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Episode 15 : Flattening the Economic Curve

Posted by Cindy Stein on Nov 27, 2020 5:22:00 PM

Cindy Stein, Greene County Auditor, was the driving force in inspiring a county to embrace transparency and develop a leadership system they call “The Great Game of Government.”

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Episode with guest: Cindy Stein

Auditor - Greene County Missouri

(This episode was recorded in June of 2020.)

 

Key Episode Take-Aways:

1. Find a rhythm that works. (click to jump to this topic below)  We really labored with it a bit. And then we finally found a rhythm that works for us, that may be different than traditional Great Game companies. But we've got a rhythm now that really is effective. And  it's through those struggles early on that we found this rhythm.

2. The doubters will either get on board of be left behind. (click to jump to this topic below)  We're going to teach and train, we're gonna do financial literacy at the basic level. And eventually, the naysayers, if you will, they're going to have to get on board because otherwise they'll be left behind.

3. Being transparent doesn't stop with the employees in the Great Game of Government. (click to jump to this topic below)  Our internal IT folks developed a site on our Greene County website called, "the transparency portal." It functions exactly like we like it to: you can look at any department, any expenditure, down to what checks we wrote yesterday. So anything you want to know about Greene County finances is there.

Continue scrolling to read the full episode transcription.


Announcer  0:00 

Welcome to the "Change the Game" podcast, where we share stories of open-book management and highlight capitalism at its best. Thank you for tuning into the 15th episode of the "Change the Game" podcast with special guest, Cindy Stein. This episode was recorded during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Here's your hosts, Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker. 

Steve Baker  0:23  

Welcome back to the "Change the Game" podcast, where we unite organizations who are changing the game by doing business differently. I am Steve Baker of the Great Game of Business. We're very excited today to welcome Cindy Stein, who is the elected auditor of the county of Greene in Missouri. This is gonna be a fun conversation. This is one of those great examples of how we're seeking out these inspirational stories of how people are changing the Game in every sector, including government, and how the Great Game principles play a role in that, and how this is capitalism at its best. So what lessons did people learn through their experience?

And what's the big takeaway that you, the listener, can learn from our guest and start implementing and improving business today? So just keep in mind the Great Game community believes that business has this huge potential to make a positive difference in the world. And Great Game of Business organizations empower their people to pursue their dreams and benefit society as a whole. Guys, that is capitalism at its best. 

So I always try to find a quote that goes with our guest or with the subject matter that we're talking about. And today's quote comes from Winston Churchill, who--I seem to hit Mark Twain and Winston Churchill a lot. But they're pretty cool dudes. This one is interesting, because I don't know if it's provocative or what, but here it is: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." Hmm, boy, if you're like me, and you've surrounded yourself with amazing, cool, smart people who believe in a greater good, what is weird is you get insulated--you're in a bubble. And then you go out to a soccer game or you go to church or--I mean, these days, you're not going much of anywhere. But sometimes when you meet civilians, you start to agree with Winston Churchill. So how can we convert those folks to be these amazing people that we get to be around every single day? 

So let's talk about our guest, Cindy Stein. Cindy is a CPA and our own Greene County auditor. She graduated from my alma mater, MSU, Missouri State University. She got a Bachelor of Science in accounting and a minor in computer sciences. She started her career in the public sector out here working as a CPA until her first election as Greene County auditor in 1994. Now, Cindy's been the past president of the Missouri Association of County Auditors, the Ozarks chapter of the Association of Government Accountants. She's part of both the Government Finance Officers' Association and the Institute of Internal Auditors.

She is active, and she is tireless as a contributor in our community, and I couldn't be happier to have her as our guest. She's been super active in local, statewide, and national politics since '88. Jeez, in '88, I couldn't tie my shoes. And I was already graduated from college at that time, by the way. She's been the president of the Greene County Republican Party. She is an avid sports fan, her favorite teams being here in Missouri: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Blues.

So Cindy Stein, welcome to the program. Thanks for being on our podcast. How are you today?

Cindy Stein  3:49  

Thank you, Steve. I'm happy to be here. Good to see you.

Steve Baker  3:53  

It's great to see you. I tell you what, you have been such a great contributor for us. For folks that didn't know, Cindy was a guest on our "Get in the Game" workshop here, I guess it was last week. And you just are so giving and ready to help. I sure appreciate you. 

Cindy Stein  4:10  

Well, you know, I appreciate what Great Game does not only for our community, but really worldwide, and the more practitioners we have and the more the word gets out, the better.

Steve Baker  4:23  

Yeah, for sure. And you know I'm committed because as I introduce myself, I'm Steve Baker, Great Game of Business. So I've just adopted that name, the artist formerly known as Steve Baker. [Laughter.]

So Cindy, let's go back just a little bit because this ain't your first rodeo. You've been through Black Swans and crises before as a leader in our government. And I would like you to contrast maybe the county situation back in '08--that's around the time you started, I think--and then 2020 now, what we're dealing with,

Cindy Stein  4:53  

Well, Steve, that's a great place to start, really. In 2008, like many businesses, organizations, governments, you know, we all had effects of the downturn in the economy. And just like everybody else, government was struggling to recover. We were not immune to that. And we've got a collaborative group of folks on our campus, and we struggled to try to overcome it. And we weren't being successful. And that created frustration, because we didn't know how to be successful.

Steve Baker  5:31  

Right, right.

