Q&A: Sean Stegall on what it was like as Elgin's city manager
After 16 years of service to Elgin, City Manager Sean Stegall is saying goodbye to city hall. He'll be serving as town manager and CEO in Cary, North Carolina, starting next week.
Stegall, 43, was appointed city manager in 2009 after being hired as assistant city manager in 2000.
Here is an edited version of a conversation he had with the Daily Herald.
DH: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your 16 years with the city?
Stegall: Working with staff to help position them where their talent could be best utilized.
Q: How do you do that?
Stegall: By coaching, mentoring and having an understanding on how to structure positions and people where their strengths are maximized, and their areas of improvement are maximized.
Q: What is your biggest regret?
Stegall: Not working more with Elgin Area School District U-46 over the years. Due to (school district CEO) Tony Sanders' outreach to me and to the city, we have been talking about joint challenges - how our actions impact them and how their actions impact us. For example, when we approve a new development, it has an impact on the children, and how their facilities are used to benefit our neighborhoods.
Q: You are credited with making Elgin financially stable and helping it earn a AAA bond credit rating for five years. What's the key to that?
Stegall: Effective political leadership. In order to maintain a AAA bond rating, the city council has to proactively make difficult decisions to ensure the city's long-term financial health. In 2012 we took the necessary steps (i.e. less reliance on property taxes via revenue diversification), and it demonstrated to the bond rating agencies that we are responsible, proactive and have a willingness to do what is necessary to preserve the city's financial stability.
Q: What do you wish you'd known when you were appointed city manager in 2009?
Stegall: How emotionally taxing the job can be. When you're passionate about what you do, and when you invest in helping people resolve problems either individually or collectively, it requires all your attention and energy.
Q: You often talk about “good governance.” What's most important when serving residents?
Stegall: Empathy. It is the most important leadership skill in general. If a citizen is having an issue they want resolved, you have to, as a public servant, to the best of your ability, put yourself in their position to truly understand where they are coming from.
Q: What about managing employees - what's the most important thing?
Stegall: To show them you care about them personally and professionally.
Q: You really care about all of them?
Stegall: Obviously you get to know some better than others, but even when you don't know an employee intimately, you can still have an appreciation for their work and the difficulties of their job, and find ways to impart that to them. Part of supporting and caring is also accountability. It's still a business.
Q: You have said that the most difficult time for you was laying off employees in 2012. What did you learn from that?
Stegall: In that moment, you are having a significantly negative impact on their life and other people in their lives. It is a weight that anyone in that position should absolutely feel. Too often people try to see it as a necessary business function. While that may be necessary and while it may be business-related, it is also a very powerful human decision.
Q: What is Elgin's greatest asset?
Stegall: It has a true and legitimate claim to be an urban oasis in the middle of suburbia.
Q: What does that mean?
Stegall: That it offers something unique - a different experience for those who live and visit than what you typically find in the Chicago suburbs. When it comes to arts and culture and variety of housing, it's a city.
Q: Is there anything that worries you regarding Elgin's future?
Stegall: The state of Illinois, its current and likely ongoing fiscal problems, and the impact it will have on the city. I don't think there is any giant threat in Elgin that is unique to it. I worry about the lack of a continued leadership pipeline when it comes to the city council, but that's clearly not unique to Elgin.
Q: What advice would you give your successor, Rick Kozal?
Stegall: “Disappoint people at a rate they can absorb,” as I learned from Marty Linsky (co-author of “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading”). Any time you take a new position, there are a lot of people that support you and have high hopes for you. But you can never meet everyone's expectations, so you have to manage them from day one.