Haywood taps compassionate thinker as new county manager

fr doveIf there’s a word that precedes Ira Dove, it’s smart — really smart, very smart, even super smart.

“He’s always the smartest person in the room,” said Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger. “He is intelligent, he is very organized, he is an excellent communicator, he is a good listener, he is a good leader and has good common sense.”

With that kind of package, Haywood commissioners unanimously named Dove as their new county manager this week after five months of him serving in an interim capacity.

For the past four years, Dove, 45, has been the director of the Haywood Department of Social Services. Now, he’s replacing former county manager Marty Stamey, who stepped down last fall after seven years to return to his preferred field of health care, taking a management position at Haywood Regional Medical Center. 

While Dove isn’t dishing out his IQ score, he admits he is an analytical thinker.

“You have to ask a lot of questions, because when looking at situations or circumstances, you have to think, ‘What else could this mean?’” Dove said.

He’s got a knack for quickly assessing the lay of the land, predicting possible pitfalls and more importantly, a way around them.

“He is smart, he anticipates things very well, and makes good deductions when we are trying to interpret how something might go,” said Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Take this scenario, for instance. A couple of months ago, county commissioners were lamenting the lack of buyers for three empty offices buildings the county no longer needs and wants to unload.

Commissioners decided they should get a Realtor. But picking one Realtor in a county that’s full of them would no doubt step on some toes, so commissioners decided the fairest, most objective approach was to go with the top-selling Realtor, and they asked Dove to find out who that was.

Within seconds, Dove came up with half a dozen variables: should it be the top seller by volume of sales or by sale prices? The top residential or commercial seller? The top in just Haywood, or in WNC?

It’s a small example, but it’s the kind of on-his-feet analysis Dove is known for.

“He is very good at spotting a problem and spotting a solution. Whenever he presents me with options for a decision, it is well thought out and well organized with the pros and cons of each option,” Swanger said.

That’s important, considering the dozens of decisions, big and small, a county manager makes every day. When a department head comes to Dove with a question, he’s known to pull out a clean sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle, making notes on one side of the line or the other as the person talks, presumably cataloging the variables as he listens.

But Dove also understands people, and to him, that’s the biggest part of a county manager’s job. The mechanics of running the county come second. His most important role is supporting and cultivating the 500 or so employees who do the real work, he said.

“You help individuals to get the resources and training and support they need to help the organization reach its goals,” Dove said. “You are constantly switching lenses between the organization and component units in the organization and the individuals.”

Swanger agreed.

“One person can’t run Haywood County,” Swanger said. “You have to be able to select good employees, manage them well and empower them.”


A day in the life

Take a gander at Dove’s bookshelf and you’ll quickly see his leisure time has been anything but these past few months while cutting his teeth as interim county manager.

Titles include the First 90 Days in Government, 151 Quick Ideas to Inspire Your Staff, and Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell to name a few.

“You have to constantly learn, you have to constantly read, you have to be a student of leadership and management,” Dove said.

And for good measure, he has a copy of The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers.

It’s a great tool when you need a fitting quote for a situation, Dove said.

Since January, Dove has doubled as the interim county manager and the director of the newly consolidated Department of Health and Human Services.

It’s been a huge workload, but the double tour of duty made sense — not wanting to forsake his old job until, and if, the county manager gig was official.

Dove even kept two offices in play, although he was occasionally spotted toting a box of belongings out of DSS over the past few months.

“Everyone was really, really sad the day he walked out with his plant under his arm,” said Candace Way, who was Dove’s executive assistant at DSS. “I mean really sad.”

She has since made the move to the county manager’s office along with Dove and his office plant, however. The former county manager’s assistant recently left to take a new job as the Waynesville Town Clerk, opening up what Dove called a key position in the county, which he filled with Way.

During the transition, Dove credited his old colleagues at DHHS for picking up extra workload, and his new colleagues in county administration for helping him acclimate, and he wanted to give them a shout-out in this article. He grabbed up a note pad, ripped off a page and began scribbling down names. He quickly filled the front, then flipped it over to the back, and even wrote up the margins before eventually handing it over.

When former County Manager Marty Stamey resigned, he partly cited the rigorous workload of county manager, a non-stop schedule of always being on call. Dove said he’s prepared for that sacrifice. Although when asked about his hobbies outside work, there was a moment of silence.

“You have to live life sequentially at times,” Dove replied.

His work-life balance since January has been simple if nothing else.

“This six months, I work,” Dove said.

Dove’s hobbies, it turns out, revolve around his family. His wife, Angela, is an author. He has a son and daughter in elementary school and middle school, respectively, and has steadily been a coach and assistant coach for their soccer teams over the years. And, although he admits it sounds trite, he is active in his church, First United Methodist in Waynesville.

“Actually, I really am,” he said.

Swanger said Dove is clearly vested in Haywood County and won’t be looking for the next job with better pay in a year from now. Dove also has an institutional knowledge of the place. Those are two things money can’t buy in a hire, Swanger said.

“He instinctively knows things it would take another person years to comprehend,” Swanger said.

County commissioners opted not to go through a formal talent search merely so they could check off that box. 

“Whenever you hire someone from some place else you are never quite sure what you are getting. Even with the best search you could be getting somebody else’s problems,” Swanger said. “If we know we could not get a better quality candidate, why go through that?”

Kirkpatrick said the commissioners have had the benefit of watching him on the job over the past five months.

“We felt like he could lead the county in the right direction,” Kirkpatrick said.


An unusual trajectory

Dove wasn’t made from the mold of most county managers. He didn’t go to school for public administration. He doesn’t have a degree in finance, human resources or management. Instead, he majored in anthropology as an undergrad and got a master’s in sociology before going on to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dove cut his teeth in government as the attorney for the Haywood Department of Social Services from 2000 to 2009, when he became the director of DSS.

In that capacity, he learned the ropes of budgeting, personnel, and management, and regularly intersected with county departments. He oversaw a staff of 140 at DSS, compared to about 500 as county manager. The county’s budget is four times larger than that of DSS.

But his leadership philosophy is universal.

“Fundamentally, you have to learn to love the people you work with and the people you serve,” Dove said.

Luckily, that’s not too hard to do.

“There are a lot of great people here to work with. This is a great community to live and work in,” Dove said.

Dove doesn’t see himself as the visionary or course-setter for the county, but more of a facilitator who makes ideas happen and projects work. Dove looks to the elected commissioners to set the county’s bearings, and never leaves a meeting without a clear to-do list to carry those goals out.

“I enjoy working with the commissioners and helping bring out the goals that they set for the community,” said Dove. 

For Dove, that role extends beyond the borders of county government.

“I enjoy working with the various leaders within the county to bring out the best in each other so we can work together for the community and its citizens,” Dove said.

Haywood is in a golden age of sorts, with professional synergy among government leaders, education, business, nonprofits, community advocates and public safety, he said.

But Dove hasn’t lost sight of what he considers one of the biggest challenges facing the county.

“Although there are clear indications at the national level there is an economic recovery it is still filtering out in parts of North Carolina. There are signs things are getting better but we still have to be mindful of where we are in terms of economic recovery,” he said.

Dove said one of his most important philosophies, though, comes from his first mentor, Sister Mary Catherine, a nun with a social apostle in Atlanta that helped the less fortunate, where Dove took a job when he was first out of college.

“I learned that regardless of the circumstances you may see you always have to have hope that you are going to pull through, and you have to treat everyone with compassion no matter who they are,” Dove said.

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