By all accounts, Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse is knowledgeable, hard-working and has good relationships with the seven city commissioners he serves. He advocated for pay raises for the city’s nearly 2,600 employees this year and kept the city’s budget in check despite soaring inflation.
However, in a bruising, nearly two-hour annual review this week, several of those commissioners openly questioned whether Sherrouse is visionary enough to continue overseeing the city’s operations and if he’s capable of loosening up a management style that was described as militaristic and authoritarian.
Sherrouse, 52, is a Lakeland native and former U.S. Marine. He spent four and a half years as assistant city manager and deputy city manager before being tapped for the city manager role in 2020. At the time of his hiring, several commissioners were unsure if the risk-averse, nose-to-the-grindstone administrator was ready to transition from behind the scenes to the spotlight.
This week’s review started ominously with commissioners asking what the process was for terminating a city manager’s contract.
Former Commissioner Don Selvage, whose human resources firm facilitated the performance evaluation, explained that Sherrouse’s contract automatically renews every year on Nov. 2, unless the commissioners give him notice at least six months in advance. That means commissioners would have to alert Sherrouse before May 2 if they wanted to end his contract next year.
Mayor Bill Mutz worked through the timeline: “So if in fact we were going to make a notice in April to terminate, that gives the city manager the ability to go through November to finish that contract and that work/employment, and for us to start that process as well. So there’s transition timing. That’s good.”
Sherrouse is Lakeland’s second-highest-paid employee after Lakeland Electric General Manager Mike Beckham. The city manager currently earns $219,383 a year.
Ratings lower this year
On a scale of 1 to 5, the commission’s combined evaluation of Sherrouse dropped from 4.1 last year to 3.7 this year. His 2023 ratings were the same or lower in every category except his relationships with commissioners.
The rating scale is:
- 1 – immediate improvement necessary
- 2 – below average performance
- 3 – average performance
- 4 – performance meets expectations
- 5 – performance exceeds expectations
The biggest decreases were in the areas of supervision/leadership and management style, which may have stemmed from complaints the commissioners said they heard from city employees and community stakeholders.
Mutz’s overall rating of Sherrouse dropped from 4.4 last year to 3.3 this year. Commissioner Sara McCarley, who cast the lone vote against hiring Sherrouse three years ago, downgraded her rating from 3.9 last year to 3.7 this year.
Overall, Commissioner Bill Read was Sherrouse’s biggest supporter, giving him a score of 4.6 — a slight increase from 4.4 last year. “If I have a problem with our city manager, I just go in there,” Read said.
Concerns about vision and management style
Commissioner Stephanie Madden, who was most critical of Sherrouse’s performance and scored him lowest, said she went back and rewatched the video of the meeting at which Sherrouse was chosen, and “my concerns on that day are the same as they are today.”
She gave him an average rating of 2.4 this year with 1’s for both supervision/leadership and stakeholder relations and 2’s for communications and management style.
Madden said there have been times in her experience as a small business owner when an employee wasn’t suited for a particular role. “We try to rearrange places on the bus and try to get people in the right spot and do everything possible to get them training and encouragement and support, because we’re a small family and a small business and the last thing we want to do is let people go. But I feel like I have to be very frank with you, because this is the only chance I have, and I’m not sure if other people have said these things to you.”
She went on to say that city employees have complained to her privately about Sherrouse’s management style using words like “micromanager” and “more control-oriented than team-oriented.” She said someone who was excited to do business with the city left a meeting “dispirited and joyless. He felt like our staff was more about the obstacles than the opportunities.” And stakeholders have told her they feel like Sherrouse uses “fear-based leadership.”
Madden said she didn’t think any of that was intentional. “I think that you’re a very strong personality and very decisive, and it comes across as ‘not up for negotiation,’ ‘not up for outside-the-box thinking,’” she said.
She listed several department heads who have left the city in recent years who she said were visionaries and encouraged innovation in their teams:
- “Gene Conrad, who got us NOAA and Amazon, FAA grants. He saw the airport for what it could be, not all the limitations and obstacles he had in front of him.”
- “Nicole Travis, ‘grit don’t quit’ … She got an express permitting line and Catalyst plan — pictures, partnering, dreaming. Built many of the brick-and-mortar projects that we see today, just in time before COVID hit.”
- “Joel Ivey … He saw the writing was on the wall for the global push to decrease emissions and endeavored to decommission our coal plant, which was not easy. He hired an emerging tech manager.”