Cindy Stein  5:33  

We kind of recalled a gentleman by the name of Jack Stack, who had come to our campus, oh, maybe a year before, trying to talk to us about potentially applying the practices of the Great Game of Business to government. So he thought, "Hey, I know my local leaders. Let me go talk to them." He did; he came to our campus to talk to us about open-book management. We were all nodding our heads in agreement: "Yes, that's great. That's really great." And then Jack left the room and we went, "That'll never work here. We're government." [Laughter.]

Steve Baker  6:12  

I've heard that through the years, Cindy, and I've seen it myself. I've been with him when he talks to groups, whether it's education or government or whatever, all over the place. And they'll be like, "Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, and Jack Stack, Jack Stack, Jack Stack." And then they leave and they go, "Anyone hungry for pancakes?" Because it sounds like a breakfast special. That's what they take away.

Cindy Stein  6:32  

And we were no different. We were no different. I mean, we liked the ideal of it. But it just didn't seem to apply. Well, when we couldn't recover on our own from the downturn of '08 and '09, we just thought, "Hey, what about that thing Jack Stack was talking about?" We called him, we asked for his help, and he was so gracious--even though it was a year later--to help us with the concept of applying those principles and practices to government.

Steve Baker  7:03  

Mm hmm. It's a big deal, though, because a lot of folks don't--  I mean, I think we need to remind everybody listening that, as you said, you're not immune as government to any situation. So when the economy grinds to a halt, no matter what the reason, that means your revenue, meaning tax dollars--if we aren't spending, we aren’t paying taxes, right?--dries up. So it's a tough deal. So back then you talked to Jack and you said, "Hey, can you help?" What was kind of the next thing that happened?

1. Find a rhythm that works. 

Cindy Stein  7:37  

Well, you know, I think the next thing was, we were assigned a coach, Rhonda Alexander Chapman, and she worked with us hand in hand. And I think, if I look back, there were some challenges because the application to government--where we don't sell anything, we don't make anything, we don't produce anything--caused us to rethink what that would look like. What does financial reporting look like?

And so we really labored with it a bit. And then we finally found a rhythm that works for us, that may be different than traditional Great Game companies. But we've got a rhythm now that really is effective. And  it's through those struggles early on that we found this rhythm.

Steve Baker  8:27  

Mm hmm. And it makes me think of, if we take how you were applying that in those early days, in '08-'09, you probably dealt with a lot of different things. But you had to just create a plan of what you’re going to do next. Do you think there are many local or county or even state governments that have any kind of a contingency plan in place for tough situations?

Cindy Stein  8:55  

Well, see, that's kind of a tough question, honestly. I think we all hope to plan for contingencies and hope we have a contingency plan in place. But will it be effective at the time you need it? You know, it's tested. And we are probably all being tested right now.

Steve Baker  9:16  

Yeah, exactly. And Cindy, I've got to say that, because this is my county and my community, I'm very interested. And you guys were nice enough to invite me over for a huddle one time in the Greene County emergency building. And I'm probably not calling it the right thing, but this looks like a Bond villain's lair. You know, it's like screens everywhere, we're tornado-proof. You do have contingency plans for all kinds of community-related things; I should probably clarify and say you guys are some of the best people at it.

But what I truly meant was kind of a financial contingency plan, so if  '08-'09 happens you guys implement the Great Game to help out. And we're going to talk about how that all turned around. But I'm curious: you meet a lot of other people, you're in the associations with your peers. I mean, do they talk about, well, what happens if we have a pandemic or anything? Or are they just going along, like taxes will happen no matter what?

Cindy Stein  10:15  

Yeah, thank you for steering me to the financial end of contingencies. Because that's kind of a different outlook. And certainly in '08-'09, we had not planned for contingencies. I mean, we felt like we did, but we really weren't prepared, because obviously, we weren't recovering. So sometimes you have to stumble in order to figure out what maybe is the best path. So working with Great Game and implementing the practices, it allows us to teach us how to plan for those contingencies, those financial contingencies that are going to come about. So I mean, I don't know if you want to go into the details or the specifics, but that's how we got there.

Steve Baker  11:03  

Well, no, we'll talk about things. But I guess where my head was at was that you guys can handle, as I said, a tornado, let's say. You've got that plan. The question that I was referring to is, then after it's all over, how do we pay for what we just did?

And so there's  that struggle or that tension. So in the early days of implementing, I understand-- you did an interview with Darren Dahl, who writes for us and who also co-wrote Jack Stack's, new book, "Change the Game," available where fine books are sold. Darren asked you some questions. And it came out in the interview that you got really frustrated not being able to figure out how to fix things in those early, early days. What do you mean by that?

Cindy Stein  11:50  

Well, I'll be honest with you. I'm a CPA, I've been in private practice, I've been in government... I feel like I'm fairly knowledgeable. And I didn't know how to fix it. Not only that, my co-workers--other county administrators, other elected officials-- collectively together, we couldn't fix it. So I've never had that feeling before where I couldn't be successful at something that I was trying to do. And so when we contacted Jack for a follow-up, it was like, "Well, there's no place to go but up." We're a payroll away from not being able to cover our bills. 

Steve Baker  12:37  

Oh wow.

Cindy Stein  12:37  

It had gotten that close. And it wasn't that we were not frugal with our spending or any of those things. With the revenue source completely dried up, the expenses continued, because we had to continue to provide services.

Steve Baker  12:54  

Right. You can't stop the sheriff; you don't want to stop fire protection or emergency response. So where would Greene County have been if you hadn't implemented the Great Game back in the '08-'09 kind of era?

