Best of Series: Will We Be Remembered?

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

End of Summer “Best of Series” / Blog Originally Posted on June 4, 2012

Most people wonder at some point in time if their work is worth doing.  I think it is the human condition that we want our lives to have meaning.

Over the years, I have watched many of my colleagues retire or leave the City of Auburn Hills.  Many spent decades of their lives serving the community.  When they leave, there is often a party for these good people where their peers take a moment to celebrate them and say thank you.  Then, they are gone and with a slow fade they are forgotten.

Countless people have dedicated their lives to the City in the past and helped make it great, but citizens today will never know their contributions.  Observing this, I used to wonder if the sacrifices we were making as public servants was worth it.  Maybe, it should just be a job that pays the bills?  Perhaps, I shouldn’t get so emotionally invested in the work?

My perspective changed dramatically after the City of Auburn Hills sent me to LEAD leadership training at the University of Virginia in May 2007.  In a nutshell, the experience was a cumulation of a series of “ah-ha” moments where things became crystal clear for me on many levels.  Looking back, my time there literally changed the trajectory of my life.

As part of the training, we were strategically broken into groups of six and assigned to a mentor.  The allocation was based on our personality types, which was determined after taking the Myers-Briggs test.  We had a great mentor.  He bluntly explained that we would never excel as leaders of people until we get things straight with our own relationships, physical fitness, finances, and spirituality.  If we get a grip on that balance, our lives would have great meaning.  He looked us all in the eyes and challenged us to live a life of integrity. Oh, the power of words.  The right words said at the right time can be like rocket fuel.

During the week, one of the group members raised an interesting question about the meaning of our careers: “Will We Be Remembered?”  Wow, she asked what we all have contemplated at one time or another.  Our mentor just smiled and then explained the story of the lamplighter to us.

In the past, a lamplighter was a town employee who lit the street lights at night with a wick on a long pole.  At dawn, he would return to turn the lights off using the same pole.  Few people saw the lamplighter because his work was done when no one was around.  However, everyone saw the light he brought each night.  I will never forget how our mentor ended the session that day. He said, “It is your calling to bring the light.”  

The people who serve the City of Auburn Hills as employees and on volunteer boards know in one way or another that they are “lamplighters.”  I believe this explains why our community has been so successful.

Best of Series: Will We Be Remembered?

Best of Series: Little Big Town

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

End of Summer “Best of Series” / Blog Originally Posted on May 21, 2012

I often find that people are surprised when I tell them that the population of the City of Auburn Hills is 21,412 people.

The Mayor and Council Members Serving Up Treats at the City’s Annual Ice Cream Social

Their reaction is often … “Really!  Wow, I thought it was much bigger?”  I just smile and say, “Well, we’re kind of like a little big town.”

The City is 17.5 square miles in size, which is a little less than half the land area of a typical Michigan township.  It successfully merges the “polar opposite” and diverse cultures of a small town and a regional destination together like few places in the nation.

People assume our City has a larger population because it’s an employment center, college town, entertainment hub, and retail shopping mecca.  Our day-time population has been conservatively estimated by statisticians to triple to 65,000 people on typical days.  Anecdotally, we believe this number is often much higher on days when all our regional venues are operating on full cylinders.  Few municipalities our size face the logistical demands on services we experience.  That’s a lot of people coming to, hanging out, and leaving our small place – often all at the same time.

Chrysler Group Headquarters and Technical Center – Located in the Heart of the City of Auburn Hills

As a little background, the City is home to just under 10,000 residential units – about 50% of the units are owner-occupied homes and condos, with the other 50% being rental apartments and mobile homes.  The percentage of our housing stock as rental units is double the typical community in Southeast Michigan.  A large segment of our population choose to live in our community for only a short duration due to job assignments or financial reasons; while you will find an equal number of long-time residents who remember when we used to be Pontiac Township.

People are amazed that our entire population can fit into The Palace of Auburn Hills to watch a Justin Bieber concert.  The Chrysler Group Headquarters and Technical Center is big enough to house all the working age adults living in our town.  All of our residents could feasibly leave home at the same time, park, and shop at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets and associated retail shops.

The City of Auburn Hills is an amazing “hybrid” community – a small town and regional destination successfully coexisting and thriving together.  Kind of like a “little big town.” Few municipalities are like us, which makes us special.

Best of Series: Little Big Town

Best of Series: Can You Help Our Greatest Generation?

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

End of Summer “Best of Series” / Blog Originally Posted on April 6, 2012

Yesterday, as a member of the Auburn Hills Noon Optimist Club, I delivered lunch to a few residents in a senior housing complex on Squirrel Road.  The Optimists adopted a route in the City’s Meals on Wheels program and we rotate weeks delivering the meals.  I always enjoy doing it.  Mostly, I look forward to seeing Frank.

Frank always greets me with a smile.  Like a seasoned preacher, he says a quick blessing over me.  I conclude that Frank is a war veteran because he often wears his military medals pinned to his white undershirt.  Like many of the people who receive these meals, Frank is very grateful and appreciative of the volunteers’ efforts to assist his wife and himself.  Yesterday, before he shut the door, Frank said to me … “Thank you, Thank You, Good Man.  May the Lord Be With You and Your Family.  Happy Easter.”  When the door closed, I almost lost it.   He looked frail and weak.

