New Santa Monica chief executive Rick Cole says organizational culture is the key to success

Rick Cole says he will spend his first month at Santa Monica City Hall working out his goals for the next several years

Rick Cole says he will spend his first month at Santa Monica City Hall working out his goals for the next several years

He’s been mayor of Pasadena, the top city executive of Ventura and Azusa, and, most recently, L.A.’s deputy mayor for budget and innovation, where he oversaw a municipal operating budget of $8.6 billion.

This month, Rick Cole took on a new role as city manager of Santa Monica, replacing Rod Gould, who retired last winter after about five years on the job.

A self-described “Zen Catholic,” Cole is often described in public administration circles as a big ideas guy — a city hall guru who seeks out new ways of solving long-term problems.

In Pasadena, he broke a years-long deadlock between pro- and anti-growth contingents to reach consensus on a new city general plan that focused on pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use public spaces — a document that set the tone for the rebirth of Old Pasadena as a destination retail district. He later crafted Azusa’s first general plan before bringing his New Urbanist philosophy to Ventura City Hall.

But Cole, 61, is emphatic that his sights are set firmly on the execution of ideas.

“The thing I work hard on is trying to bring them to life,” he said. “That’s a hard, messy, challenging effort that requires teamwork, community dialogue and admitting when you’re wrong and putting it right. I like to be ahead of the curve and achieve a result that other people can point to and say ‘They made it work.’”

Cole will earn an annual salary of $329,000 as Santa Monica’s city manager and expects to move to Santa Monica from Los Angeles after his twin daughters graduate from high school next year.

— Joe Piasecki

You’re known as a big ideas guy, but how do you approach city management on a daily basis?

As you learn, you evolve. The goal is always to be better. But I think the essence that characterizes me as distinct from most city management leaders is that I focus most of my attention on people. I believe that talented people are the most valuable resource in an organization, and motivating them and inspiring them to do their best work is the most important managerial role for the chief executive officer. Money is important and organizational structure is important, but I think that organizational culture is ultimately the key.

Look at two federal agencies that were born in the same year — the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Post Office. Both were once the best in the world; one clearly no longer is. One kept up with the times and one did not. Both draw their talent not from America’s best schools but from a cross section of working people. Nobody joins the Marine Corps because of the pension plan. But the Marine Corps invests in the raw material to make Marines, and I think that the most important part of my day is the time I spend listening to and leading the people of an organization.

Is there anything you want to hit the ground running on?

I’ve actually made a conscious choice not to hit the ground running for two reasons. First, [Assistant City Manager] Elaine Polachek has the confidence of the City Council and my confidence to continue to keep the administrative functions moving forward. And second, I don’t want to take anything for granted in Santa Monica. I think I need to spend the first month thoroughly understanding the landscape. While Santa Monica may be a small city, it is a complicated city full of passionate people, real world challenges and extraordinary opportunities.

I’m going to spend the first month getting acquainted with both the organization and the community, and then I want to sit down with the City Council and talk with them about what our strategic priorities ought to be. There are always going to be controversial issues and management challenges day-to-day, but I am going to have only one chance to take a deep breath and think about what the three- to five-year priorities for the city manager ought to be, and I want to do that in consultation with the City Council.

You’re coming into a political climate where a large number of residents are allergic to growth at the same time that tech is booming.

In this economic recovery the whole region is grappling with these issues, but nowhere is it more front-and-center than in Santa Monica. I think one of the reasons why the City Council selected me is I actually relish robust public debate as long as it’s conducted civilly and constructively. I think that a healthy democracy is going to have vigorous debate in order to shake out the best answers to both our challenges and opportunities.

The council has set a direction both through the LUCE [Land Use and Circulation Element] and the zoning code update, and the issues will continue to be front and center. I want to work hard to find common ground that understands the value of economic prosperity but recognizes that it is rooted in community liveability.

Do you regret that you didn’t get a hand in shaping the LUCE and the zoning code?

I think the table is set now to implement the vision, and as the great architect Walter Gropius observed, “God is in the details.” It’s one thing to articulate a broad vision; it’s another thing to successfully bring it about.

One of the things I think will be key to success is how we treat the public realm. So much focus is on the shape and size of private development, and that’s appropriate — but not if it neglects the shape and size and most of all the quality of the public realm, because that’s really what we share and experience together. Santa Monica was a pioneer with Third Street Promenade at revitalizing the urban public realm in Southern California, but I think we have a long way to go in ensuring every street in Santa Monica doesn’t look like Third Street but has the same qualities of being an attractive place that people cherish.

What are your thoughts on the Civic?

I think it’s an extraordinary asset, but of course we haven’t figured out how to replace the funding for its seismic upgrade. I think that calls for some very creative thinking. Sometimes money solves problems, but more often creative and entrepreneurial thinking solves problems. We’re going to have to rely on the latter.

How do you approach a city manager role differently than being deputy mayor?

For me the most important difference is that it’s literally impossible to have a meaningful relationship with 44,000 employees, and I think I manage best when there’s a personal dimension. It’s one thing to work on a budget of $8.6 billion. There’s no question it’s important, consequential, but it is much more abstract because I don’t have the opportunity to connect with front-line police officers, librarians and recreation workers. In Santa Monica I’ll have that opportunity, and I’m committed to a management approach that is directly connected to the front lines, because that’s what matters most to our citizens.