Cindy Stein  13:09  

I hate to venture to guess. Honestly, Steve, I don't know if we'd have made it without the Great Game.

Steve Baker  13:15  

So Cindy, you have peers that you know around the country, in county level government, and I know for a fact that a lot of counties have gone bankrupt. So what happens? You know, if, like you said, by the skin of your teeth, I mean one payroll away from kaput, what happens to a community? I mean, do those services stop?

Cindy Stein  13:41  

I know that at that time back in '08-'09, we were really fearful. Are we going to be that county? Are we going to be the ones on the news? So out of desperation, and it was desperation, we started implementing the open-book management practices.

Now, I wouldn't have it any other way, whether we're flush with cash reserves or still kind of struggling, it wouldn't matter. I wouldn't have it any other way. Because that is absolutely the way to run your operations, whether you're a business, whether you're a nonprofit, whether you're a government, whether you're higher ed; it doesn't matter. It works for everyone.

Steve Baker  14:24  

So you once said that you'd be the first to admit you weren't sure if this whole thing would stick. So what was your aha moment?

Cindy Stein  14:34  

You're right. I wasn't sure if it was going to stick. You know, you get past the stage of panic, and you have a little recovery and so it feels pretty good. And you're like, "Okay, now are we going to sustain this? Or now that we're better, we just forget about it." In all reality, I think that does happen and I felt pretty strongly, as did the team, that this is something that is sustainable. And it's a lifelong endeavor for the entity.

Our first a-ha moment came about a year in. We were teaching our members how to forecast and how to project their expenditures. And as you might suspect, the government typically projects to spend what their budget is.

Steve Baker  15:31  

Right!

Cindy Stein  15:32  

That's not unusual. And in all reality, you know, there are times when you do spend all your budget, but in most cases, you do not spend every penny of your budget. So that first year projecting, we were seeing those projections come in from our team, and they were all projecting the budget. And although the financial team understood that that's probably not how it's gonna turn out, we felt strongly to let the departments endure this, if you will.

And then at the end of the year, when we actually reveal the results, we revealed that in all reality, we had an opportunity. Had we been projecting correctly, we would have had an opportunity to give our employees a salary enhancement, which they hadn't seen in six years.

Steve Baker  16:26  

You're telling me that people were working in the county, in all the jobs that we rely on as citizens every single day, and they hadn't had any raises in six years? That's what I just heard you say? 

Cindy Stein  16:41  

Yes, that's correct.

Steve Baker  16:42  

Six years. Okay .Everybody listening right now, if you aren't kind of saying a little prayer of thanks, because, I mean, six years without a raise... that is astounding. 

Cindy Stein  16:55  

That's not a COLA. That's not anything. 

Steve Baker  16:58  

That's nothing. No cost of living. So we're talking... morale? What was morale like before all this? 

Cindy Stein  17:04  

Morale was tough. It was tough. Retention was tough. 

Steve Baker  17:09  

Yeah, I believe it.

Cindy Stein  17:12  

Now, when we recruit, we recruit and we say we are an open-book management entity,

Steve Baker  17:19  

If you would have told me that before I became inculcated with all of this great stuff 15 years ago, if you said you were an open-book deal, I'd be like, "Okay. What's the pay?" Right? So tell me more about the interaction you have with people that you're trying to court.

Cindy Stein  17:39  

Well, I'm going to give any applicant out there a tip. If you apply for a job at Greene County, you must visit our website. Go to the financial literacy portal and the transparency portal and become educated about what that means. Because you will be asked that question. And if you fail to understand what open-book management is, the likelihood of you going further may be challenged, because there's an expectation that people understand that we are very progressive in promoting open-book management.

Steve Baker  18:22  

So you actually are sort of filtering applicants by saying--it's not about understanding, they don't have to be CPAs; they need to buy into the idea that we use this so we're going to teach you this. In other words, it's not like you have to come in a financial genius; we're gonna help you learn these things. Right?

Cindy Stein  18:41  

Yeah, they don't have to know the ins and outs of open-book management; we'll teach that. But they do have to understand what the basic premise is, for what our culture is here at the county.

Steve Baker  18:52  

Yeah, and to buy into the idea that this is a way to work. And it may be new and weird and different; it is for most people. So that's interesting, I didn't know that at all. And  you and I have talked before at length about different things. So that's cool. So you actually start there. And I love the fact that we kind of started with this idea that morale was sort of meh. What is morale like in the county these days? Now you've got another crisis, if you will, another Black Swan, the pandemic. From 2008 to 2020, tell me about the morale difference.

Cindy Stein  19:27  

Well, you know, all entities have issues with morale at various times, and even the best Great Game companies have ups and downs. So you have to be prepared to ride those waves, if you will. And so, we got into the pandemic and we all knew collectively that sales tax was going to be hit tremendously because nobody can go anywhere.

Steve Baker  19:55  

Nobody's out of their house.

Cindy Stein  19:57  

Nobody's out of their house, yeah. So, Steve, I'll try to explain this as best I can. But it was night and day difference between '08-'09, and us just trying to survive, and the pandemic of 2020, where all the team members came together. They knew their role,  they knew what part of the puzzle they needed to try to accomplish, they knew what projections truly meant, and how to analyze the different sectors of our community and  how it would be affected.