Folks like Frank need our help.  The U.S. Census shows that the number of adults age 65 and older in the City of Auburn Hills increased by almost 40% over the past decade. Karen Adcock, Senior Services Director tells me all the time that we need to do more to honor and serve this growing segment of our community.  I plan to work harder with Karen and the Planning Commission to help improve affordable housing opportunities for our aging population and make sure their needs are considered in the planning of our community.

If you are looking for something you can do to help our seniors, I encourage you to visit the Volunteer Opportunity portion of the City’s website or call Alyssa Hawkins at (248) 370-9353.  There are many great opportunities for families, students, civic groups, churches, businesses, employees, and even retired folks to help our greatest generation.  Many of the tasks can be done in a short period of time or do not require any type of long-term commitment.  Any service, no matter how small, is so much appreciated by the recipients.

So, I encourage you to partner with the City of Auburn Hills to honor and serve our elders. I promise that you will not regret it.

Best of Series: Can You Help Our Greatest Generation?

Best of Series: Look for the Small Miracles

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

End of Summer “Best of Series” / Blog Originally Posted on April 1, 2012

A good friend recently explained to me his observations about life.  He stated that we look for big miracles, but they don’t really happen.  You do hear of amazing experiences, like a person who survives a devastating car crash without a scratch.  But, most good things that happen to people are small and really only mean something to those involved.  No one else cares.  The problem is that we often are too busy to notice these experiences.  People often miss out on the goodness of life because they fail to see these small miracles that happen around them all the time.  We just don’t think to look for them.

Four years ago today, a small miracle happened in my life.  On April 1, 2008, City Manager Pete Auger promoted me from City Planner to Director of Community Development.  It was an exciting thing because I was given the privilege to continue to grow in my profession at the City of Auburn Hills.  I started here in 1999 and my career was at a crossroads.  Pete was new to the City and did not know me very well, but gave me a shot at the job.  He took a flyer on me.  I am very grateful to him for the opportunity to serve the community.

At the time of my promotion, I went to visit my Dad in the hospital.  He was struggling with complications from diabetes, but was in great spirits.  When I walked into his room, he introduced me to the nurses and his doctor saying “This is my son. He is ‘The’ Director of Community Development for the City of Auburn Hills.  You know that Chrysler and the Detroit Pistons are in Auburn Hills.  He is a very important person there.”  I don’t think I ever saw him smile so much.  He was more excited about my promotion than me.

Dad and myself at graduation from Michigan State University (1994)

The nurses and his doctor stopped what they were doing and shook my hand, but you could tell that they could care less.  You can’t blame them; they deal with so many people during the course of a day.  But, this small thing meant so much to my Dad.

I am sure he realized at the time that he was dying.  My Mom had passed away when I was in college.  I am the youngest of three brothers, so I was his baby.  He knew that all the sacrifices he and my Mom had made were worth it; that his youngest boy was going to be OK.  Sadly for our family, he passed away a short time later.

I look back at the time and find myself very thankful for the fact that I could be a blessing to him.  Honoring the legacy of my Mom and Dad is something that pushes me to perform at a high level for the City of Auburn Hills.   My parents were Detroit Public School Teachers and their example shaped my decision at a young age to become a public servant.

So, I find the Auburn Hills Story and my story are intertwined.  We are growing up together one small experience at a time.  It is quite wonderful.

Best of Series: Look for the Small Miracles

Best of Series: I Miss Mark Brendanawicz

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

End of Summer “Best of Series” / Blog Originally Posted on March 5, 2012

I absolutely love the TV show Parks and Recreation, which is now in its 4th season on NBC.  It stars former Saturday Night Live performer Amy Poehler.   It’s an absurd “mockumentary” style sitcom about the inner workings of a fictional town called Pawnee.

The show is fun to watch.  Folks that work for local government, like me, don’t have many TV shows to call our own.   Medical professionals have House M.D. and Grey’s Anatomy.   Law enforcement officers have CSI and Bones.  Lawyers have The Firm and Law and Order.  Finally, we now have a show that we can relate to.

Mark Brendanawicz

I really miss City Planner Mark Brendanawicz, who was played by actor Paul Schneider.  The actor left the show last year to pursue a film career.  City Planner Mark was really cool, smart, and easy going.  They called him “The Fixer” because he knew the town’s history and how to get things done.

I found Mark so interesting because I could relate to him.   He left college optimistic about his career in urban planning and dreamed of saving the world.  However, his work at Pawnee involved boring technical issues, such as reviewing parking lot design.  As a result, he grew jaded with the profession.   The character’s storyline was designed to be a hidden warning for planners like myself.   It’s interesting how a crazy sitcom can send a message.

Mark Brendanawicz – Parks and Recreation TV Show

I never want to find myself disillusioned like City Planner Mark.   Luckily, I don’t think it is possible working for the City of Auburn Hills.

Check out this fun show.  It typically airs on Thursday’s at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.  I think you will like it.

