ELGL has assembled an “A” team of Assistant To’s willing to provide insight into their transition from MPA Candidate to gainfully employed local government professional. In between other duties as assigned, council meetings, and a bewildering assortment of public inquiries, Nathan Mosley, Ryan Adams, Clay Curtin, and Ben McCready have collaborated to identify essential advice for the MPA student with aspirations of one day having a job.
Ryan Adams (LinkedIn and Twitter) is a key member of ELGL’s Southwest Chapter where he helps coordinate webinars, activities, and ELGL events. Adams initially began with a kinesiology degree but found his true passion in local government. After completing his MPA at the University of North Texas Adams was ready to take the first steps towards a career he found to be challenging, dynamic, and relationship-based. As an aspiring local government professional he has navigated a career path, transitioning from intern to management analyst, and is currently serving as Assistant to the City Manager at the City of Irving, Texas.
Your first job?
Grocery bagger for the neighborhood Kroger – It was about the only job you could get as 15 year old. However, once I had a driver’s license I went uptown and scored a job at Chuck-E-Cheese. I learned great lessons in patience as a cashier, birthday party host, and cook. Above all, that job taught me to grow thick skin and work hard. And because the job always fell to the newest team member, I spent many hours dressed as a mouse, wondering how many people had worn the costume since it was last sent to the cleaners.
Last concert you attended?
That would be last night’s Grouplove and Portugal. The Man gig in Dallas.
Book you are currently reading?
I just finished up “It’s Your Ship” by Michael Abrashoff. It’s gives sound management advice and it’s a fairly comfortable read. I’ve always thought its best to balance professional reading with reading for pleasure, so I’m also making the most out of my commute with an audiobook of T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”. It’s a bit of a modern adaptation of the Arthurian legend.
Favorite restaurant in your community?
Fish City Grill. Any place that can perfect waffle fries (which they have), will command my loyalty.
What are three projects you are currently working on?
A little over six months ago, the Director who managed our legislative program left for another job opportunity. This person had been so skilled at running the legislative program that no other person in the organization was prepared to pick up the program without a hitch. The job fell to the Deputy City Attorney and I to steward the program until a long term plan could be established. While I was fully aware of the complexities of the program and the challenges of the legislative process in general, I was up for it. One major task includes managing the absolute mountain of legislative information that is directly or indirectly sent to the City, which entails being selective in what communications are passed on to staff members and what communications, while informative, are not actionable. Other critical duties include developing the legislative agenda (what legislation the City will and will not support) for the Council to adopt, and managing the contracts and work of the City’s legislative consultants.
Irving is slowly wrapping up its budget development activities for the year. With a City Manager transition occurring concurrently with the development of the budget, the budget team essentially charted new waters with our development approach. Beginning this year, staff is building a budget process that is much more forward thinking than in past years. This involves developing long term outlooks, financial plans, and engaging the Council in critical policy decisions much earlier in the process. The ultimate goal is to illustrate the impact of each major budgetary decision on the City’s future finances.
Housing Program Assessment
One of the City’s housing assistance programs recently underwent a process assessment to determine what changes could be made to provide a more efficient and customer-friendly experience. My role was to act as a liaison between the City and the outside agency facilitating the assessment. With the assessment complete, I am working alongside our housing staff as they apply the recommendations to our processes including changes in requirements to enter the program, enhanced marketing practices, procedural updates, and performance measures.
Who do you report to? What is your place on the Org Chart?
I report directly to the City Manager. In our office, however, we also have a Deputy City Manager and two Assistant City Managers whom I regularly communicate with and take direction from. I try to meet with each on a regular basis and to assist with whatever projects or tasks they ask me to steward.
How do you interact with City Departments?
I interact with some more than others depending on the project I am working on or what information I am trying to assemble for the City Manager or Councilmember. Most of these interactions involve gathering operational information or status updates. I sometimes act as a CMO liaison for working groups – such as the Economic Development or Comprehensive Plan teams. Still other departments I will work with closely over a longer period due to a particular project I am working on. This might be in the development of an RFP, the updating of policies or procedures, creating a program to fill a need or analyzing data.
Aside from a City Manager, who are three professionals or peers you connect with on a regular basis?
Outside of the Irving organization I keep up regularly with:
- Jim Cook, Police Captain, Coppell, TX
- Matt Feryan, Senior Emergency Management Specialist, Plano, TX
- Jason Moore (Richland Hills, TX) and Michael Montgomery (Celina, TX) – both Assistants to the City Manager. We just kicked of a breakfast group that meets every month or so to talk about projects and how we’re handling the challenges of the job.
Did you attend any conferences as a student? Do you attend any now?
Absolutely! Of course most conferences will give you usable information you can apply to your job and introduce you to new practices at other organizations. However, I think the best argument for conferences is that they are good for the soul. They re-energize you and can reignite your passion for your job and profession. I am a firm believer that the best thing you can do at a conference is to come away with a handful of deep and meaningful conversations with the people you meet. Come early or stay late and introduce yourself to strangers. Try to learn as much about their job and their style as you can – what they’re working on, how their career progressed, and what their struggles are. You’ll not only come away with a business card, but a resource who can illustrate a different perspective.
I try to make the regional conferences of our assistant’s organization, UMANT, as well as any other regional events that time and budget will allow. The Texas City Management Association strong and organized and, as a result, puts on a great annual conference. Many of their sessions are led by City Managers, Assistant City Managers, and other staff members who were able to catch lightning in a bottle and create something special that is worth sharing with their peers. They’ve been where you are, had your questions and hesitations, and are ready and willing to help you.