And not only just sales-tax revenue, but other types of revenue--you know, fuel tax. Nobody's driving so there's no fuel consumption. We went to a meeting to kind of discuss this and I was prepared for a gut punch. I was prepared for, it's gonna be devastating, we may have to lay people off, blah blah blah. We got through the meeting, and because the team members knew their role, we actually came out much more positive than we could have even imagined. Because everybody really knew the information. And that would have never happened without Great Game. I mean, I didn't even have to tell them or ask them; they all knew what to do. 

Steve Baker  21:15  

See, I love that. It's the Enlightenment, if you will. And don't you think people felt better leaving? They go home, and all the news is saying the world is ending. And isn't it great that someone can come home from work and say, "No, honey," to their significant other, say, "Here's the reality of it. We're going to be okay. We've got to do these things. It's going to be tough, but we can do it."

It sounds exactly like what we do at SRC. In fact, I recorded a deal with Jack yesterday for the shareholders meeting that we had, because we're employee-owned, and kind of the theme of this whole thing from the beginning from Jack is, "First take fear out of the organization"--which you did in your meeting--and give people real information that they can count on, and then an action plan of, this is what we're going to do. So let me ask you another related question that I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days, kind of getting excited about the interview.

You have something that most people don't have. We all have turnover, right? But you guys have turnover not just because somebody goes to get another job, but you're an elected official. And when you started, Tim Smith was in there as the administrator, is that correct? Do I have that title correct?

Cindy Stein  22:23  

Yes, that's correct. 

Steve Baker  22:25  

But he's now retired. So then you get another administrator. I mean, so you got this musical chairs going on, even though... It's just a different organization. So tell me a little bit about how you go. Okay, somebody gets elected; do you like, dunk them in a tank or something, and say you're now blessed or baptized in Great Game? 

2. The doubters will either get on board or be left behind.

Cindy Stein  22:44  

Well, I appreciate you asking that question. Because one of the things initially that we had that differed from other organizations that might be trying to practice the Great Game or open-book management was, we don't have a CEO at the top that kind of directs everyone in this fashion.

You know, there are 13 independently elected officials, plus our judges and other folks. And there's no one person that says, "This is how the county is going to operate." So we all have to come together collectively and agree this is how we're going to operate. Did we have buy-in by all the elected officials at the beginning? No, we did not.

But I felt, and the county administrator at the time felt, that we're going to do it in spite of that, and that we're going to start at the ground level. We're going to teach and train, we're gonna do financial literacy at the basic level.

And eventually, the naysayers, if you will, they're going to have to get on board because otherwise they'll be left behind. So the approach worked for us. It's not conventional, I admit. But we had to find another way and thankfully, it did work for us.

Steve Baker  24:03  

Now that's cool. I love that because it's really sort of the collective wisdom of the crowd saying, "This is how we operate. Join the team and be part of it; pull the wagon with us." And I can see where that would be very attractive because you've proven that the system works in government and everybody's better off for it. If you can get raises-- since '08-'09, have there been other increases in benefits or compensation?

Cindy Stein  24:32  

Yes, since that a-ha moment of everyone realizing, boy, if we'd projected correctly, we would have controlled our own raises. It was one of those, "Oh my goodness." So everybody started projecting really accurately from then. As a matter of fact, we have contests and they're so accurate, I'm going to have to create new contests because they're too accurate. 

Steve Baker  24:56  

I love that. 

Cindy Stein  24:57  

The really beautiful thing out of that--and not that you want a bad thing to happen-- but learning from it, the decision-makers were able to then provide salary increases in October of that year prior to a new budget. And that had never happened. It would always have to wait until the next budget. So that gave the employees confidence in the process. Because the process allowed the decision-makers to make decisions because they could rely on the information.

Steve Baker  25:31  

That's cool. That's amazing. So my wife, Joanne, is a speech pathologist and has  worked in a lot of different systems, from elementary to high school to higher education. And in every situation, at some point, she has come home very frustrated and said, "It's all use-it-or-lose-it mindset." And it's not that they're bad people; it's just the culture was, if you don't put in enough for the budget, then they'll cut your budget.

And then next year, well, you won't have it. So it gets artificially inflated. Your people actually said, "What's the reality?" and built the budget from the ground up, meaning, now we have some money to allow for those things to happen that we really want: better benefits, increases in compensation, etcetera. That's what I'm hearing you say.

Cindy Stein  26:16  

Well, and you bring up a good point, because we did at the end start leading from the bottom up instead of the top down. But in addition to that, thank you high involvement planning, because now we're all in the same room. Now, instead of being silos we sure understand the others' needs. And we have people come together and say, "You know, my request is not as important as this request over here. I'm going to withdraw mine, because that funding is more important." So instead of having that use-it-or-lose-it mentality, we're all now part of the same team.

Steve Baker  26:50  

So let me ask you a question. And again, these are kind of unscripted. You know, I just want to know, as a citizen and as a Great Game practitioner, you're saying that people will actually do the good for the community, based upon seeing the bigger picture, the high involvement of, this is what the community needs, so I'm willing to give up a little of mine, or wait on my capital investment or whatever it may be. Do you think that happens anywhere else in government?

Cindy Stein  27:21  

I'm hopeful it does, but I don't know. And you know, it didn't come to us really quickly, either. We had to go through a couple years of trying to figure it out. But once we got people in a room, instead of everybody giving their own pitch, if you will, of what they needed, then we saw the true need across the county--not just the silo need of an individual office or department.

