Shifting the Culture within a Municipal Government
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
City population: 565,000
Number of municipal employees: 5,800
Participants in the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program: 895
Albuquerque and its sister community, Rio Rancho, anchor one of the fastest-growing regions in the Southwest. The metro area’s population (916,528 residents in 2020) is diverse, with many Spanish speakers, English speakers, and Native American communities. The region’s largest employers include the U.S. Air Force, Sandia National Laboratories, Intel, medical facilities, and colleges. Real estate values are rising, and small businesses are booming.
In the early 2010s, Albuquerque—like many other American cities—set out to recruit entrepreneurs to help grow the local economy. By 2014, its leaders had created a 7-acre innovation district in the city center, and in 2015, Central New Mexico Community College added a student business accelerator and maker space.
One of the college’s business administration faculty members who was involved in these efforts, Tom Darling, perceived a unique opportunity. In addition to making itself more attractive for incoming entrepreneurs, Albuquerque could also offer portions of the college’s entrepreneurial mindset training program to a small group of city employees working behind the scenes to develop the innovation district.
This training, Darling theorized, would empower city employees to model entrepreneurial thinking and take a more proactive approach toward solving problems. In the long term, these employees could even transform the internal municipal culture. Municipal workers’ job descriptions had conditioned them to confine their thinking to comfortable but narrow lanes.
Darling went through the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative’s training to use their Ice House program on the campus level. But he believed strongly that its content would transfer to a local government setting. This was not an easy sell. Skeptics included ELI’s own founder and CEO, Gary Schoeniger—as he shared recently in this Entrepreneurial Mindset Project podcast where Darling appeared as a guest.
Darling’s rationale was simple. “In any organization, every department has problems to solve—which are actually opportunities to transform the culture,” he explained. “The Ice House model helps individuals understand their place in an organization and gives them the power to choose to make a difference.”
Importantly, even though the Ice House model encourages personal traits like persistence, reliability, and curiosity, it does not accentuate taking individual credit for the positive outcomes that one’s actions bring about. This distinction is important in a municipal setting, where employees have a sense of civic generosity and acknowledge that the mayor will ultimately get the credit when things go right—one more reason that Darling felt the Ice House model was a good fit.
The positive response to the initial 100-person training prompted Darling to join the city of Albuquerque’s Employee Learning Center full-time in 2016. Each year, the department averages 12,000 training records across various topics. These include the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program, an entirely optional course offered in either 4- or 8-week sessions.
The content is also embedded into supervisor training “so they see the employees’ perspective and learn to empower them,” Darling explained. “Because people leave the Entrepreneurial Mindset Program trainings inspired, we need to have managers who are open to that level of engagement.” And according to their supervisors, the 895 employees who have completed the program since 2015 are noticeably more engaged. As a result, they work smarter and harder, demonstrating increased productivity.
Over the years, Darling and his staff have adapted the program for various municipal roles. For example, both front-line workers and supervisors receive the same content. However, the supervisors’ training reminds them that they don’t have to do all the heavy lifting. They can empower their teams to share the weight.
IMPACTING MULTIPLE LEVELS:
For front-line workers, the program encourages taking more personal responsibility and focusing on the future, whatever their goals. Darling said the training department offers career coaching afterward. They help with everything from resume writing to enrollment in higher ed courses. They also check in on participants to see if they continued or completed the projects they started during the program or initiated others.
Front-line employees who want to advance their careers with the city can participate in the Pre-Management Development Program. Facilitators have also been infused with entrepreneurial mindset content. Those who complete it get credit for two years of supervisory experience. This can be a key differentiator on their resumes.
In addition to these individual-level outcomes, Darling said the city sees the ripples of a cultural shift. For example, entrepreneurial mindset terminology and approaches have permeated departments, spreading even among employees who have not yet gone through the programs.
These ripples make Darling optimistic that the process of adopting an entrepreneurial mindset is alive and well in Albuquerque. They support his vision “to transform the corporate culture of the city of Albuquerque workforce by empowering employees to fully engage in their work.”