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The CSAC Institute Faculty Profile: Dr. Frank Benest

July 8, 2021

The CSAC Institute continues its Faculty Spotlight feature to help introduce students to our esteemed educators.

Dr. Frank Benest spent 36 years “in the trenches” of local government, serving most recently as the City Manager of Palo Alto, CA. He has a doctorate in management from Brigham Young University, a Master’s in Public Administration from California State University, Long Beach, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University. In addition to serving as the faculty liaison for the California Counties Foundation, he is past President of the League of California Cities’ City Managers Department and past Vice President of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). Frank teaches at Stanford University and has been inducted into the National Academy of Public Administration.

We sat down with Frank earlier this month to learn a little bit more about his passion for teaching. Here’s what we learned:

How long have you been an instructor with the CSAC Institute?

Since the very beginning. I was involved with the conversations that led to the development of the Institute, and I represent the faculty on the advisory board that now is part of the Foundation. Through ICMA, I get a view of professional development across the land, and really, this Institute,  given its growth and development, is probably the best of its kind.

What’s your theory or philosophy on teaching?

Typically, you have local government practitioners who know about local government, and they become teachers. But some of them don’t know how to teach. Then, you have academics who know how to teach and instruct, but they don’t have an in-depth knowledge of local government.

I’ve been blessed because I’ve always been drawn to teaching, and my mother was a lifelong teacher. I come to the CSAC Institute with 36 years in the trenches of local government and a background in teaching and instructing, so the CSAC Institute is a perfect place for me. I started my local government career as a junior recreation leader at age 14, and I’ve been in local government ever since. The love of my life is local government.

Share a little about your upcoming Story-Telling Course.

We in local government are very data-driven; we’re evidence-based. If we don’t have data to support our recommendations and our actions, we get thrown out of the Board of Supervisors or the County Manager’s office. Data is necessary but insufficient to carry the day. Data must be combined with a narrative, and the narrative or the story helps the data to come alive. The best definition of a story I ever heard is that a story is data with a soul. Narrative or story helps us retain the information, and it helps and compels us to action. Data does not change behavior or compel us to action. Stories do.

Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that great leaders are storytellers, and that’s what I try to share in the class. I teach the importance of stories, what makes a great story, elements of powerful stories and how to construct them, and the classic structure of stories. Then we get to practice in the class and tell a story as part of a professional presentation.

I come from a Lebanese family, and if you could not tell a story in our contentious Lebanese family, you would not survive. Storytelling is part of my DNA, and I’ve discovered it’s a key part of being a leader, and I try to share that with the class.

What’s the most challenging thing about being an Institute Instructor? The most rewarding?

Being a CSAC instructor is really about legacy for me. I’ve been a chief executive in local government in three organizations across CA. I have led local governments, and now I’m helping prepare that next generation of leaders. The people who attend the CSAC Institute classes are in the trenches of local government. They’re the ones that make it work. So the focus of the variety of classes I teach is about leadership.

Leadership doesn’t have to do anything with position or formal authority; it’s about exerting positive influence and authority. You can lead from anywhere. I try to give students the soft skills to help them be great leaders. Particularly as people advance in their careers in county government, it’s the soft skills that produce the hard results.

That’s been the emphasis of the courses I teach. I teach a class on organizational leadership, another on engaging employees for success, I teach a class on talent development and now story-telling. All these classes have the common thread of how to enhance your ability to connect with others, develop relationships and exert positive influence for the common good.

Are there areas of focus or study you are currently following?

The thing that drives my encore career, now that I’ve retired from full-time local government management, is that you can’t teach unless you’re learning. Teaching classes, particularly new classes, forces me to learn, and I teach what I most need to learn.

In addition to teaching classes, I write a monthly column for the ICMA coaching program, called the Career Compass Column. I’m on column number 92 on my way to 100, and this forces me to keep learning because you have to understand the topic if you’re going to write about it and communicate with a wide audience.

What’s on your reading or podcast list?

In my professional life, I read a lot of stuff because I need content. I am a co-director of three leadership academies in the Bay Area, so I’m always looking for new material, and I do a lot of professional reading. Every day I receive a lot of blogs and newsletters. When I’m not doing professional reading, I read mysteries: cops and spies and all those things. I like Michael Connelly, John Sanford and of course John Grisham, that ilk. That’s my leisure reading.

Is there anything about you that your students would be surprised to know?

The greatest transformative experience of my life happened at an early age and led me to a career in local government. I took a year off from college and found a job as a community organizer in Mexico City. I spent a year working for the Social Secretariat of the Archdiocese (Catholic Church) of Mexico City. I was the only Arab Jew working for the Archdiocese, and I was involved with a group of volunteer organizers working with one of the colonias, or neighborhoods, on the outskirts of Mexico City.  

We helped organize cooperatives. A cooperative credit union, a cooperative store, a medical dispensary. That year of working in Mexico helped me discover the joy of building community, and that’s what’s I think local government is all about- building and transforming community.

Part of the classes that I teach, beyond the specific content and skill-building of the class, is sharing the joy of building community. When I went to Mexico City, I did not know Spanish, I didn’t have any friends or family there, I didn’t know anything about community organizing, so I had to jump in, learn and make mistakes, learn some more, pivot, and adapt and that’s what local government leaders do.

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