Steve Baker  27:46  

Yeah, I think that's awesome. Because it is about the needs of the community. And as public servants, that's a mindset that I think is encouraging. I mean, you're like a beam of light coming out from the Ozarks, hopefully to the rest of the world--at least, if I could just see a few people getting a hold of it. So let's talk about stories, because my favorite story is one about--and I haven't met these guys--but apparently some maintenance guys made a big impact that they for years didn't think about. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Cindy Stein  28:20  

Sure. It goes to show that a lot of times you will hear associates or members of your team say, "Well, I can't affect the bottom line. I can't help the..." We hear all that. And here at the county, we had a good story come out of that. You know, we have our huddles and they're open to everybody to come in. And occasionally we would have the janitorial staff take a break and come into the huddle meeting. And one day after a huddle meeting, they went back to their workshop and they looked at the tools they were using to clean the buildings--and we have quite a few on campus.

And they realized they weren't following the recommendations of the chemicals. They were just  pouring into the bucket. So they decided as a team, let's start following the instructions. And they saved several thousand dollars that year. And so they did affect the bottom line. And so we love to tell that story because it can happen anywhere. Anyone can affect the bottom line in cash or efficiencies. And so that is one of our favorite stories because it can happen at any level. 

Steve Baker  29:30  

I love that you talk about, "We were able to control our own..." I don't know if you said destiny or not, but our own raises; it is your own future because you are taking action and you're acting upon it rather than it happening to you. And Jack wrote about you, with Darren Dahl, in his book "Change the Game," and the county. And if I remember right, those maintenance guys, by diluting the chemicals according to the instructions on the containers, were able to save like $10,000 for the county. Which I can imagine, given county tax revenues.

Cindy Stein  30:07  

That's real money!

Steve Baker  30:08  

Yeah, it's real money. Multiply that by the hundreds of other stories that have to have come out, you know, as things have gone along. It's so cool, it's so inspiring. So let's talk about, for the folks who want to know financially--you know, raises are cute and benefits are cuddly or whatever. But let's talk hard, cold facts. Cindy, you were able to significantly improve the county's credit rating. Can you talk about what that means and why it's important and what you did to make it happen?

Cindy Stein  30:40  

Yeah, Steve, I can talk about that. A lot of entities--not not necessarily businesses, but governmental entities--bond various projects: lower capital improvement projects like buildings and that kind of thing. And there are outside rating agencies that rate your financial worthiness in order to set the interest rate. And the better the interest rate, the better tax savings or costs, potentially, you would have.

Steve Baker  31:09  

The dollar goes further, right, right..  

Cindy Stein  31:11  

Yes. So it was our goal to try to improve that credit rating worthiness. And after we had been--I think we got the increase in '16, if I remember right. But we worked really hard and we talked a lot about financial literacy and all the things we do from a financial standpoint. And when the outside agency rated us they gave us an increase in rating, and cited in the report, which I'd never seen, that Great Game of Business and open-book management, was a large contributor to that increased rating. 

Steve Baker  31:57  

And so is that rating--do I have it right--a triple A rating? 

Cindy Stein  32:02  

And so by increasing that rating, it saved thousands upon thousands of dollars per year, because it affects any bonds that you might have outstanding, any future bonds that you might sell and what those interest rates are. So it's really hard to measure the total savings because it happens over multiple years and multiple issues.

Steve Baker  32:26  

But you went from kind of worst to first, if I could say that, like--

Cindy Stein  32:32  

Well, we really stepped up two levels. And usually you step up one at a time and we took it to a new level.

Steve Baker  32:39  

Oh, okay. And again, I'm the ignorant civilian here, as Winston Churchill was pointing out. I'm the average voter going, "Do we need that judge?" and "Do we need that road?" But it's so empowering to talk with the people who are making it happen. And for what it's worth, I saw Tim Smith, the now retired county administrator, at a Christmas party. And it was just fun to talk to him because he just missed it.

He missed the action and the cooperation and things like that. I'm not saying he's coming back tomorrow, but it's just so cool to see there's a lasting impact, and that he really left his fingerprints on the county, in my opinion. I think you are, too. It's like, this was something special. People ask us questions like this all the time. Someday when you are not at the county, who's going to carry it on? How do you keep that spirit alive?

Cindy Stein  33:36  

Okay, I love that question, Steve. Because when Tim Smith elected to retire, we got that question. And so we really teach and train our members. It is not about one person or about one leader, I could be gone tomorrow and someone would step right up.

The goal is we're not leading the huddles; our members are leading the huddles. Our members are the ones. So when Tim left, we didn't miss a step. At one point when I leave, or if I retire, we won't miss a step because of the nature of how we teach and train. 

Steve Baker  34:14  

Yeah, awesome. So it's really institutionalized at this point. You recruit people in a way that the foundation of the culture is open book, you train them while they're in there, you expect them to perform, you reward them appropriately. And you hope that they'll teach the next person and the neighbor and the-- yeah, that's really cool. Let's see, back to Darren's interview with you back in March. The name of the article is entitled, "Flattening the economic curve." Why that title? What does that mean?

Cindy Stein  34:47  

Well, I think because we had the story about how we compared the '08 crisis and the current pandemic, and how we reacted, we didn't see those giant waves of ups and downs. You know, they talk about flattening the pandemic curve. And we were looking at financially mitigating those highs and lows, so that we kind of flatten that and have a sustainable level of resources available to ride this wave. And so, Darren coined the phrase--I give credit to Darren--and it seemed to fit because we were doing that kind of unintentionally. But the result is that it was a lot flatter curve than what we thought. We thought we were going to have a real dip down, and it was not that much of a dip.