By contrast, Madden said she hasn’t seen the same enthusiasm and excitement in city departments recently, possibly because newer managers haven’t felt as free to share ideas.
“Visionaries get us excited. They’re passionate. They point us to the future. … They look for and praise out-of-the-box solutions,” she said. “We need this kind of leadership. As one of the fastest growing areas in the country, we don’t have the answers solely looking around at our local peers or, even worse, the past.”
She recommended that there be a six-month followup review to consider renewal of Sherrouse’s contract before the deadline, and that he get executive coaching to work on leadership development. She also encouraged him to meet regularly with community organizations and the CEOs of large businesses in Lakeland.
“One person can’t make a team, but one person can break a team,” Madden said. With regard to her recommendations, she said they are “hopeful and helpful, but in my opinion, they’re pretty much mandates.”
‘We don’t know where our blind spots are’
Commissioner Chad McLeod fully supported the recommendations for coaching and a six-month followup and said he shares many of the same concerns as Madden.
“I think Shawn, if we were to get to a point — and I’m not saying we are — but if we got to a point as a commission where we decided to make a change, I think it would be around these three areas,” he said, listing management style, communication and stakeholder relations.
McLeod urged Sherrouse to delegate more responsibility to the deputy and assistant city managers and department heads so he can focus on big picture issues and relationship-building. “If you truly believe in the talent and expertise of our leadership … I want to know that you’re empowering them and allowing them the space and the freedom to lead and to make decisions.”
He encouraged Sherrouse to view coaching as a normal process, and not something borne out of the commissioners’ frustrations. “I think some of the best leaders have executive coaches because we don’t know where our blind spots are.”
McCarley said Sherrouse’s first year was dominated by the pandemic and for much of the second year, he was short an assistant city manager. However, those things are no longer factors.
She acknowledged that he does ask for feedback and questions, but said it often seems perfunctory rather than sincere. She pointed to the city’s most recent strategic planning retreat and said she was frustrated that there was such a “tight leash” on it, with the schedule dominated by staff presentations and little opportunity for commissioners to contribute ideas.
“I think highly of you, I think highly of your character. This is performance-based only and this is really about what is best for the city of Lakeland,” McCarley said. “I think we need to really be honest about ‘is this your seat on the bus?’ You know, is this where you belong? I know you love Lakeland. We all do, and we all want to be successful. But the challenges Lakeland is facing are big. … This is 36-plus months in and we should be in a good groove at this point.”
She encouraged Sherrouse to take advantage of the coaching.
“We have to think strategically, which we’re not doing,” she said. “For the next six months, from my perspective, this is kind of a make-or-break time frame. I need you to really focus on being honest and sort of seeing your blind spots, and if this is the path for you.”
Commissioner Mike Musick said leading and managing are two different things, and it is essential for leaders to delegate day-to-day duties so they have the time and space to innovate.
“I think we are all looking for a top-down leader who is not a micromanager, who can delegate well, and who can keep us informed of all those steps along the way. And I think if you can do that, those relationships can be mended or whatever needs to be fixed,” Musick said. But he cautioned, “Let’s not be back here again in a year. We need to settle our timetables. Mid-review, let’s see how you’re doing.”
A ‘reset button’
Mutz spoke last and offered some encouragement, but said coaching is “imperative.”
“We do this, not in the spirit of criticism. We do this in the spirit of support,” the mayor said. “There’s a reset button here now, because we do have a full staff in place. … I don’t know that it’s a critical make-or-break moment, but it’s certainly one that says let’s elevate this to ‘high concern’ for the purpose of your ultimate success, which is then Lakeland’s ultimate success. That’s the goal.”
Sherrouse thanked the commissioners for their candor and feedback, not just during the review session but in one-on-one meetings and discussions facilitated by Selvage.
He praised the city’s “incredible staff of public servants” and said they are Lakeland’s most valuable asset. He said he is proud of the increase in pay he secured for them this year and has been working to increase recognition opportunities.
“When I was applying for this job … there was a lot of concern about who really should have the vision — the city manager or the City Commission. And one of the things that I’ve always committed to is, I want to be able to implement the vision of the City Commission,” Sherrouse said. “But I do hear opportunities recently, and throughout this process, where I have an opportunity to affect some of my own visioning without crossing over what the vision of our elected leaders are. “
Sherrouse said he has already spoken with some executive coaches and is looking forward to selecting one.
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