How do you recommend reaching out to someone for career advice?
Have the courage to ask someone. It’s the hardest thing for me to do as someone new to the profession. We all try hard to show we’re smart, capable, and know exactly where we’re going. Perhaps we think that admitting that we are not the complete masters of our own destiny will brand us as unorganized or without vision. I think most would agree that true leaders are where they are because, at one point, they had the wisdom to seek advice.
When it comes to who you seek advice from, I try to cast a wide net. The goal isn’t to take one person’s advice to the bank but to let the advice of many successful professionals guide you. Ask the City Manager who has been at the top of one City for 20 years. Ask the young hotshot City Manager who skyrocketed through the ranks. Ask the ACM who has been in the business for decades in multiple cities and has seen it all. Ask the person who has the job you want next.
Build a lunch list. Write down the names of people who you have briefly met or who have been spoken highly of by others. Make it a goal to meet each of them for lunch (or anytime, really) and learn from their own journey.
Three questions to ask when connecting with a City Manager?
- How do you handle and rise above the challenges of your position?
- How did you learn to lead people?
- What from your career are you the most proud of?
Getting the Job
Preparing for an interview, 3 pieces of advice.
- Research the organization heavily. Find out what its major initiatives are, its scope of operations, its strategic direction, its customers, its partners, and its accomplishments. Not only does it show you’re interest, but it gives you the context to draw from when responding to interview questions.
- Be able to match your skills and accomplishments to each of the important functions of the job. The interview panel will want to quickly confirm that you can back up the claims on your resume and move on to whether you are a good fit for the organization. Having the ability to tie your abilities and successes to what they are looking for will only speed that process along.
- Speaking of “fit” – flip the interview on the panel. The interview is your opportunity to make sure the organization is right for you. Ask straightforward questions about the culture, management styles, initial expectations, and the opportunity for career advancement and growth.
How many jobs should I be applying for?
This is a difficult question. I have met students and new professionals who are quite selective in submitting applications and others who are not selective at all. My advice is to apply as often as you can without sacrificing the quality of your applications. If you are starting your local government career it is more important for you to get in the door with a good organization than to find the perfect entry level position. Once you’re in the door, don’t be shy about your desire to learn and grow. A good organization will always give you an opportunity to prove yourself. Start applying early too. If this is your chosen career, why not start working for that first position tomorrow?
What job titles should an MPA student be considering?
I’d shy away from looking for a specific title – you’ll only box yourself into a narrow search. Look deeper at the nature of the job, who it reports to, and the level of responsibility it requires. Each city will have different job titles for similar positions. What is an Administrative Assistant for one city could easily be an Assistant to the City Manager for another. Don’t worry if you do not jump right into a City Manager’s Office either. A position in an operations department will not only give you an area of expertise (you can say you cut your teeth in this or that department) but give you a look at how life is like as a front line service provider and a first-hand lesson in how cities operate. That knowledge will pay dividends once you find your way into the CMO.
Most difficult thing about getting the first job?
I had to learn patience and a little bit of humility. Several times I would find what I thought was the perfect position, research the organization, fine tune the resume, draft a killer cover page and never see an interview. Then you have to muster the energy to start the process over with a new position. To add, I would watch as fellow peers would land great opportunities at great cities. Getting that first job would not be a slam dunk. I had to hold a belief that with persistence, optimism, and a lot of hustle, I would find my opportunity. And I did.
One day you’re a student and one day you’re a gainfully employed City employee, what changed?
I ended my chapter as a student and, aside from an internship, began my first full time local government position within the same month. Because local government is my second career, I was really quite relieved to be working full time again. However, where life as a student was regular, answers were available, and feedback was plentiful, there was an adjustment to the unknowns of a new position in a new organization. Perhaps the biggest differences is that, while a student, your career and first position are always talked about in abstract. In that first job, its game time. Right from the start you must take ownership of your responsibilities, prove your worth, complete the tasks at hand, and make sure you are giving your best effort.
What skills/traits do you think you rely on most to be successful in your job?
In the role of Assistant To, there is such a high degree of interaction with staff that careless communication will cause you instant regret. I strive to communicate my requests and questions clearly and respectfully, working to ensure that staff members in the organization view me as an asset and not an annoyance. Attention to detail and follow through are highly valuable skills that ensure whatever goes into or out of the City Manager’s hands is complete and accurate.
One key admission of the position is that no person can have an intimate knowledge of every area of operation, policy issue or program within the City. It’s impossible. One has to get by through asking the right questions and never losing the desire to learn more.
Best practical experiences vs. Academic experiences.
One common thread that runs throughout the operations of a local government is finance and budgeting. No matter the type or depth of the operation, it must be funded in some way or another. Through the development of a city budget, an emerging leader will be instantly exposed to the important aspects of governance. In watching departments walk through their proposed budgets, you will experience the breadth of municipal operations and programs, learning how services are provided and by whom. Budget deliberations expose the competing interests that leadership must weigh against the needs of the city. Citizen engagement, capital financing, debt capacity, strategic planning, and Council policy deliberations are all key elements of the budgeting process. Taking part in that process was an invaluable learning experience for me.
The classes I found most important, as you can guess, were those related to finance and budgeting. I imagine that if you’re uninformed in the management of public dollars, you will struggle as a public manager. A close second were classes that involved the statistics and the manipulation of data. No one expects public managers to be able to run a full statistical analysis in excel, but in looking at information it’s important that we don’t fool ourselves into believing something is there that isn’t. Worse yet, we might miss something critical that is hidden within the data.