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#ICMA2019: A call to reflect and lead

A distinguished local government leader issues a call to reflect and inspire

4 min read


#ICMA2019: A call to reflect and lead

Paula Kiger

The 2019 International City/County Management Association Conference in Nashville, Tenn., had four keynote speakers; more than 5,000 attendees; over 150 education sessions, learning labs and other breakouts; 200 exhibitors and an infinite number of opportunities to connect.

The conference was packed with useful information, but one 10-word moment on the final day of the conference captured its spirit for me. 

An honoree’s reminiscence about a mentor

When Mike Conduff, a former city manager and former state ICMA association president, accepted a Distinguished Service Award, he spoke of the influence Buford Watson Jr., longtime city manager of Lawrence, Kan., had on him. 

Conduff described a time when he was at a gathering of other city managers. People were deeply involved in conversations with those they already knew, and Conduff was the newcomer. Watson approached Conduff, grabbed him by the elbow, guided him to the group, and made introductions. That was the beginning of a mentor/mentee relationship that shaped the way Conduff approached his duties as his responsibilities in local government grew.


Conduff went on to share about a time when he was grappling with a thorny issue. At a professional gathering, Bob Herchert, former city manager of Fort Worth, Texas, said, “You’re not your normal effervescent self. What’s going on here?”

Conduff transitioned into a comment that, to me, was the heart of the conference:

“I said, ‘I’m missing Buford.’ Bob said, ‘Mike, we all miss Buford. What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Well, I just had a couple things … I wish I had somebody to talk to.’ Bob Herchert, I’ll never forget this, reached out and grabbed me by the same elbow and said, ‘Mike, let me be your Buford.’”

More about the influence of Buford Watson Jr. 

I exchanged emails with Conduff after the conference to learn a bit more about his connection to Buford Watson Jr., as well as to Bob Herchert, who became his “second Buford.” 

Conduff shared, “In my early thirties I was recruited by a private sector business and could have doubled my salary. I met with Buford in Lawrence and after some very insightful questions he said, ‘Mike it sounds like your only reason to leave city management is the money, is that right?’
And after I affirmed that he said, ‘So Mike, what is going to give you more satisfaction, serving your community and making a difference in people’s lives, or making more money?’
I left the meeting, turned down the job and as they say, the rest is history!”

A call to reflect and act

Conduff asked these two questions as he closed out his acceptance speech.

Who’s your Buford?

Who are you being a Buford to?

Amid three and a half days of nonstop activity, learning and networking, these 10 words packaged into two simple sentences are the perfect way to equip local government professionals to serve well in the year ahead.


The free ICMA SmartBrief, one of more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, provides information relevant to city and county managers every weekday.

Mike Conduff, CEO of the Elim Group, has 35+ years of leadership, management and governance experience. In addition to his experience as a city manager and as a state ICMA association president, he has authored several books, including “Democracy at the Doorstep.”

Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief’s nonprofit sector newsletters, including the ICMA SmartBrief, and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida’s quasi-governmental children’s health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.