In the heart of a city with more awards and accolades than one can count, a team works—after all, those honors don’t come easily and they don’t come freely. Under the leadership of 13 people, the city of Greenville runs, with everything from parking to transportation, events and permits under their watch.
And behind the team, quietly pressing them for their best work—both individually and as a unit—sits John Castile.
John Castile was—quite literally—born into a team. As the youngest of seven, he learned early on what it meant to be only one part of a larger whole.
“You have to negotiate,” he says, remembering back to how his childhood shaped his thinking. “And, you’re typically negotiating with people who have more experience. Being number seven of seven means you’re accustomed to doing more with less…accustomed to other people going through [life] before you.”
Those early experiences—and learning how to work within such a large family unit, had a strong influence on his work ethic from the beginning. Because his parents were older, Castile developed a value structure that “naturally” gravitated toward work. Even as a young child, he wasn’t afraid of putting in long hours to get a job done.
Eventually, this began to show in his own life. In 1984, as a high school student in Columbia, he was named “Mr. Basketball” for the state of South Carolina—an honor that recognized students for not only their sports proficiency, but also their academic and personal development.
Still, even while being decorated as one of the top athletes in the state, Castile was noted for his emphasis on being a team player. In an article published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal on March 1, 1984, his coach from Eau Claire High School—George Glymph—was quoted as saying, “He honestly cares nothing about shooting. He’d rather dish off to another player who has the hot hand.”
In turn, Castile notes Glymph was influential to him as a teenager, calling him a “pivotal personality in my development.” Under Glymph, Castile says, is where he learned the true value of being part of a team.
“[It was] being a part of something that is larger than the individual; it’s kind of like a family,” Castile remembers of his high school team. “You have a role in that family. And just because you’re not the person that scores the most points or has the most rebounds or whatever, understanding the value of being a part of that I find to be so important, because the group is so much larger than just the individual.”
Later that year, Castile found himself at Furman, once again playing basketball on a scholarship. Immediately, things were drastically different.
“In the majority of my high school experience, people looked like me. At Furman, they looked different,” he says. Over the four years of college, however, he grew, and found that while everyone at the school came from different backgrounds, they still had a lot in common to build on.
“You focused on what you had in common versus the things that made you different,” he says, “so it was perfect for me in the sense that as part of a team you highlight the good things and you minimize the weaknesses.”
That was a lesson that would come in handy for him over his college career, as he went from one of the highest winning teams in the state (in high school), to one that lost…a lot. But realizing that same advice—highliting the good and minimizing the bad—Castile chose to realize that it was simply the situation that had changed—not an indictment of his own talent or character.
“Nothing’s changed—it’s just that the perception has changed, and you can’t control perception because you can’t touch everybody,” he says. “So what do you do when that happens? It can break you.”
But Castile didn’t let it break him. Instead, he chose that time to learn three lessons that he remembers to this day.
“One, you need to be cognizant and humble, because you can’t believe everything that everyone says. Two, losing is not so bad. Three, the high of a win is never as low as the loss,” he says. Calling the lows “far more defining than the wins,” Castile notes, “When you win, people say ‘let’s go do it again.’ When you lose, people start to question your vision, your desire, and your skills. It can be a burden.”
Aside from basketball, Castile also focused on a political science degree, and upon graduating, tried to figure out his next steps. Ready to conquer the world, he initially took a job with the local grocery chain, Bi-Lo. But when it looked like he’d have to move to Charlotte for the job, he took a step back to reflect on where he really wanted to be. After positions with the Greenville News and even with Sunbelt Human Advancement Resources (SHARE), he decided he didn’t just want a job; he wanted a career.
“At some point, you have to decide who you are and where to set your roots up and what you’re gonna do,” he says. So, in 1995, he took a job with the City of Greenville, in the recreation department.
Rising through the ranks in city government, it was only about a decade later that Castile was offered the position of Assistant City Manager, under then-Manager Jim Bourey. In this position, he became the lead on such projects as the Kroc Center, Fluor Field, and even A.J. Whittenberg Elementary school.
He thrived in these positions—as a “mission-based” person, he puts in long hours on the projects because he believed in them. Considering himself simply fortunate to be in the right project at the right time, Castile was instrumental in many large scale projects that helped define Greenville during that period of time, although he’s still quick to pass the credit on to someone else.
