, CO, a role he’s held since 2004. Over a year, in casual conversations with almost a hundred people in northern Colorado, I’ve asked them to name two local people they identify as great leaders. Darin was cited more than any other person, with what I could only describe as a “likability” quality that suggested a high level of emotional intelligence and relational agility. He agreed to meet, and we talked on February 22, 2018 for a wide-ranging discussion about leadership. Highlights from our conversation below.
What makes a good leader?
It’s being aspirational and being in touch.
Knowing people. Knowing what’s important to people. I want to know what’s important to you. Going from an Assistant City Manager to City Manager, I didn’t change at all, or so I thought, but I suddenly felt really detached from the organization. I was feeling that people wanted to get to know me and I wanted to know them, so we started Talk It Up sessions to get to know each other.
A consistent aspirational message. I’m consistent in my message. And I’m not messaging “average.” And I’m also not messaging Pollyannaish. I’m messaging aspirational thinking. I call myself an informed optimist. Not a naive optimist, an informed optimist.
And I’ve evolved, I’ve not been messaging the same thing for the last twenty-two years here.
Saying the hard things. [Leaders have to be careful about creating] a culture of niceness, when you’re too nice and not saying what you need to say. This will bog you down. It’s a great joy for me to be in a meeting and have others also ask the tough questions, to be ahead of me on these things.
On how his thoughts and ideas as a leader have changed over the years
Focus on getting the job done
When I got out of grad school, with a background in city planning and engineering, people would talk about strategic planning and visioning, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I was an individual contributor, and though a planner, didn’t have a great appreciation for the importance of organizational planning. Early on, it was really just, “get the job done,” without a strong appreciation for the role of vision and strategy and execution and systems thinking.
Part of it was my upbringing… growing up on my grandparents' dairy farm, hard work mattered a lot, treating people decently mattered a lot. Even with dairy cows, the better you treat them, the more milk they produce.
Focus on vision, systems, improvement
Now my thinking, due to exposure, has matured around the importance of goal setting, and having systems in place.
Now I see leadership as helping clarify the vision; aligning the resources to the vision (and, that means what you do and what you don’t do – stopping things matters just as much) ; and creating systems that ensure you’re deeply committed to continuous improvement.
And [leadership] is not just benchmarking against average; you see who’s doing spectacular work and go learn from those people.
Who or what inspires you?
My faith matters a lot to me, I’m married to my best friend, my kids have been amazing. Eating well and paying attention to my body. Outside of that, my uncle, my grandpa, my mom. My mother has an incredible disposition - so positive, encouraging.
The people who love Fort Collins. I’ve worked with 31 city council members and 5 mayors. They’re remarkable; this town elects really good people.
Being committed to learning. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. I’m a sponge. I have stacks of books that people have given me over the years. When I’m retired I’m going to read them all and then think, now I’m equipped. In everything in my life I want to get better – husband, father, neighbor, city manager. That’s what I bring to work.
The strength of the collective vs the individual. I used to think, just let me implement my ideas and all will be great. Now I realize, I may have good ideas, but so do others. The question is if we can play with those ideas and determine whether they have merit. I don’t need all my ideas to be implemented, but I do want people to play with them a little bit and then decide if they make sense, and add to them.
Strong teams who get along. I love seeing really strong teams. I like peace as well. I don’t avoid conflict, but I like when people are working together.
Loneliness in leadership
I think it’s real. In this position, everything matters. It’s constantly being on.
I can be out playing with my bees (I’m a beekeeper) or playing with my kids, and someone calls, and everything changes. For everything in the city you’re on alert. Not paranoid, but on alert. You have to have a strong superstructure, because [this kind of leadership)] carries a lot of weight.
A friend, Kathy Hutchinson, wife of a former mayor, drew a picture of an owl for me after her husband left office. She said what she realized was, after taking my calls for him (as mayor) for 16 years, that in my position, I needed to have 360 vision.
What makes Fort Collins special?
Fort Collins is a community that both plans and then builds the plan. A lot of communities will plan and not build the plan; they’ll put it on the shelf. Or they’ll not plan and they’ll just build and build and build.
What makes this place unique is that this town has historically spent a lot of time planning its future, and then it executes on that, and then every 10 years it asses its future again. So what we have is a city that’s 130 years old with impeccable history. We’ve inherited no corruption, a well-planned city, really strong leadership at the elected level and appointed level, and staff who are deeply dedicated, competent people.
Our vision is “World class municipal services through operational excellence and a culture of innovation.” And [we work] to prove it.
What are the differences between executive leadership in city government vs. private sector?
I have the privilege of talking with CEOs in the private sector and am constantly trying to look at where the similarities are and where the significant differences are. There’s a lot of overlap in the space between the board of directors of publicly traded companies and board of directors for cities. Also very significant differences.
In a publicly traded board, the quality of the individuals matter a lot. For instance, financial acumen, risk assessment are important skills. With a [city] board of directors, it’s who gets several thousand votes and wins the election. Rarely is it, “we need systems thinking in local government, we need strategy and vision and execution.” That’s not how people get elected to local office.
So I like to compare the two. Where we can learn from the private sector, we’re going to do that. Where there are principles and practices we can bring into our industry, that’s great. But I also recognize there’s some very big differences.
About his unique role
My role is not any better than anyone else’s. It’s just what you are uniquely suited for. My job is different than others, but no more important.