Art Zuidema marks his first anniversary as
London city manager this August.
Collaborative leadership: An interview with Art Zuidema
~ Chris Morgan
London, ON - It's been just over a year since Art Zuidema was named London's city manager following the departure of former CAO Jeff Fielding.
Since officially taking charge last August, Zuidema - a teacher, lawyer and former director of corporate initiatives in Hamilton - has made an indelible mark at 300 Dufferin Ave, injecting his own a unique brand of leadership into the administrative machinations at city hall.
Recently, SCENE spoke with Zuidema about his first year in London, his plans for the administration of city hall, and the collaborative approach he has taken in dealing with the challenges he's already faced while on the job.
Offering early impressions of his term in the Forest City, Zuidema described the experience as "great". He said his opinion was based both on interactions with co-workers, and also the result of visiting with local residents and community groups.
"I've been out and about a lot, and warmly received everywhere" Zuidema said.
"I've got a great administration. We've got some wonderful people working here doing some really cutting-edge things, so it's all good," he said.
As one might expect, a city manager's responsibilities are considerable. But Zuidema's prior job as a municipal leader, coupled with his experience as a lawyer were good preparation for the demands of the position.
"It's a lifestyle; I'm used to working a lot because that's the nature of this sort of business," Zuidema admitted.
"I used to be a litigator, and you put in the hours that you need to. So suffice it to say, it's a bit of a seven-day-a-week job," he said.
"I do the best I can to have balance because I have a family. I'm not suggesting that I work an eight-hour day on every day of the weekend, but like other people in these positions, I'm checking email, catching up, and trying to keep things moving," he added.
Zuidema's guiding principal since coming to London has been to ensure that he's doing what he can to improve the functioning of the city's administration and services, ultimately leaving them better off than when he first arrived.
In order to accomplish these ends, Zuidema outlined several areas he focused on during his initial year as city manager. The first of the areas involved strengthening the administration itself by constituting two new organizational groupings.
"We have a new leadership team that was created when I came. We brought the last person on six weeks ago, but the other members have been working together since last August," Zuidema said.
"We've gone through the 'storming-norming' phase, and we're getting to that 'performing' range. We're at the place where we can tease and jostle a bit without getting offended, and I always think that's a good sign that the team is humming," he said.
"We've also created a new layer in the organization - the operations management team. We created that team because we realized - as a leadership team - that there was only so much that we can do," Zuidema continued.
"We realized that there were things at an operations level that we probably shouldn't be dealing with. So we thought that if we each appointed one person from our service areas, and they form this new team, that they can do a lot of work - preparation work, if you will - for us," he said.
"They can do the thorough 'deep dives' and then send the information back to us. It's actually quite interesting because it's not just 'top-down', from us to them, but it's going back and forth. They're saying, 'Hey, look at this' or, 'We think you should think about this', so that - to me - is a good sign."
The second area Zuidema focused on during his first year involved building partnerships in the community. It was an area where he was able to utilize a collaborative approach to foster new relationships between the city and important local organizations.
"One of the things in my view that we need to do as a city is collaborate more with other stakeholders in the community," Zuidema said.
"So we have been bringing in the senior leadership teams of these organization, something that's never been done here before," he said.
"We brought in the folks from London Health Sciences, the senior team from Western, the senior team from Fanshawe - all on different days. We've met with both school boards, we're meeting with the public health unit, the urban league and the London Development Institute," Zuidema continued.
"What we do is basically say, 'If we've got some things that we want to talk about together, that we're both involved in, can we move the agenda forward?'" So that approach been very positive," he added.
Another area Zuidema looked to make improvements involved engaging the public. One such initiative - which took place just prior to Zuidema's arrival - was the successful Build-a-Budget workshop, which allowed Londoners to participate in the mock creation of a municipal budget.
Along with an award-winning Report to the Community - which was presented online and summarized in a modest, easy-to-read pamphlet - these initiatives signalled that Zuidema and his team were on the right track when it came to attracting positive attention from both city residents and the wider world.
"The real win here is the Report to the Community that's online. We have had hits on that from over 90 countries. The exposure is phenomenal," Zuidema said.
"We worked with [London web designers] rtraction on the report; they forwarded the project to an IT think tank in the US, and won an award for it. So that was great," he added.
Lastly, Zuidema identified his working relationship with city council as one of key areas critical to not only his success as London's chief administrative officer, but to the success of the entire city organization, its staff and its leadership.
"It's relationship building as much as anything. I'm like the narrow part of the hourglass; the connection. On one side of the hourglass is city staff, on the other end of the hourglass is the council," Zuidema analogized.
"The mayor has said that we're pivoting from concentrating on low taxes to the economy and jobs. So clearly - on a go-forward basis - we're going to be asking, what can we do to create an environment where people out there are comfortable and confident that this is the place to invest, to do business, and to come and live," Zuidema said.
"In my view, an administration can only accomplish so much. But when we start to work in tandem and we're on the same track as council, then we can really start to achieve things. And when we start to collaborate with our community partners, then it is phenomenal what you can achieve," he said.
"They're small steps that you have to take, but ultimately, the results are expediential, and very positive," he added.