2023 Annual Conference Erica Dhawan Keynote

Erica Dhawan challenged conference attendees and offered a lesson. She opened her keynote stating that being a local government leader "requires us not just to have our own knowledge, not just to be able to read body language and emotionally connect in a physical room. Every single day all of us must be able to connect with people across any distance, across any silo, across any in-person or digital channel to truly activate and engage our communities more than ever."

Then as an example of connecting and engaging, she had everyone stand up to learn two simple Bollywood dance moves. Similar to the experience many have had trying to lead any meeting, participation ranged from reluctant to enthusiastic. But the energy went up, and Dhawan had a captive audience to explain her four laws of connectional intelligence.

1. Value Visibly

"Respect people's time, inboxes, and schedules. Running great meetings with your teams and communities like a TV show host," Dhawan said. "Within the first three minutes, make sure everyone knows what success looks like, why you're all invited, how everyone can contribute to this meeting."

  • Do we feel our time is respected?
  • Do we feel like our best work is acknowledged and celebrated?
  • Do we feel comfortable voicing concerns?

2. Communicate Carefully

"In today's world, reading messages carefully is the new listening. Writing clearly is the new empathy," Dhawan said.

  • Do we feel there is a common understanding of priorities and next steps?
  • Do we have a clear understanding of which channels to use and when?
  • Do we have clear language and word choice to foster understanding?

3. Collaborate Confidently

"It's not about more connections, more emails, or more meetings. It's about thinking differently about the resources around us, asking different questions, engaging them in new ways," she said.

  • Do all of the appropriate stakeholders feel identified and aligned?
  • Do we feel that the correct people are informed?
  • And are they cascading the messages appropriately?
  • Do we feel there is consistency in communications across teams?

4. Trust Totally

"It's about giving others the benefit of the doubt. It's about creating courageous conversations and hybrid water cooler moments so anyone anywhere can contribute. Not just the same five people we walk down the hall to," Dhawan said.

  • Do we give each other the benefit of the doubt when facing uncertainty?
  • Do we show vulnerability?
  • Do we create moments for informal social connections?

Q/A with Erica Dhawan

Before the conference, we sat down with Dhawan to ask her a few questions to help frame her message for local government professionals.

1. In your book, Digital Body Language, you talk about building trust and empathy with others and communicating with clarity in an ever-changing world. How can local government leaders harness these messages in their digital community engagement efforts?

In today's fast-paced digital landscape, local government leaders must leverage the principles discussed in "Digital Body Language" to enhance their community engagement efforts. The book emphasizes building trust, empathy, and clear communication in an ever-changing world. Here's how local government leaders can apply these concepts:

  • Utilize Video Messages: Connect with citizens by using video messages. Video adds a personal touch and helps build trust and connections, even in the absence of physical proximity.
  • Embrace Hybrid Meetings: Transform traditional town halls and meetings into hybrid events that allow community members to participate virtually. This inclusivity fosters engagement and ensures everyone's voice is heard.
  • Leverage YouTube: Share recordings of community events and meetings on platforms like YouTube. This provides transparency and accessibility to information, reaching a broader audience. Use closed captioning for videos and online content to engage those with accessibility or language needs.
  • Engage on Social Media: Leverage social media platforms to communicate with citizens, address crisis situations, and build a sense of community. Respond promptly to inquiries and feedback to show responsiveness and care.

By applying these digital body language principles, local government leaders can foster trust, empathy, and clear communication in their digital community engagement efforts. This not only strengthens their connection with citizens but also enhances the overall effectiveness of their governance in the modern digital age.

2. Your term "connectional intelligence" seems very applicable to the work of local government managers. What are one or two principles of connectional intelligence that the ICMA audience can apply as both leaders within their organizations and in their communities?