Steve Baker  35:48  

Folks, you can read the full blog, Darren Dahl's article. It's "Flattening the Economic Curve," and it's the story of Cindy Stein and Greene County government and their experience from the last Black Swan to today's Black Swan. You can find that at greatgame.com and click on the blog.

Cindy Stein  36:07  

The article is not about Cindy Stein. It really is about our team. And I want to be sure that I say that It's our team that makes that work. I'm just happy to be the  messenger or the person that you want to talk to today, but it really is the team that has been successful.

Steve Baker  36:25  

I appreciate that. And I totally agree. And I think if Jack Stack were with us right now on this podcast, he would agree as well. His attitude about SRC is, it's about the team and the people. I'm just going to tell you that all of America is falling in love with you right now. And we have people from abroad. Did you know that 25 countries are listening to this at any given time? I just want you to know that everybody who hears about Great Game of government, the name Cindy Stein will be upon their lips. So--

Cindy Stein  36:56  

That's a little bit scary, but--

Steve Baker  36:57  

[Laughter.] Well, we're not giving your address, so it should be fine. So let's talk about this. You, my dear, are responsible for some radical open-book practices, specifically, the open-access checkbook register for the county. This is not anything that's ever happened as far as we know. But I want you to tell us about what it is, what you call it, and any other details about it. Because I think it's so radical, people need to know about it.

3. Being transparent doesn't stop with the employees in the Great Game of Government.

Cindy Stein  37:24  

Thank you, Steve, for that opportunity. Ever since we've been practicing the open-book management, Great Game, we've wanted to become more transparent not only to our employees and team members, but also to our community at large. And so we had a vision as a team, that we would provide this information and it would be available. Most solutions that we found would have been, you know, $10,000 to $20,000 a year to maintain. And I didn't have it in the budget, we didn't have it in the budget. So we got together with our internal IT folks and we developed a site on our Greene County website called, "the transparency portal." And I love that we developed it in-house because we got exactly what we wanted.

It functions exactly like we like it to: you can look at any department, any expenditure, down to what checks we wrote yesterday. So anything you want to know about Greene County finances is there. You can export it and call and ask us questions, call and give us recommendations if you have some. We're always looking for improvements. But we're really proud of the fact that we developed it as a team in-house. And it's providing that transparency to anyone who would want to look

Steve Baker  38:48  

That's outstanding. Do you think that you've had.... Surely your IT folks, as sharp as they are, kind of looking at what the usage of this is, are citizens using it? Are they going to look at it? Do they understand it?

Cindy Stein  39:03  

Steve, I know that it gets a lot of hits. And I do know that we have citizens, I have had citizens that have come up to me and thanked me for making that available. We also have a lot of requests that, as you might suspect, government has requests for information. And in the old days, we would have to provide it by pen and paper or some kind of exported file. Now we just direct the questioner to the site, and we tell them how to use it. And then they're able to do it all on their own. And so that's been such a blessing for the community. They love being able to do that.

Steve Baker  39:42  

That's cool. It's sort of like the sunshine law applied to an extreme. It's like, well, it's all there if you care to look. We have a question from the community. This comes from Skip. "Does Greene County have union employees and if so, how did the union respond to the concept initially? And did they come around?" So I'm gonna stop there. There's another part of the question. So what do you say? Do you have union employees?

 

Cindy Stein  40:08  

Okay, thank you for that question, Skip; it's a good one. The county as a whole is not unionized, although we have an employee bargaining unit out at the Road and Bridge department. I think they have maybe 60 members of the organization. In all reality, I hope none of them are listening. But they were able to get better benefits and better working conditions and better salary because we were practicing Great Game than what they were getting under their bargaining unit contract. 

Steve Baker  40:49  

Wow.

Cindy Stein  40:50  

Now, I'm not going to say that's true of everyone. But for our organization, they actually just had the contract match what we were already doing. So we were doing better than the contract.

Steve Baker  41:04  

So wow, that is amazing. And if I'm not mistaken, one of the meetings that I came to, didn't they win the most accurate forecast contest? 

Cindy Stein  41:13  

Yes.

Steve Baker  41:13  

[Laughter.] So that answers the second part of his question: how did they respond to the concept initially, and have they come around? Well, apparently, they're badasses at it, because they won the contest, closest to the pin.

Cindy Stein  41:25  

Yes, they won the contest two years in a row of being closest projections. I mean, they're very competitive. And they really got to understand their financials and the financial literacy, whether it's asphalt or whether it's building a bridge or whatever it is they're doing, they really started to understand the numbers, and they were competitive with it. So the bargaining unit, we don't even think of them as a bargaining unit, because they are still part of the team.

Steve Baker  41:54  

Yeah, they're just like everybody else when it comes to operating in the county. I guess what I would ask is, again, going back to peers that you know, anyone else in a county or any government really, there are a lot of unions in government. At the county level, are a lot of counties unionized? Because I don't know.

Cindy Stein  42:16  

We don't have a lot of Missouri counties that are unionized. We have components that are unionized, such as, like in our case, Road & Bridge, or perhaps the sheriff's office, or policing, those kinds of things.

Steve Baker  42:30  

They'd have their own individualized industry kind of unions. Sure, sure. That makes sense. So Skip's second question here is: "What suggestions do you have to a government operation that has significant union participation?" Any thoughts there?

Cindy Stein  42:47  

Well, Skip, I'll just kind of tell you what I'm thinking. We don't treat anybody any differently. So everybody's a part of the team, everybody gets educated the same way. Everybody should be understanding financial literacy at a basic level. I don't want to dodge the question, because we don't have a big component there.

