What is an Assistant To?: Ben McCready, City of Rock Island, IL

What is an Assistant to the City Manager? In between other duties as assigned, council meetings, and a bewildering assortment of public inquiries, ELGL members identify the essential functions of the position.

 Background Check

B2-1Ben McCready (LinkedIn and Twitter) serves as member of the ELGL’s Advisory Board and is one of ELGL Midwest’s Co-Founders.  After completing several internships and an MPA degree at Northern Illinois University’s Local Government Program, McCready began a path which has allowed him to become familiar with local government in Illinois, Indiana, and Oregon.

In his current role serving as Assistant to the City Manager in Rock Island, Illinois, he contributes to the city’s dynamic leadership team. Ben reports directly to the City Manager and is involved with a variety of projects. The Assistant to the City Manager performs many duties which include performing financial and budget analysis, acting as a liaison to outside agencies and community organizations, evaluating a wide range of departmental policies, and assisting with economic development.

Ben was born and raised near Bloomington, Illinois. He earned a B.A. from Augustana College (2006) and an M.P.A from Northern Illinois University (2008).

Lighting Round

 Your First Job?

Summer Operations Crew for the School District. I received free reign of the school over the summer, with unfettered access to the teacher’s lounge, utility closets, and roof. I spent my days toiling in the hot summer sun, weed eating, carpet cleaning, replacing ceiling tiles, installing fluorescent lighting, moving desks, and preparing the school for another year.

Last concert you attended?

Small Black and Washed Out at the Blue Moose Tap House in Iowa City.

Book you are currently reading? 

The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley.

Favorite restaurant in your community?

A Quad Cities hot spot located a short walk from home is RozzTox, awesome coffee, concerts, and free wi-fi.

 The Job

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What are three projects you are currently working on?

Monthly Operations Report

I recently assisted with transitioning the City’s budget to a calendar year format. As many fellow MPA graduates will attest, the budget is not only a collection of line items and narratives, but a communications tool. The City utilized the transition as an opportunity to revisit and revise the performance indicators. This itself was a challenge, attempting to discern what is substantive to the day in and day out provision of core services and what are essentially indicators of inputs, outputs, and financial trends.

After developing the indicators, I began to create a monthly report intended for the City Manager, Mayor, and City Council. The report is more akin to a dashboard, providing real time insights into the challenges facing the City. The indicators are portrayed visually, reflecting the seasonal variations and events that affect demand for service.  This monthly report is something that continues to be tweaked and evaluated in order to better tell the story of providing local government services.

Higher Education Partnership

After arriving in the Quad Cities I had the good fortune of connecting with another Oregon transplant, Michael Reisner, who had joined the prestigious ranks of faculty at Augustana College. Being a graduate of Augustana College I found myself uniquely positioned to cultivate the relationship between the City and this stakeholder. Mr. Reisner has been instrumental in building a program to partner with area communities promoting sustainability by leveraging the colleges resources. This program is modeled from a similar programs such as Oregon’s Sustainable Cities Initiative and the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities CityLabs. I’ve spent time working closely with the City’s Department to identify projects that offer students a substantive opportunity to connect and improve the community. The programs resources have been utilized to help address the Emerald Ash Borer and we are now exploring several other opportunities that naturally lend themselves to collaboration with Augustana College. This program recently offered an opportunity to connect with another ELGL supporter Eric Swanson of Medford, OR.

Budget

This word usually illicit’s the same response as emergency dental appointment, annual audit, or that funny blinking light on your vehicles dashboard. I’ve already mentioned the monthly operations report, but I’d like to expand upon other budget related aspects.

Last spring the City selected an intern from Augustana College to join the City Manager’s Office. Our intern has been a stellar addition to the team and essential to providing first rate service to Rock Island residents. I’ve had the pleasure of supervising the day to day assignments, trying not to encroach upon his academic commitments but finding projects which challenge him and expand his understanding of local government. Earlier this year I began working with our intern to build the framework for a new format for the annual budget presentation. Now that the final budget is coming into focus, I’m looking forward to working with him to refine the budget presentation before it is presented to the City Council. In the end the budget remains a living document that we use to tell the story of our successes and challenges each and every day, this new presentation will depart from the traditional power point and convey our local government story in a manner easily interpreted by staff, policy makers, and residents alike.

Who do you report to? What is your place on the Org Chart?