That’s likely part of the reason why, in 2010, he was named City Manager
Since 2010, with Castile steering the City’s day-to-day activities and dealings, Greenville has been awarded more titles than one can count. From Men’s Journal’s “Top 18 Coolest Towns in America” to Forbes’ #6 “City with the Greatest Capacity for Innovation”—and on and on—Greenville has been a shooting star, bringing attention from around the globe to the city with a population of only slightly more than 61,000 people.
But try as you might to give Castile any credit for it, he’s not likely to take it for himself. Instead, he’ll do what he has done for years—pass it on to a team member.
But to be fair, the leadership team of the city is impressive in its own right—13 people, each in their department, each leading their own teams of people to move the city forward. But as many true leaders are—they are strong, with their own ideas and methods in getting things done. It would be easy to view the oversight of such a group of individuals as a challenge, but Castile sees them in a very different way.
“I work with the most amazing group of people and they are true public servants,” he says. “I have the fortune of seeing them work far more hours than what the time clock says. And I truly believe that they care more about the organization and the community than they do about personal gain.”
This becomes even more evident when you look at some of the practices that have been implemented by the team as a whole. For example, it’s not unusual to find the entire leadership team outside City Hall on Tuesday afternoons—to both try and keep the meetings from becoming “stale,” as well as to connect each person to the community they serve, many weekly meetings turn into field trips. The team has ridden GreenLink, speaking with others riding the bus about their experiences. They’ve scooted along on Segways to view the city as a tourist might. They’ve visited the Governor’s School to see the campus and the students in their own environment. And every once and a while, you can catch them simply walking downtown, taking in their surroundings and making notes on possibilities or current challenges.
For Castile, this process is simply about reconnecting with the community.
“We’re all so accustomed to coming to work a certain way and going home a certain way. We eat; we do whatever; but there are segments of our community that some of us just don’t go in,” he says. Citing the bus trip as an example, he notes that it’s only after you see how someone else lives in the same space that you can really make solid decisions about it.
“It’s when you see a woman getting on with her grocery bags and you realize that she has to go a few times a week…when you see the weary person getting off of third shift knowing that they are just trying to get home,” he says. “So, when we are trying to fill the [bus driver] positions, it’s not just about processing the applications. It really is about providing a service that somebody needs.”
Those personalized experiences should be factors in each city job, he says, whether it’s cutting the grass at the park placing an art installment downtown. And by allowing each member of the team to experience them individually, he adds, you create problem solvers—even outside of their own department.
“The organization becomes a problem solver now because they’re aware of it,” he says. “Not everything has to come to the city management for debate and resolution.”
In fact, he adds, “If you don’t constrict the information flow—information can be used as a tool or a weapon, but it can also be used as a tool to free people—if you allow them as much information as possible you don’t have to solve the problem. Good, talented people will understand where the friction occurs and resolve it.”
After all, in the end, Castile’s job is to be so good at his job that he is, in essence, not needed.
“At the end of the day, I do believe my job here is to prepare the organization to be in the best position so that when I’m no longer here it has multiple choices for who should lead,” he says.
And as to the many awards that constantly grace magazines, websites and press releases, hailing the city that he calls home? They’re wonderful, he says, but you can’t live and work solely for the recognition.
“We acknowledge that when you get an award, you started that job five or 10 years ago, so some of the people [working on it] have either retired or left the organization,” he says. “But the magic in working in a municipality is that it changes. What is today might not be here tomorrow, so we continue to focus on what’s next and how we want to grow.”
That growth, he says, is the focus of the entire team within City Hall—including those elected—to make Greenville the best it can be.
“We never sit around and say, ‘we just got an award,’” he says. “If you do you’ll find that the awards will quit coming. I think if you continue to do those things that have made you successful in the past…the awards take care of themselves.”
Today, 20 years after first walking in to the City as an employee in the recreation department, Castile has made a name for himself among his peers, his staff, and beyond.
Few may be able to truly note the essence of Castile as well as Greenville mayor Knox White, who was quoted in The State in 2013 as saying, “I marvel at John Castile. He is amazing, and he can complete my sentences. He’s a modest individual. You don’t see him on TV a lot. He kind of leads from behind. A manager is different from being a leader.”