You know, and I don't know, Steve, if you know how city utilities have been able to do that, because all their groups are unionized. And they're adopting it, and they're across the street from us. So I just think it's not the union versus the non-union; it's Greene County. Or it's your organization. And try to stress that component.

Steve Baker  43:36  

And so you could actually make the argument so they're very competitive, which is great because they can compete against the number, and we can take any potential kind of conflict or energy that might be us against them and turn it toward the number again, saying, “Look, as a whole, we can all rise higher." I just love that. Because that's what it's really all about. And it's never been a union/non-union thing. It's about, how can we beat market?

So on the private side, we try to outperform the market in the public sector. I assume you have numbers that you're dealing with all the time, like, "How do we build that road? How do we get that bridge repaired?" And all the other questions that come out, "How do we find jail space?" All the issues that I hear about  for government at any level, could almost be addressed better by a more unified attack. I don't know if I'm using the right word.

Cindy Stein  44:34  

Well, and for our bargaining unit, they've been very competitive with the projections in the financial side, but also, at their department level, they do continuous improvement competitions. And so they're always competing for the prize for continuous improvement, which, you know, goes straight to the bottom line or straight to an efficiency in their organization. So whether they call it Great Game or open-book management, they're doing it; they're really bought in.

Steve Baker  45:06  

I love that. And you know what? You just hit on something that I wasn't really covering in this interview, and that was the sense of pride that people at the county must have, because they're better than their peers all over the country--not to try to be better, but they're the best. And so that leads to my next question, which is that, being a citizen of Greene County for many, many years--you know, this is home, so I've known the folks in the Springfield/Greene County parks department, and they've been known for decades as like the gold standard of parks.

And all over the country. I remember Jody would be flying around and people would interview her and they'd pick her brain and say, "How are you doing that?" Do you think that the Greene County government will get that kind of recognition in your space? Do you think you are the gold standard?

Cindy Stein  45:59  

Well, I don't want to label myself or the county. I can say that we feel an obligation to share our story, communicate our story to others who are interested, whether it's another government agency, nonprofit, or any type of... And we do a number of speaking engagements, because people hear our story, and want us to help them.

And we are more than happy to share any tools we have, share anything we've done. Because the more involvement and practitioners that we have, especially in the government/nonprofit sector, it's going to be better. If we could bring this to every local government, then every state government, it's going to reach the federal government. I guarantee you it will reach the federal government. 

Steve Baker  46:54  

I love that. I love it. So you started out like, "Oh, no, no, no; it's not me, I'm not the gold standard." But I like how you punched it at the end with, "It will be in the federal government."

Cindy Stein  47:04  

I do feel strongly about that. I don't know if it's me, or someone that follows. But I do feel strongly about that. And I've talked to our two US senators, and they understand that concept. So they know I'm going to be pushing. 

Steve Baker  47:22  

So that's cool. Let me ask you some questions about that. I'm glad you brought that up. So you talked to our senators. And are they aware, I mean, do they know what Greene County has done? 

Cindy Stein  47:34  

Oh, yeah.

Steve Baker  47:34  

They represent all of us now. So they know the story. Do you think they're talking about that in some back room in Washington?

Cindy Stein  47:43  

Who knows about Washington? But they are very well aware of what we're doing in Greene County. They're extremely aware. And you know, other counties are taking our lead, and they're doing it as well. And again, whether they call it the Great Game or not doesn't matter. If they're practicing these ideals, that's what gets the end result that they're looking for.

Steve Baker  48:05  

It's so empowering for folks. And it's so rewarding for us to go, "It is making a little impact here, little impact here, a big impact..." So I've been working with a company called HEB down in Texas, it's the largest grocery store chain in Texas. And we have been going around and doing trainings over and over. Of course, this is before travel was pulled back. And what's really neat, over the last three years, we've met so many cool people who take it home, you know, they take the Great Game home with them.

One fellow came up to us on a break. So we had about 600 people in a room, you know, a big facility. And we're going through the training, and a guy comes up and says, "Well, I happen to be the mayor of a town"--I'm sorry, I don't remember the name of the town in Texas--"I'm the mayor, and when I started, there was a $50,000 deficit.

And now we have a $200,000 surplus." And this is of course, over time, and the whole thing was, it's a little tiny Texas town; he drives into work every day, drives home. But I love that he was in his community and he applied this stuff and then said, "We can do better." And citizens appreciate the fact that you're stewards of the tax dollar. And you're a great example of that. Have you heard of anyone taking it home--not necessarily to another town, but have they taken it into their personal finances?

Cindy Stein  49:26  

Actually, I hear that quite frequently. And that's how we teach financial literacy here at the county; we relate it to your home checkbook. We don't talk about the millions of dollars that flow in and out of the county every month. We talk about a home checkbook, where you write a $10 check, you know? Those kinds of things.

And so we do find, and I hear it from some of our team members, that they do take these things home and use it in their home budget and their home practice. So who knows who-all is being touched? And It's a small little nugget here and there and here and there. But pretty soon those nuggets are going to get pretty big.

Steve Baker  50:07  

And that's what the movement is all about, right? It's to take business, and to take money, and bring it out of the dark, out of the shadows, where there's an elite group who really understands it.

