Squeak Loudly And Forget The Stick

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

I had an interesting conversation with a long-time recreation volunteer about “squeaky wheels,” and I thought readers might identify with it. It centers on the old adage: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Colleen, who has volunteered with our parks and recreation department since 1999, first wrote me a letter commenting that she and her family had lived in our city about a year, and could not find a totally accessible playground for their physically handicapped son, who used a walker. Our playgrounds met ADA standards, but she pointed out there were times when he could play on some parts of the playground, but couldn’t necessarily get to all the parts. She wondered why there couldn’t be a playground that was totally 100-percent accessible to all children, regardless of abilities.

Then she did something that impressed me and still does today. She said she appreciated the city’s playgrounds, and wasn’t expecting to have this project done for her. She was willing to help get one built. For the next four years she dedicated a large part of her life to organize a special committee, beat the bushes for donations, help select a contractor, and complete a dozen other tasks. The result: a $150,000 “All Children’s Playground” with a rubberized, poured-in-place surface and 100-percent accessibility. It is by far the most-used playground we have, and draws people from far and wide, handicapped or not.

Colleen and her husband are Wisconsin folks, as I am, Yankees in the heart of Georgia. They come from good stock, and are hard-working, tenacious and determined. But Colleen had, and still has, a quality that is rare in today’s “entitled” society. She didn’t merely bring an issue to our attention and expect someone else to deal with it for her. She jumped in feet first and became part of the solution. She took what could have been a negative and made it a positive.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

There are squeaky wheels, and then there are “nice” squeaky wheels.

My amended adage: “Squeaky wheels may get the grease, but nice squeaky wheels get the grease first, get the most grease, get the best grease, and generally get as much grease as they need, and then some.”

It’s really about the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would have them treat you.” As public administrators, we are all tasked with providing various services for a wide range of people, all with their own sense of how important their issue is. As hard as we may try to please everyone, it just isn’t humanly possible. Generally, for every decision we make that satisfies one group, at least one other group is unhappy. So we try to strike a balance, arbitrate issues, establish systems, set priorities, rate projects, and use a number of other management ploys to determine the most important, second most important, etc.

But life and public administration have a way of not fitting into these convenient management systems as neatly as some might like them to. Another adage, as long as I’m on this adage binge: “The best battle plan generally doesn’t survive intact upon first contact with the enemy.” In other words, if your plan lacks flexibility, it will frustrate the bejeebers out of you when it derails, and you have no fallback position.

These days we have a number of different forces working against a plan: reduced budgets, reduced staffs, and expectation levels that remain high even as budgets and staffing go lower. Elected officials sometimes make promises to the public before assuring that staff can carry out the task without letting another priority slip. People are generally more stressed these days, and sometimes their local public administrator is an easy target upon which to take out their frustrations.

What’s the point of this missive? When gems like Colleen come along, encourage them, reward them, and heap praise upon them because that encourages others to become involved.

All’s Well That Ends Well

In Colleen’s case, she has received recognition locally and state-wide, and she continues to contribute. She’s our eyes and ears in the playground world. If she sees something that needs doing, she calls me. I’ve had an early-morning discussion with my facilities manager, telling him that when Colleen calls, we respond ASAP unless there is another priority that involves blood or serious injury.

Why? Because I know she’s a nice squeaky wheel. She’ll call about an item, and if she sees nothing has been done within a week, she quietly calls back and asks about it. She doesn’t rant and rave; she just calls. If we have other alligators nipping at our posteriors, I tell her so and she thanks me. Then in a week or so, I’ll receive another quiet call or maybe a visit. She’s persistent, but it’s a respectful, cooperative and understanding persistence that gets my positive attention and action much quicker than hollering.

I told Colleen the other day how much I appreciate her for being a “nice squeaky wheel,” and our ensuing conversation has led to this column. If only all our customers were like her, life would be good. Do you have any stories about your favorite squeaky wheel? Contact PRB or me, and share them.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail dls@peachtree-city.org.