Marathon County’s 2018–2022 Strategic Plan :: Driven by Organizational Culture

Written by Lance Leonhard

On any given day, Marathon County’s 700+ full-time employees report to work to serve our community in a wide variety of ways, quite literally from A to Z:

We operate an Airport and a Zoning Department — and everything in between.

You may see our Sheriff’s Office deputies on patrol, our Highway Department workers plowing or repairing roadways, or our Parks, Recreation, & Forestry Department staff maintaining any one of our local parks. Our employees are also responsible for keeping vital government operations — like our 911 Emergency Dispatch, courthouse, jail, elections, and landfill — up and running.

Watch the video below to get a quick overview (it’s less than 3 minutes) about how County-level government serves Wisconsin residents.

With all this work to do, how do Marathon County leaders hope to stay on top of our community’s changing needs and priorities?

That was the question that led the County Board of Supervisors and County staff to complete a new Strategic Plan…

The Marathon County Strategic Plan: 2018–2022 identifies 12 specific objectives for us to focus on during the next 5 years.


The priorities were selected through a collaborative effort involving community leaders, the County Board, and staff. It’s no surprise that several of our priorities relate directly to some of the difficult challenges we currently face.

  • Mental Health Treatment (Objective 3.7) — Ensure that every person has local access to effective mental health treatment.
  • Heroin and Methamphetamine Abuse (Objective 7.2) — Mitigate the impacts of heroin and methamphetamine epidemics in Marathon County through evidence-based practices.
  • High-Speed Internet (Objective 8.7) — Strive to provide affordable, reliable, high-speed internet access throughout the county.
  • Roads, Bridges, and Other Infrastructure (Objective 10.12) – Maintain infrastructure to support economic growth.

You can view the entire Marathon County Strategic Plan: 20182022 here.


With such significant challenges before us, and given our ever-tightening budget, how can we hope to succeed?

The answer — a strong team.

And more specifically, a strong organizational culture, built on our Mission, Vision, and Core Values.

A strong culture that embraces innovation and professional development, while focusing on serving the public, will allow us to think outside of “the way we have always done it” and develop the tools and strategies to overcome our current challenges, as well as those yet to present themselves.

The good news is that strengthening our organizational culture has been a point of emphasis in Marathon County for over a decade. Since 2011, Marathon County has assessed its culture through countywide surveys on a biannual basis. But our real culture work comes after the survey…

We use the information we learn from our employees in the survey to make meaningful changes in how we operate. A few examples of these changes include:

  • Creating a Leadership and Management Development Program (LMDP) to build the capacity of our supervisors and department directors to lead, supervise, and develop skills within their staff.
  • Moving to a merit-based appraisal and compensation system to reward employees based on the quality of their work and their contributions to our culture, as opposed to simply the length of their employment.
  • Implementing a Core Value Education and Recognition Program to help new employees learn about our focus on Core Values driving our behavior and to recognize employees who exemplify those values in their work. (View some of our past honorees — such as Keith Wilcox, Troy Torgerson, and Mary Solheimhere.)
  • Establishing employee “Rounding Programs” to ensure staff have frequent interactions with their supervisors to discuss each employee’s personal and professional development goals and needs.

In addition to these countywide initiatives, each of our 25 departments takes the information from the survey and puts together a plan within its respective department to improve the department’s culture.

Our Conservation, Planning, and Zoning (CPZ) Department exemplifies some of the benefits we’ve seen from focusing on enhancing our organizational culture. Prior to 2012, our CPZ Department (responsible for land management and planning programs, land surveying, and administering the county’s zoning code in participating towns throughout the County) viewed its role mainly as one of enforcement — denying permit applications or issuing citations when applications or existing structures didn’t comply with existing regulations.

The department was passionate about fulfilling its mission to “protect our community’s land and environment,” but the way it went about pursuing that mission often left our residents unhappy, dissatisfied, and without any real insight into how to fix a given problem. In addition to frustrating residents, such an approach left our staff feeling uninspired and disengaged.

marathon_county_administrator_brad_kargerSo, in 2012, Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger stepped in and began working with CPZ staff and new director, Rebecca Frisch, to get to the heart of the problem and turn things around. Karger didn’t mince words, saying:

“From this point forward, in every contact with an internal or external customer, we will be honest, kind, and respectful. This is non-negotiable and nothing less will be accepted.”

The results from the CPZ’s Culture Survey back then were one of the key components to diagnosing the problem and developing the solution.

Ultimately, CPZ adopted a model focused on residents, viewing them as valued customers to be served. Staff now ensure that they take the time to learn what their customers’ needs are and then work with them to find ways to meet those needs while still complying with our existing rules and regulations.

CPZ adopted and actively supports the mantra that every interaction should be Honest, Kind, and Respectful (see page 11 of Vol. 3, Issue 3 of Wisconsin Central Time NEWS for further details).

The result?

Stronger relationships with farmers, landowners, and other customers, which allows us to do an even better job of protecting our land and environment.

The improved organizational culture at CPZ has helped it take on several large-scale projects in a very short window of time, including:

As the County moves forward with tackling the objectives in the Strategic Plan and our goal of being the healthiest, safest, and most prosperous county in Wisconsin, we recognize that our team of County government employees is one of our greatest assets.

That’s why Marathon County leadership has been actively building its culture for the past 10 years by using surveys such as the Denison Organizational Culture Survey to measure where we are versus where a strong culture needs to be. In spring of 2017, Marathon County conducted its most recent organizational culture survey. (View the full survey results here.)

While we still have plenty to work on, we’re very proud of the tremendous improvement in scores we’ve seen over the past 10 years. Below is a pictorial summary of the results of our most recent survey.

The Denison Organizational Culture Survey is a 60-item survey with 5 questions about each of the 12 indexes shown above. The numbers on the chart indicate percentile scores, meaning that Marathon County government scored that percent higher than all the firms in Denison’s national benchmark database.

Our commitment to our culture ensures that we have a working environment in which every staff member understands the important role each person plays in our overall success.

If being part of a value-driven organization committed to public service and employee learning and development sounds appealing to you, I invite you to visit our website to view employment opportunities, or feel free to email me to learn more about working in Marathon County government.

You can view our strong values and positive work culture in our “Employee WorkStories” videos.

We employ amazing people, and they have amazing stories I’m sure you’ll enjoy!

Lance Leonard - Marathon County Deputy AdministratorLance Leonhard

Marathon County Deputy Administrator 

Lance Leonhard began his career in Marathon County government in the Office of Corporation Counsel and currently serves as the Marathon County Deputy Administrator. Lance’s career in public service has spanned more than a decade, having worked for the federal government as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and for the state of Wisconsin as an Assistant District Attorney. Outside of work, you’re likely to find Lance spending time with his family, traveling, teeing off on a local golf course, or sitting around a campfire with friends.  Email Lance Leonhard.

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