And I always talk about Dave Ramsey, you know, what a good job he does with personal-finance education. And that quote of his that's my favorite; it's, "Money flows from people who do not understand it to people who do." I want to be, and I want my kids to be, the people who do, right? You've already told me that you vet your people--and I don't mean just you, but you as the representative of the county. But you guys look at candidates for a job, you kind of filter through and say, "Hey, this is how we run it. If you're interested, come on and do this." But you've got to still have doubters. I mean, there's got to be some doubters. No?

Cindy Stein  50:57  

There's always doubters

Steve Baker  50:59  

Oh, okay; I thought you said no. So talk about it. What do you do about doubters?

Cindy Stein  51:09  

You really don't do anything about doubters. They're in your organization, so they're going to be there. The best thing you do is teach and train so that the masses know, and the doubters will weed themselves out, because they won't be comfortable in the culture. So don't spend energy on the doubters. Spend your energies on those that are teachable and are willing to, yes, let them rise, and the doubters will filter out.

Steve Baker  51:39  

So it's cultural Darwinism, Cindy. The strong in the culture will survive. I feel like a Jedi somehow, like I'm going to do.... So that's awesome. Okay, so we've talked about the idea of will it work? You've even gone further and said, "It will be federal someday; it will reach that." I hope it reaches it sooner than later. But let's do this. We only have a couple of minutes left. I just want to hit on this. We did get a comment though. Let me check the community board. "Cindy Stein equals rock star," from Kevin. So see there? You got a nice compliment.

Cindy Stein  52:12  

Thank you, Kevin. 

Steve Baker  52:13  

Right? That's awesome. So this is a question I asked all the guests and Rich and I try to ask this and another question to each of the guests. This is the "Change the Game" podcast. So I know we just had a whole hour of talking about it. But Cindy, how are you changing the game?

Cindy Stein  52:30  

Can I turn that around a little bit? Can I turn that question around a little bit? You know, what I would like for your listeners to maybe take away from this session--and I appreciate everybody tuning in for an hour because who wants to listen to an auditor, let alone a CPA?

Steve Baker  52:46  

Me!

Cindy Stein  52:48  

But really, get it down to the basic level. If it's working in your organization, or you're  an organization that is kind of tempering the waters and you're figuring it out, it can work for you. Guess what? It can work for your neighbors, it can work for your government! Let your government know, this is what you expect out of them. Let them know that there's a higher level that they can obtain. Let them know that there's a county in Missouri that's willing to help, you know?

I guess the message I want to relay is that it's doable everywhere. And we don't want to have "This will never work here," because it will work. And you've got people--not just me, but we've got people all around the  community--that are willing to help. Everybody is a willing participant; that's why they practice. Because they are willing to participate. So if it's okay, I'd kind of like to leave it at that: that people do have an opportunity to change even government.

Steve Baker  53:51  

One more comment from Kevin. It says, "If every elected official had the same heart and passion around stewardship of tax dollars, the GDP would be through the roof and taxes would decline." That is interesting.

Cindy Stein  54:05  

And that is a true statement, Kevin. He's on target with that.

Steve Baker  54:09  

It certainly doesn't feel like we're there yet when you turn on the news, but it sure does feel good to turn off the news every now and then and look for the bright spot in our own community. And Cindy, you are definitely a bright spot. Thank you so much for being here with us.

Cindy Stein  54:25  

Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Steve Baker  54:26  

Folks. If you want to learn more, please check out Greene County. Cindy, what is the Greene County website?

Cindy Stein  54:36  

Steve, the Greene County website is greenecountymo.org.

Steve Baker  54:44  

All right. Perfect. Thank you Cindy, again. Sure appreciate you. 

Cindy Stein  54:47  

You're welcome. 

Steve Baker  54:48  

All right, folks, well another great hour with Cindy Stein and folks from the Great Game community here on the "Change the Game" podcast. I do want to remind you that the story of Greene County is in Jack Stack's new book, "Change the Game: Saving the American Dream by Closing the Gap between the Haves and Have-nots," stories all around not just government, not just business, but every aspect you can imagine from  health care to technology; it's all in there. And of course, it wouldn't be a "Change the Game" podcast without talking about, "Get in the Game: How to Create Rapid Financial Results and Lasting Cultural Change," by Rich Armstrong, and yours truly. Available where fine books are sold.

Look, planning is one of those things we need to take out of the boardroom and the retreats; we need to bring it into the organization and tap the wisdom of the crowd. So we're offering a high-involvement planning accelerator. It's at greatgame.com/accelerator.

So what you're going to do here is, for a very low cost, you can get in and gain alignment among your leadership team. Identify your priorities, your measurements, your action plan; you can establish your three-month and one-year plan. So you got a 90-day plan to get through all that's happening right now, and establish that one-year plan and you can crush your competition. Be sure to check it out greatgame.com/accelerator. 

So let's keep the conversation going. You got to send us your questions, your best practices, your ideas, your challenges, your victories. And remember, you're the backbone of our economy and you are not alone. We must stand together to make sure that business, as Jack Stack says, "Without business, there is no society." Let's make sure that business is the active component of society that makes it better. Be sure to evangelize, let's connect with like-minded and like-hearted people in our Great Game community worldwide. And thanks to our international friends who are joining us as well. We'll see you next week, same time. Appreciate you; have a good weekend.

Topics: All-Star Awards, Employee Ownership, Great Game Coaching, engagement, Community

About The Podcast

Hosted by Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker the Change the Game podcast highlights true life stories of organizations influencing positive change by doing business differently. They’re teaching people how business works and closing the gap between the haves and have-nots. It’s capitalism at its best. Inside each episode, you’ll discover stories of entrepreneurs who are Changing the Game.

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