Successfully choosing your next City or Town Manager is not difficult if you follow a few basic rules.
Over many years as an Executive Recruiter, I have observed the process that cities and towns use when they hire new City / Town Managers. All too often, mistakes are made. Sometimes the Recruiter’s is to blame. Sometimes the Elected Council. In either instance, the consequences can be tragic. As an Executive Recruiter here is what I have observed they do right and what they do wrong. Fortunately, for the rest of you, these missteps are avoidable.
1. Decide who will manage the Manager Search
Government entities often use their own staff or headhunters. Either works but be aware that a good search will take 200+ hours of dedicated time and generally in-house staff do not have that kind of time available. Several years ago, we did a study that found it took cities and counties approximately eight months to find a manager while a good recruiter will complete the search in three months. Note: Not all recruiters are the same so call their references and ask how long it took.
2. Plan ahead
Early on, put someone (either a staff person or an executive recruiter) in charge of the project and hold them accountable. Decide what characteristics you want your next manager to have and stick to them. It will save a lot of time and potential conflict. One city we know advertised without specifying the credentials and then spent months debating whether or not it should seriously consider an assistant who did not have a college degree. Lay out a schedule including when the interviews will be and tell the applicants right up front. Another city that could not interview two of its finalists because by the time they were notified of the interview dates, they had conflicts.
3. Simple advertising doesn’t guarantee good applicants.
Many cities place an ad in the trade press and wait for the resumes to roll in. Generally one or two good candidates and a few more possibles will apply. But best candidates usually do not — they are happy where they are. Tell you lead person to go find the best. That way you only get the cream of the crop and you can’t make a mistake. A few years ago we saw a city advertise. They received 101 responses, brought in eleven top notch candidates for interviews and hired one. A year later he was gone and they hired us to go look for the right person. We produced four first-class good finalists and they are still thrilled with the man they hired.
4. Don’t just blindly trust your recruiter
Some cities hire an executive recruiter, sit back and wait for results. Don’t. One city we know did just that and hired a dud. He had no idea of how to manage and when some of the council members ran into people from the managers prior city, they were told, “Oh, we thought you know we were about to fire him”. Another city hired someone with no people skills and who spent the money whether it was budgeted or not. Nine months later, after half the city’s department directors had quit, the manager was fired. How were these people hired in the first place? Someone, apparently the recruiter, did not do his homework and no one was checking the recruiter. Before you hire a recruiter, check the Internet and see what you can find out. Once you hire a headhunter, tell the firm you want to know what they have done to find candidates and to check their backgrounds — make sure they tell you who they interviewed when doing reference checks and what the results were of the background checks (criminal, civil, credit, Internet and so on). In fact, see the next paragraph.
5. Do your own homework
Make sure your city (or your headhunter, if you use one) does thorough background checks. Call more than just the candidates references. Talk to the elected officials from their cities, the city attorney, the press, the chamber of commerce director and president. Talk to anyone else you know in the area and search the Internet to build a picture of your candidates. One city hired an interim manager and liked him well enough that they made him permanent. After a while they noticed that he seemed to have a little trouble following the rules and was gone a few days every month. It turned out that he was facing criminal charges for what he did in his prior city. Another city hired a manager how had been fired after nine months because he was incompetent and spent all day in his office staring at his calendar. Was that a good hire? Did they do a background check? No.
6. Watch out for candidates who have worked in many cities / towns.
Managers who move often are either on the way up or lack some of the necessary skills to be a successful manager. Either way, your city should think twice before hiring them. If the manager on the way up, unless your city is at the top of the food chain, your city will be just a stop in the road until a better job comes up. As for those who lack some of the necessary skills, enough said. But dont necessarily rule someone out who has been in several cities. A good friend of ours managed five cities in thirteen years but has spent the last eleven in on place. He readily admits that as a young manager, he routinely got ahead of her council and got in trouble for it.
7. Consider hiring ‘Assistant’ or ‘Deputy’ City Managers
Many cities want someone who has already been a manager. Experience is important but can also be overrated. Top managers are like top football coaches. Someone had to give them their start. Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells were assistants before they became head coaches. Given a choice between a manager who has been in four towns in eleven years and well respected assistant, manager, I would go with the assistant every time.
8. Elected Officials: Examine yourselves
Very few elected officials come into office really understanding the council-manager form of government. Some learn, some do not and when they do not, the problem will not be solved by changing the manager. Often the elected body needs to look at how it is doing business and change. Otherwise no manager will be a success. Ask yourself these questions. Do council members go beyond setting policy and tend to get involved in the day-to-day operations. Do department heads circumvent the manager, go straight to the council members and give them the straight scoop? Does an elected official regularly socialize with one or more department heads? (Perception can be everything.) Does an employee group, such as a union, exert a great deal of influence with the elected body? If you have answered yes to one or more of these questions, your elected body may want to consider reviewing how it does business before it brings in the next manager. Otherwise, it is the old story – you cannot expect different results if you keep doing the same things over and over again.
Conclusions
1. Decide who in your organization will manage the Executive Search.
2. Plan ahead.
3. Simple advertisements doesn’t guarantee good applicants.
4. Don’t ‘blindly’ trust your Headhunter.
5. Do your own homework.
6. Watch out for candidates who have worked in many cities / towns.
7. Take a look at ‘Assistant’ or ‘Deputy’ City Managers.
8. Elected Officials: Examine yourselves.
Colin Baenziger is an Executive Recruiter who actively consults hundreds of local governments throughout the United States. He is a Senior Associate with Municipal Solutions, llc and President of Colin Baenziger & Associates in Wellington, Florida.

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