Book Excerpt: Straightforward By Pam Iorio

Editor's Note: This book excerpt from "Become A Person Of Substance,'' Chapter Two, "Straightforward: Ways To Live & Lead'' by former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
I entered elective politics in the 1980s and soon understood that my effectiveness came down to my ability to persuade three other county commissioners to see my point of view. Talking and making motions wasn't going to produce results if I couldn’t get others to second my motions. What to do? I learned that to be effective, I first had to listen and understand what motivated my fellow commissioners. Then, I had to figure out where we had common ground. With almost everyone, you probably hold some shared view. Finding that commonality and building on it leads to real partnerships.

As I became accustomed to almost daily presentations from staff members, constituents and consultants, I concluded that simple and short was better. To me, the mark of a valuable employee or consultant is the ability to describe both the problem and the proposed solution in about fifteen minutes.

I'll never forget attending a special workshop on wastewater sludge management. The lights dimmed and on came a consultant with a slide presentation. These were pre-PowerPoint days. In short order, most of the commissioners were asleep. I bent over to one of my still-awake colleagues and asked, "Is this a legitimate quorum if the majority is asleep?''

Every year, during my tenure as mayor, we asked department directors to summarize for the other senior staff what their achievable goals were for the coming year. In order to hear from all the department heads before the year was up, we limited each to their top three goals and a presentation no longer than five minutes. Even with those ground rules, most just couldn’t do it. Some went beyond three goals, some went way beyond five minutes, and some just couldn’t sum it all up.

Granted, this was an opportunity for the directors to demonstrate their areas of expertise. After all, the mayor was there, and how many opportunities do you get to really showcase your work? The more face time the better. Right?

For me, the opposite is true. The less said the better. People of substance find ways to make their point succinctly. Everyone will appreciate you more.

I learned the importance of communication skills when I was the Supervisor of Elections and trained nearly 4,000 poll workers. The poll workers run each precinct, greet each voter, and make sure the election is run correctly. Initially, we hired professional trainers to perform this important task. After the first election in which I served as supervisor, it became clear that the key to successful elections was well-trained poll workers, and that I needed to show them that I understood their challenges. Once I became a true authority on the election process and understood what the poll workers faced, I conducted the training classes myself.

My involvement in our training did more to produce smooth elections than anything we could have put in place. Teaching the poll workers directly helped us build a rapport, and on Election Day they knew how important it was to get certain procedures absolutely right. Each poll worker received the same information in the same manner, so all voters were treated equally in all precincts. Further, you build loyalty when the people working in the field see the person in charge immersed in the details of their work. There is no substitute for understanding your employees' problems and challenges.

After the 2000 presidential election debacle, in 2002 we moved from punch card technology to touch screen technology. The importance of strong and consistent training was further heightened. The machines were more complex and the procedures more technical than the punch cards had been. So much was at stake in this transition. I had been an advocate for election reform, including the move to touch screen, and didn’t want a poorly run election after the investment in improved technology. One night, I sat straight up in bed thinking -- "Three points! That’s it!''

The next morning I wrote down the three most important details I wanted the poll workers to remember. These were the top three items that, no matter what else happened on Election Day, had to get done. My staff put them in large letters on colored paper. During training sessions, I went through the entire poll worker manual and we practiced using the machines. At the end of the class, I handed each of them the colored sheet.

"You can make any mistake on Election Day except these three. Place this under your pillow at night and make sure you do these three things correctly,'' I instructed. Of course, they all had a good laugh and thought it was funny that I had distilled the entire election down to something so simple.

You can guess the outcome. Not a single poll worker made an error on any of these three things. When I visited precincts on Election Day, poll workers would proudly hold up the colored sheet and inform me they had done all three correctly.

The lesson: we often communicate too much information. Most people can absorb only a certain amount of material. Even when I hear a really good speaker and listen intently to every word, I can usually remember only two or three points when I recount the experience. Think through what you are trying to communicate and be sensitive to the fact that your audience can’t possibly absorb it all. A leader of substance has to find ways to make key points memorable.

Success in running a city is largely about communicating effectively. Not only do you have to transmit your strategic goals and ideas to your staff, heads of various departments, and council members, but you also have to communicate them to the community, which means getting your message across to people with all different levels of understanding. One day you might be talking to a small group of neighborhood leaders who want to make sure their issues are heard and resolved. The next day it is a group of businesspeople interested in global trade opportunities. By the end of the week, you may have made a dozen or more speeches or presentations and held smaller meetings with numerous groups. All of this adds up to the overall impression the community forms of your organization and leadership.

Pam Iorio, a former Tampa mayor and Hillsborough County elections supervisor, was first elected to public office at age 26 as the youngest Hillsborough County commisioner. She graduated from American University in Washington D.C. and earned a master's degree in history at the University of South Florida. For more information about her book and upcoming appearances, visit her website. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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