I report directly to the City Manager.  We have a small office which consists of the City Manager, Executive Secretary, City Clerk, and myself. Although the Community & Economic Development Director also fulfills the duties of Assistant City Manager, all department directors report directly to the City Manager.

How do you interact with City Departments? 

I interact with each department differently, engaging with staff at all levels of the organization to implement and coordinate cross departmental projects. I often assist with developing and vetting presentations to Council before they receive final approval from the City Manager. At other times I provide analytical assistance to departments analyzing data to discern trends or patterns which may not be immediately evident. At other times I work with departments to craft programs and procedures which are congruent with the direction provided by City Council.

Networking

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Aside from a City Manager, who are three professionals or peers you connect with on a regular basis?

  • Scott Sorrel, Assistant County Manager, Peoria County, IL

I recently attended a gathering of Assistant City Manager’s and Assistant to the City Manager’s in Iowa. Although Iowa is a mere stones throw away, I was not plugged into this group of my professional peers. Attending this event provided me with another perspective on the challenges facing communities in this area and dynamics between local government in a bi-state region.

Did you attend any conferences as a student? Do you attend any now?

As a student I did not attend any of the big conferences put on by ICMA or the state association. After completing my degree I began attending the Downstate Management Association conferences in Illinois. For those of you not familiar with Illinois, downstate” is a term used to affectionately describe professionals operating outside of the Chicago area. This was a great opportunity where I was able to connect with a number of professional who are still active and recognized as leaders today. The benefit of this smaller gathering was that the event allowed me more time to network one on one and ask the questions I needed to in order to get a perspective on the professional landscape I intended to join. I regularly attend the downstate association meetings and have taken on a leadership role with this group.

10420143_696281890457376_4391705196606160853_nI also volunteer for for ILCMA’s Winter Conference planning committee, taking an active role in planning and facilitating conference sessions. I recommend this conference for aspiring professional, MPA student, or anyone who wants to be more familiar with the local government landscape in Illinois. I’m impressed by this conferences continual focus on adapting and improving from year to year.

I’m also proud to say I attended #ELGL14! This offers an alternative to many other conferences. As an active ELGL member I firmly believe that this is one of the premier local government events. It presented a unique development and networking opportunity. In all seriousness, you know you have a group of dedicated local government professionals when you find yourself debating whether you should attend a breakout session on Municipal Fiber or Costing A Bargaining Unit Contract. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to participate with Ron Holifield in this conference and look forward to connecting with other aspiring professionals next October.

How do you recommend reaching out to someone for career advice?

This is an activity that is all too easy to put off especially when balancing the demands of graduate school or those of an aspiring professional.  I myself had reservations about reaching out to others and harbored concerns that my request may be written off. I thought that my interest may be misconstrued as an attempt to subvert a hiring process or ask for a job, when in reality I wanted to have a casual conversation and try to discern what challenges I may expect to face on the career path ahead.

I finally opened the laptop and sent emails. I contacted a variety of professionals and not necessarily the ones I already knew. I started off with simple emails explaining who I was and why I was reaching out. Thus far the response has been nothing but positive. For me the most difficult part has been reigning in my own passion for local government and allowing my listening skills to take over. Keep in mind that if you want to hear the wisdom others have to offer you have to be willing to listen.

Best three questions to ask when connecting with a City Manager?

  • How have you grown as a professional since you accepted your current position?
  • How does serving in the role of Assistant to the City Manager prepare someone to be an Assistant City Manager?
  • What best prepared you for your current role?

Getting the Job

Preparing for an interview, three pieces of advice.

  • Make an outline of your accomplishments. Include notes and specifics to remind you of key details; who you worked with, what you accomplished, why it was important. Provide alternatives to what the panel will read on your resume and cover letter.
  • Don’t be afraid or forget to ask about the process moving forward. Should you expect to wait 24 hours or two weeks to know if you are moving on in the process?
  • Send a personal thank you. Get the names of the people who are interviewing you and send a thank you. If you don’t get the position make a good impression, who knows when you may be applying there again.

How many jobs should I be applying for?

Many of my peers happened to find themselves in the right place at the right time when finishing graduate school. This is great if it happens to you, but it is not a good career strategy. Apply, apply, apply. When I completed graduate school I was interviewed for some positions that I was completely unqualified and I didn’t receive the opportunity to interview for positions I thought I would be a top candidate. I suggest applying and getting the interview experience, you will be glad you did when you are offered your first job.

