Adjectives like “engaged” and “excited” are a little too subdued to describe the City Manager of the county’s largest community, Palm Bay. Though she did not set out to be a city manager, Lisa Morrell’s expertise was in Information Technology.
However, as she rose through the ranks of the city’s IT department, she found that her job involved interfacing and solution-finding for every department serving the sprawling municipality. So, in late 2018, when it was time to reboot the city’s administration, she was the person the commission tapped to step into the role of City Manager.
With an annual budget of over $180 million, a population that is approaching 120,000 and a city workforce that exceeds 800, it was no small task. But it is one she seems to relish. In fact, if you contact the city with a complaint, it might be Morrell who shows up on your doorstep to discuss the situation. It is one aspect of an administrative style she describes as “servant leadership.”
A Boston College graduate, her father was a commercial/industrial facilities director and her mother an interior designer. She recalled, “Our home was the site of one remodeling project after the other, long before there was an HGTV. He was a real craftsman, which made me very comfortable around people and projects in the construction trades.”
Morrell, along with her husband, her newborn and her parents, all followed her grandparents south to Palm Bay about twenty years ago. She had learned tech support and network integration in the intensive environment of a major hospital and landed a job with the city as a network analyst.
During the next 19 years, she was progressively promoted, as the utilization and the complexity of computer networks, in a city the size of Palm Bay, continued to expand. “When I came on, only 25 people could send external emails. Now we have over 700 users. It was an exciting time of growth, both for the city technologically and for me, as a leader and manager of people,” she said. Adding, “As director of IT, beginning around 2011, I had to some degree, understand what every department and every key department leader did, in order to develop IT solutions to improve their efficiency.”
When she became City Manager, transforming both public confidence, as well as the buy in of the city’s employees has been on the rise, as Morrell emphasized transparency, communication and serving the people, who in turn, serve the city. “I told our team we are 88-square-miles of hospitality,” she recalled about her initial meetings with city employees. “That we exist to insure everyone’s experience within the city is exceptional. We strive to be approachable, that we listen and then, and most importantly, we take action to address their concerns. Then we communicate with the citizens or the business owners about what we are doing.”
In a job that not only involves leading and managing a vast workforce, but also includes responding to the needs of thousands of citizens, while being accountable to elected politicians, is a balance not everyone can find. “The amount and the pace of change never lets up, because in a sense, the job is never finished,” she said.
She said her greatest leadership awakening came not from her ever-expanding role with the city, but as a youth soccer coach. “Getting all these five-year-olds to understand the fundamentals and goals of the game,” Morrell shared, “then to work together and finish strong, while dealing with the ‘parent factor,’ taught me a lot.”
“Essentially, I view every employee as a leader, even if they aren’t in a leadership or supervisory role and I try to treat them as such. Also, I endeavor to keep everyone focused on the purpose, the why, the vision of what we are doing and the goals we have,” she said.