It’s all about the process in the city manager search


by Rick Cole
December 8, 2012

Look for five new city managers in Ventura County — half the cities in Ventura County are currently operating with interim managers. Selecting a new chief executive officer for a city government is the most important decision a council will make.

Why? A city manager is responsible for day-to-day operations of city government and delivering quality services. Beyond that, the city manager sets the tone for the long-term success of the organization.

Is the city prepared for a natural disaster? Is it keeping up with advancing technology? Is it vulnerable to embezzlement, bribery or conflicts of interest? Is it developing and training a talented workforce to meet changing needs?

No one person, of course, can keep an eye on everything.

But one person is charged with making sure the city staff team operates effectively — and focuses on the right things.

The “buck stops” with the city manager. And in choosing a city manager, the buck stops with the city council.

While the popularity of a city manager is sometimes a local campaign issue, the importance of careful selection of a city manager is often ignored.

These days, few council members are elected with experience in hiring high-powered executives.

Instead, they usually rely on a handful of recruiting firms that specialize in conducting a “search” for the right candidate.

These firms are very good at what they do.

But they are no substitute for a city council doing job one: clearly and carefully defining what kind of chief executive their community and their city government will need in the next three to five years (the average tenure of a California city manager).

What’s needed? Everyone on a council, of course, has a wish list. Someone with small-town experience or coastal experience or speaks Spanish.

One who’s skilled at promoting economic development — or balancing budgets.

Who understands planning issues — or homeless concerns. Is open and accessible — or firm and decisive. Cares about parks or libraries or potholes or fill in the blank.

Typically, these individual desires are simply lumped together — which reminds you of the old joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

If a council fails to thoroughly discuss and reach a consensus on what’s truly important, recruiters have only an arbitrary wish list to rely on.

As the Cheshire cat reminded Alice: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Instead of starting with a clear consensus, council members normally rely on interviews to find “the right fit.” Typically, five or six candidates are interviewed by the council. Each gets only 45 minutes or an hour.

The process is more like a casting call for a commercial than an in-depth exploration of a candidate’s skills, track record and management approach. As both a former council member and an applicant, I’ve been on both sides of the city manager selection process. I know how subjective and superficial it can be.

The one thing a typical job interview will reliably reveal about a candidate is how good he or she is at interviewing for jobs.

People with little executive hiring experience often rely on first impressions.

A single answer can make or break a candidate. Council members who focus on finding someone who agrees with their personal agendas are shortchanging their duty to find an effective organizational leader.

Based on little more than these interviews, one or two finalists emerge.

Normally, the decision is made after only one more interview and some basic background checking. Given the challenges of local government today, there’s a better way.

Councils should start with a thorough and public discussion of their community needs and the key challenges facing their city government.

It’s vital to agree on the key qualities that are essential in a new city manager.

Knowing what the city is specifically seeking, a recruiter can pinpoint the search to candidates who fit that leadership profile — and who may need direct persuasion to ensure they apply.

The selection process should be comprehensive and probing — serious candidates should get serious vetting so the council knows a lot more than they will learn from a candidate’s answers to stock interview questions.

In the end, city managers are human — and so are city councils. “Success” is often subjective — every council member, not to mention individual citizens, will have his own criteria for judging city manager performance.

But given the high standards — and high salaries — for city managers, it pays to invest in an excellent selection process. Securing top-notch talent starts with a top-notch search.

Rick Cole served 15 years as a city manager in Ventura and Azusa, and also served 12 years on the Pasadena City Council. He currently is the parish administrator at the San Buenaventura Mission.

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