What job titles should an MPA student be considering?

My peers and I were convinced of our readiness to be  Management Analyst’s or Assistant To’s when graduation neared. It can be discouraging if you limit your search to specific titles or departments. While a web search or visit to ICMA’s website may reveal where the City Manager jobs are located, many organizations are not posting entry level positions online. Not all cities treat every position the same either, so be willing to click on postings that you may be quickly dismissing or overlooking. A great position may be found under the guise of an administrative analyst or outside of the City Manager’s office. Some of my best experiences came not from the City Manager’s Office but rather in working with utilities and emergency services.

Most difficult thing about getting the first job?

For me the most difficult thing was not being able to compete, if I did not receive an interview I felt that I was not truly being considered for a position. This however is the nature of getting a job, you will have to put in effort crafting a cover letter and revising your resume to fit the position, with no guarantee that you will even be interviewed.

The Transition

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One day you’re a student and one day you’re a gainfully employed City employee, what changed?

I had a great supervisor when I took my first job. They helped me make a quick transition and laid out the expectations in a way that I could understand. Once you lose the title of student you will be held to a different standard, especially if you are receiving compensation and benefits. Be willing to fill the role without hesitation. Remember that you are responsible for your work, be confident about anything you put your name on. A recent ELGL article put it best, keep in mind that you are still being judged and “graded”, you no longer have that direct feedback in red on the front of every assignment.

What skills/traits do you think you rely on most to be successful in your job?

Some of the most successful City projects are not beholden to any one department and I would say that there is no one skill that makes an aspiring local government professional successful. To be a top notch Assistant To you need to master the basics. Looking at my own career path, I’m glad that I grew and developed as a professional before accepting my current assignment. Even to this day I look back and am humbled by my own development since accepting a position as Assistant to the City Manager. When it comes to basics, communications are a must. The written word, speaking in public, drafting press releases, crafting web content, be good at all of it and don’t rely on others to catch your mistakes. Also, a bit of advice, when applying please listen to the wisdom of Karen Pinkos and do not list “Microsoft Office” as a computer skill.

2dc24ad3685dfba6fdc6c1424ba90decAnother key area area is “soft skills”. Being adept at managing relationships is key to building consensus and collaborating, two aspects which are critical for success in local government. Initially I assumed that this is inherently second nature to everyone as well as assumed that I was getting it right every time. Not the case. Everyone has their own unique blend of personality and leadership, figuring this out is key to defining your own management style. Mastering these skills is a challenges as an Assistant To, essentially you are trying to find a way to lead without authority. Without direct supervision of staff or oversight of a functional area, this is one area where an aspiring professional may set themselves apart and contribute to the leadership team. Just keep in mind bullet points and top 5 lists will only get you so far, if you have the right traits its up to you to learn from your successes and failures to refine your skills.

Preparation. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you walk into a meeting without something to contribute. You will often know well in advanced when, where, and why you are meeting, don’t take that for granted. That being said, ask the right questions and come prepared to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful manner. Take advantage of your foreknowledge to ask what you need to have prepared in order to facilitate a productive use of your colleagues time. If you want to be a leader, think ahead and help your colleagues prepare. By ensuring that both you and your colleagues are prepared, your not only setting yourself up for success but the entire organization. You’re a steward of the community and a member of the leadership team, take ownership and help set the tone by establishing the right set of expectations.

Best practical experiences vs. Academic experiences.  

tumblr_mxiyu08sBx1r3rkd2o1_500From an academic stand point I would say that my course work related to statistics and analysis were most crucial. Recommendations are not justified with phrases like “it would be great if” or “I think it would be a good idea to”. As local government professionals we are held accountable by the public and face the added prejudice of overcoming local government stereotypes. I routinely rely on my abilities to analyze and interpret data beyond simply calculating averages and making graphs.

A career path is often punctuated by moments of transition, the interview, the acceptance, the new job are all exciting stories which shape our career. However, it is in between these moments that real career development is taking place. And it is perhaps when traversing these bullet points on my resume that I have learned the most and admittedly sometimes by making mistakes. As a professional I think I learned the most when I first submitted an agenda item for City Council. This process did not go as planned, but fortunately for me a team of dedicated professionals helped me move forward not by doing the work for me but pushing me to ask the right questions and resolve the matter myself. I felt a sense of accomplishment when the correct agenda item was approved by City Council.

Supplemental Reading

“Assistant To” Archives

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