| 2014 Q3 | story by LIZ WESLANDER | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
It’s easy to believe in destiny when you look at the way life has unfolded for Diane Stoddard, Assistant City Manager for the City of Lawrence.
The Lawrence native has been in her current position since 2007, but Stoddard first set foot in city hall in 1987, when she was a junior at Lawrence High School. Stoddard was a member of the LHS Youth in Local Government club, a group that gives students a taste of local politics by assigning them to different local government bodies. Stoddard was assigned to the city commission, where she attended the weekly city commission meetings, sitting right at the dais with the commissioners. One of her strongest memories of this assignment was the opportunity to visit with Buford Watson, who was City Manager of Lawrence from 1970-1989.
“That was a great experience for me because I have always had an interest in politics and government,” Stoddard said. “But a lot of practical issues that came up in those meetings that had a lot to do with infrastructure and engineering.”
Stoddard’s father worked on staff at the University of Kansas for 40 years maintaining roads and utility systems, which gave Stoddard an appreciation for and familiarity with the technical aspects required to make a community run smoothly. This confluence of disciplines is something that drew Stoddard to city management.
“Cities are a great crossroads of the politics and government and history and also the infrastructure and engineering and how things are built,” Stoddard said. “At this level of government, you really get to see everything happen from the ground up.”
Following her high school experience in local government, Stoddard studied politics at KU, and went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. She then worked for City of Ottawa and the City of Manhattan. Stoddard said it was during her 10-year stint in Manhattan that she realized how much she enjoys the mixture of excitement and predictability that comes with working in a university community.
“University communities are very vibrant and ever-changing, but also cyclical,” Stoddard said. “The athletic, the arts, the academics, these all create unique opportunities for people living in community and create unique opportunities for city management to work with the university to make a community better.”
The opportunity to take the assistant city manager position in Lawrence in 2007 was a fortunate merging of her personal and professional life, relates Stoddard.
“I had wanted to return to community that is my hometown. My family is here and this was an opportunity to be closer to them,” Stoddard said. “All the tracks merged and the time was right. It just sort of worked out that way.”
As the name suggests, the primary role of the assistant city manager position is to help Lawrence City Manager, Dave Corliss, with the many varied projects involved in city administration. Lawrence has two assistant city managers; the other is Casey Toomay. Stoddard said that while the city manager has to know a little bit about everything that happens in the city, he relies on his assistant staff to understand the details of projects that will carry them to fruition.
“I see myself primarily as a behind-the-scenes person,” Stoddard said. “I take my cues and direction from my boss, who is the city manager, who takes his cues from our elected officials. My job, really, is to help make their priorities happen. I tend to be in more of a position of silent leadership, which is a role I’m very comfortable in.”
Davis Corliss describes Diane as a strong professional who works hard to successfully handle a number of varying tasks. He also noted her ability to work with effectively work with various stakeholders on projects to find workable solutions to challenges.
“She not only helps me get my job done, she does a number of wonderful things for the city commission and for the community,” said Corliss. “Whether big or small, Diane gets the job done. She is a very important part of the community’s success.”
Although assistant city managers are responsible for handling details, the scope of their job is quite broad. The variety of projects Stoddard is involved in means that each day looks a little different for her. For instance, she spends a lot of days collaborating with the city economic development coordinator, Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and Douglas County to help retain existing businesses in the city. This involves getting out into the community to visit local businesses, which Stoddard says she finds particularly interesting.
“Often times we get a tour; we get to hear about what the business is doing. We learn what issues they are facing and what we can do to help them,” Stoddard said. “It gives me a strong foundation of knowledge on all the different economies and synergies that we have going on in the community.”
Stoddard is also the city staff liaison to the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission, and recently helped secure a grant that will fund a city-wide cultural plan for Lawrence, which includes a new director of arts and cultural position. She has worked closely with the Depot Redux community group to help acquire the local Santa Fe railroad station and secure a federal grant to preserve the station. Stoddard also helped facilitate a collaboration that coordinated the city and university public transit services, such as the “T” and KU on Wheels, so that they better serve students, university staff and the Lawrence community.
“There is really no typical day. It’s one of the things I like about the job,” Stoddard said. “There is a lot of variation from year to year in terms of what may be the focus of the city. There are things that I may get involved with and then they are done, and we move on to the next one. But in the midst of those changing things that occur, there is a cycle to local to government that is very helpful.”
Stoddard said that she often stays in the office during lunch, and it is not unusual for her to work 12-to-14 hour days on the Tuesdays when the city commission meets. She said she enjoys staying organized and getting things done, two qualities that help do her job effectively.
“I like talking about strategy, and what needs to be done on a project to move it forward,” Stoddard said. “I have a really great day when I have a to-do list where everything is marked off. I like to be productive like that.”
In addition to being organized and motivated, Stoddard said she favors a leadership style that relies on collaboration and inclusion. She prefers to tackle projects, issues and challenges with a team, and is most satisfied when a team is able to get things done that are mutually beneficial to all involved.
“One of things that I have had the opportunity to do is work with people from very varied backgrounds, and often times varied interests,” Stoddard said. “Sometimes it is a particular challenge to work with a group like that – to identify points of agreement, get people to work together, and move something forward, but it is very rewarding.”
Stoddard said her style of leadership, which she boils down to treating people with respect, building strong teams and prioritizing collaboration, has been inspired by a strong group of professional mentors in each of her jobs along the way. She is also a fan of Dale Carnegie, the author of the seminal “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
“He has great approaches with people that have been very useful to me and how I think,” Stoddard said. “He always stressed someone’s ability to have a personal touch and to relate to somebody on their ground. In other words, don’t just talk about things from your own perspective, but try to see things from other people’s perspectives. That has been very useful to me in a lot of things.”
Beneath Stoddard’s successful professional life is a strong family foundation and strong belief in balancing personal and professional life. Outside of work, Stoddard describes herself as “a busy mom, a busy wife and a busy daughter.” She attributes her strong work ethic to the example set by her parents, and she credits her “fantastic” husband for his teamwork in managing the day-to-day flurry of their 13-year-old and 9-year-old sons. She recently finished a term on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, which she said has also been instrumental in helping her balance her personal and professional life.
“My interest in Boys and Club grew out of being parent and seeing the really strong impact they have on the youth of Lawrence,” Stoddard said. “It has been a complete lifesaver for us ever since my boys have been in school.”
Stoddard said that she is content with her current life-work balance, and sees no need to change things up professionally any time soon.
“My kids are in a really busy mode right now,” Stoddard said. “Once they are out of the house, some other role may come along for me, but at this point, I’m very happy in this role.” ■