Best of Series: I Miss Mark Brendanawicz

Mickey Mouse Operation

There’s a culture of service within the Walt Disney Company. It’s called “The Disney Way.”

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

We’re on a mission in Auburn Hills to reinvent government.  It’s based on “the ethic of reciprocity,” which is most commonly known as the Golden Rule.  Simply put, you should treat others as you wish to be treated. 

For example, if you have ever been to Walt Disney World, think back to your experiences there.  You were their guest and someone important.  At that place, there’s a culture of excellence and committment to customer service at every level.  So, why can’t the City of Auburn Hills be like that?

I have heard many people describe government workers as bureaucratic, lazy, uncaring, worthless, disengaged, and just in the way.  Even my closest family members still tell me stories about their negatives experiences with different levels of government, which would leave any reasonable person shaking their head.  It’s frustrating to hear, because my workplace is guilty by association.   So, when I get a chance to talk – I take a deep breath and begin telling the Auburn Hills Story to anyone who will listen.

Here’s the deal.  Providing customer service at the governmental level can be hard for many agencies.  Laws are passed, procedures are made, and workers are trained to follow those rules.  In many cases, employees get in trouble if they problem solve or enter into shades of gray.  People want to keep their jobs.  If they get “zapped” for using common sense, they become scared and bureaucratic.

The City of Auburn Hills is very unique for a variety of reasons.  In a nutshell, as staff, we are trusted to use common sense and do our jobs.  We are allowed to be public servants – not only to the customer, but to each other.  Yes, help people.

This trust allows us to produce “magical moments” that make our citizens proud and our community attractive for business investment.  Whether it’s free festivals and concerts, safe and clean parks and trails, police presence in our neighborhoods, plowing the streets of snow in a timely fashion, or expediting a building permit based on a customer’s time lines and not ours … we are driven to provide a superb experience and exceed expectations.  It’s the culture of serving here that gives us purpose.

The Auburn Hills DPS is considered one of the best departments of its kind in the State of Michigan. Their committment to excellence does not happen by accident. Citizens rave about their snow plow service.

How does it work?  There is an “internal compass” set by the leaders of this community. This enables us the ability to provide those who come in contact with us a unique experience – a competitive advantage – that’s not easily duplicated by other municipalities. City employees are intentional in that we remember that each of us “are” the City of Auburn Hills to every person we encounter inside and outside of the workplace.  We love this town and are proud to serve it, thus don’t want to let the community down.

So, we take great pride in being like a “Mickey Mouse Operation” and doing things “The Disney Way.”   Serving others is in our DNA and our organizational culture.  Like those who work at Walt Disney World, we are given permission “to dream beyond the boundaries of today.”  We are encouraged to grow, because mediocrity is not an option. Thank goodness!

Note:  Stay tuned as we provide a “Best of Series” every day next week while I am on vacation.  Since our blog readership has increased over the months, there is a chance some folks may not have read these entries yet. 

Also, if you are interested in learning more about management secrets of the Walt Disney Company and other successful organizations – check out a book called “The Disney Way” by Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson.  It’s an inspiring read.

Mickey Mouse Operation

A Different Type of School

Posted by – Steve Cohen, Director of Community Development

Yesterday, the Community Development Department had the opportunity to spend the day with the 5th class of Auburn Hills University (AHU).  We really enjoyed hanging with our colleagues and getting to know them better.

AHU class on the Detroit Pistons’ basketball court at The Palace of Auburn Hills

What is AHU?  Well, it’s a unique idea first introduced by City Manager Pete Auger in 2008.  Every year a small group of employees meet one day a month, for six months, to learn what each City Department does.  This year, Denise Asker, Executive Director of the Auburn Hills Chamber of Commerce joined the class.  Denise’s participation in the program is great as we are always looking for ways to collaborate with the Chamber to better the community.

This photo with Jeanetta Miller gives perspective just how tall NBA players are. The shower head in the Pistons locker room towers above her.

The AHU program is facilitated by Stephanie Carroll, Coordinator of Community Relations and Legislative Affairs.  I know, she has a very long title … we just call her Steph.

Our day was highlighted by exclusive tours of two iconic Auburn Hills landmarks:  The Palace of Auburn Hills and Chrysler Group LLC Headquarters and Technology Center.

Throughout our time with the AHU class, we explained what the Community Development Department does ranging from ensuring that multi-million dollar buildings are constructed safely to how we address people who use their lawns for parking.

The beauty of AHU is the interaction between co-workers.  In general, staff at the City of Auburn Hills operate in a variety of informal and formal teams that cross typical Department lines to provide services or solve challenges.  Although  creating teams may seem like common sense, we have found that this “platform” approach (similar to the auto industry) is highly unusual for a municipality.

By getting together in AHU, we build our organization by discussing what we do and learn from our co-workers how we all can collaborate and do things better.   As a group, we understand that we can’t stand still and must always innovate.   So, it was a good day of fellowship and learning for both the AHU class and our Department, which I am pretty sure was the intent of the program’s creator.

AHU class outside the Chrysler Group LLC’s Headquarters and Technical Center
A Different Type of School