Today’s Buzz is by Meredith Reynolds,
Deputy City Manager for Recovery for the City of Long Beach.
Follow Meredith on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
What I’m Listening To: Sir Rosevelt, Zac Brown’s side project, which sounds like country meets EDM
What I’m Watching: Ted Lasso and Only Murders In The Building
(a trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez that oddly works!)
What I’m “Reading” (via book on tape): The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and
How We Can Prosper Together By Heather McGhee
In May of 2021, I received a text from my City Manager. He had a big job for me. Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act in March, and subsequently, our City Council passed the Long Beach Recovery Act allocating these federal dollars to economic and health equity programs. The federal funding guidelines were about to be published and he needed someone to lead a three-year effort in the City Manager’s Office to properly spend and account for $250 million dollars and ensure long-term recovery for our community.
This was unexpected. It required a quick decision. I carefully weighed the opportunities and challenges…I planned parks for the people, which is tangible, meaningful and something I believe in. I had a team I put together that I LOVED, including a relatively new manager. I had an incredibly supportive boss, who was new, and I had a lot to learn from him and that could be really good for me. I did a lot of community engagement that centered equity and inclusion. We had just finished our Parks Make Long Beach Strategic Plan and I wanted to be around to help implement it. I had just returned from a COVID reassignment and things finally felt like they were trending back to cohesion.
On the other hand…I have long had a goal of being in city management. Recovery work in my community was also meaningful work. I believe my operational perspective would be valuable. I felt well-positioned to get the job done, having just been thrown into a reassignment to our Health Department to jump-start our COVID testing program at the beginning of the pandemic. It is hard to say no when the boss taps you for a special assignment. I could cut my commute time in half and now walk to work, adding more exercise to my routine. I could lift up another deserving staff member, recommending the perfect replacement to my Director. An increase in pay is never a bad thing. After and in-depth discussions with my husband (who is a great sounding board having also worked in local government), I accepted the position of Special Deputy City Manager for Recovery and launched into the role.
I painstakingly read every word of the Interim Rule. I scoured talented internal staff and hired a small and diverse staff team. I set up working groups that co-created important financial policies, swift approval procedures, and intentional program development processes. I pulled together the Recovery Leads in each participating Department to discuss and model our culture of collaboration. I was outcome-focused – recovery is a very visible and critical effort when one’s community is struggling.
As is my process, reflection for me comes later. And it didn’t strike me until recently that my decision has had other impacts I didn’t fully consider initially when deciding to make a significant transition within my local government organization.
Operational Roles vs. Administrative Roles
In this job transition, I was in a management role in our Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, which is an operational department with 167 park sites, 6 miles of beach, an Animal Care Services agency, and the largest municipally operated marina in the U.S. My parks work was operational in nature and fit into a web of work related to how parks and open space are managed in my community. I went into a city management role in the City Manager’s Office, which is administrative in nature. Much of my recovery work is about managing people and coordinating their work, so the role focuses on internal processes and interworkings of policy, finance and budgeting, communications and transparency, and performance management. One can certainly inform the operation of a city in this recovery role, but it is inherently administrative. And because I don’t directly oversee the Departments of their staff who are needed to make the recovery work move forward, the role requires a great deal of trust-building and collaboration to rally and influence others to do the work, which in turn requires patience.
If you are a manager of someone transitioning from operations to administration, communicating expectations and finding opportunities for tangible work is important.
Work that yields tangible results keeps employees motivated.
If you are an employee considering a transition, ask questions and fully understand the difference between operational and administrative work.
This will help you know where you skills best fit will help you make a good decision that aligns with your values and career goals.
In The Field vs. City Hall
My Parks Department has numerous field sites and the administrative offices are located in our regional park, a 30-minute drive from our City Hall in downtown. Parks people are generally upbeat, fun, inclusive, loud, and we celebrate each other a lot! The culture there is reflective of these attributtes and while there is a hierarchy, it is not omnipresent in the work. The office, built in the 1950’s, is campy (something out of the show Parks & Rec), is well-loved, some staff work in trailers, and it is surrounded by trees, sports fields, and your friendly neighborhood squirrels. The feel is less formal, many staff are in uniforms, and there is always staff coming and going to the other field sites. City Hall has a completely different culture and feel. The building is new, having opened in June 2019, and everything is still bright white without a lot of distinct character. Staff working in the building are often in suits making it feel very corporate. There is a very present hierarchy and position status seems to matter more, and there is an unstated expectation of decorum.
If you are a manager of an employee in transition from an informal-feeling field site to a corporate headquarters-like office environment, understand that the employee needs support to understand the culture and unstated norms in advance.
If you are an employee considering a transition, talk to people to help you learn about the culture and group norms.
These subtle but important differences make or break a work experience.
Remember Why They Hired You
You got the call (or in my case, text). They want you for what you bring to the table. Your experience, your emotional intelligence, your network and relationships, your attitude, your lived experience. Bring that to the job. In my case, I’m the parks believer that sees the value in equitable open space. I have curated an incredible employee coalition (my coalition of the willing!) and community network and can motivate others toward a mutual goal. I can navigate city processes and put pieces together, understanding how one piece fits into the rest.
If you are a manager of an employee in transition, intentionally work with your employee’s strengths and cultivate skill-building to support their areas of growth.
There are never good outcomes when hiring an employee for who they are and what they bring to the table and then completely switching up what you want them to be.
If you are an employee considering a transition, be careful of changing who you are to transition to a new role.
This doesn’t mean ditching the learning, adapting, and growing that comes with a new role, but don’t lose yourself to it either.
Remember Where You Came From
I transitioned into a Deputy City Manager position, skipping several management levels. People begin to see you in a new light and sometimes people begin to treat you differently. Some can want things from you, seeing you in a new position of power. Some want to align with you for their own political gain. Others may retreat from you, seeing you as being elevated and not one of them anymore – in many agencies, there is still a very real “us versus them” between city management and staff. It can be difficult to ascertain who your allies are. This can be isolating – there is real truth to the saying ‘it gets lonely at the top.’ This is all the more reason to continue cultivating relationships at all levels of the organization. Remembering where you came from is important. The people from the maintenance staff to the purchasing buyer to the inspector to the secretary are all people who support you and in turn, you support them.
For employees who are friends and close colleagues with a person transitioning into a new high-level job, treat the person as you always have. Invite them to the office potluck, the happy hour, the 5K, or that birthday party.
They need to know you still support them and you likely still value who they are regardless of their job choice.
For managers who have a transitioning employee, know that having a cross-sectional network is a special thing. That means they’ve taken the time to get to know people in the organization and this investment can help you understand employee experiences.
A broad base of support is a good thing – they have something worth following.
Transition can be hard. The impacts are sometimes unexpected. But things worth doing – like helping one’s community recover – are never easy.
“Takin’ on a challenge is a lot like ridin’ a horse.
If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.”