In today's rapidly evolving world, the concept of 'connectional intelligence' is more relevant than ever for city and county managers. Two essential principles they can apply as leaders within their organizations and in their communities are:

Shift from Quantity to Quality: It's no longer just about accumulating numerous connections on social media platforms. Effective leaders should focus on nurturing and leveraging high-quality networks to achieve significant outcomes. These networks can include collaborations with citizens, data scientists, and community nonprofits, as demonstrated in the context of crisis management. By prioritizing the depth and effectiveness of connections, city and county managers can harness collective expertise and resources for the greater good.

Adaptability and Empowerment: As connectional intelligence emphasizes, effective leaders should be adaptable in leveraging various channels and platforms for community engagement. They should empower citizens and community organizations to take an active role in problem-solving and decision-making processes. In crisis situations, this means recognizing that solutions can come from a diverse range of sources beyond traditional government structures. Encouraging citizen participation, data-driven insights, and nonprofit contributions can lead to more agile and effective responses to challenges.

By embracing these principles, city and county managers can elevate their leadership and bring about transformative change in their organizations and communities.

3. You’ve said, “Work is too complicated. Innovation is too slow.” Can you talk a bit about this and how it might be interpreted through a local government lens?

The statements 'Work is too complicated. Innovation is too slow.' resonates profoundly in the context of local government. Innovation in the public sector often faces hurdles stemming from complexity and bureaucracy, which hinder progress. Here's how this perspective can be interpreted through a local government lens:

Navigating Complexity: Local governments deal with multifaceted challenges involving various stakeholders, funding sources, legal requirements, and strategic objectives. Innovation efforts can be stymied by these intricate ecosystems, causing promising ideas to stall.

Governance and Decision-Making: To drive innovation successfully, local governments should prioritize governance structures that streamline decision-making, allocate resources effectively, and track progress. This helps prevent duplication of efforts and ensures a coherent approach to innovation.

Senior-Level Support: Innovative initiatives require strong senior-level support. Leaders must champion innovation efforts and provide the necessary resources and exemptions to encourage risk-taking. This includes fostering an environment where 'coalitions of the willing' can work collaboratively and expedite the implementation of innovative solutions.

In summary, local governments should recognize that innovation is not solely about generating ideas but also about navigating the complexities of implementation. Effective governance, senior-level commitment, and a willingness to take calculated risks are essential for driving innovation at a pace that aligns with the demands of our rapidly changing world.

4. Do you have any advice for the next generation of local government leaders just now entering the workforce and beginning their career?

Certainly, focusing on collaboration, here's advice for the next generation of local government leaders:

  1. Embrace Collaboration: Prioritize building strong relationships with colleagues, community organizations, and citizens. Collaborative efforts lead to innovative solutions.
  2. Develop Communication Skills: Effective communication in person and virtually is key to collaboration. Work on clear and concise communication to convey ideas and understand others' needs.
  3. Foster Adaptability: Be open to new ideas and flexible in your approach as government often faces unexpected challenges.
  4. Prioritize Ethical Leadership: Uphold high ethical standards, including transparency, integrity, and accountability, to build trust in your collaborations.
  5. Take Initiative: Identify opportunities to lead collaborative projects or propose innovative solutions that benefit your community.
  6. By prioritizing collaboration in your work, you can build effective partnerships and contribute to the betterment of your local government and community.

5. How do you have fun with your audiences?

Beyond sharing my content, I love to engage them through a fun activity during my keynote–usually using the power of Bollywood dance, which is one of my personal passions! It's a fantastic way to break the ice, create a lively and energetic atmosphere, and connect with the audience on a more personal level. The joy and enthusiasm that come from dancing together can be a memorable and unique experience for both me and the audience.

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Continued Learning

The 2023 ICMA Annual Conference is an opportunity to share success and knowledge with your local government peers. All conference attendees receive the complimentary on-demand access to conference content. Login credentials will be sent after the conclusion of the conference. Didn’t have the opportunity to attend, but want to provide actionable insights to your staff? Get on-demand access to over 150 dynamic educations sessions from this year’s conference.

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