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What is an Assistant To? Julie Eckenrode, Town of Carrboro, NC

Posted on October 14, 2014


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What exactly does the Assistant to the City Manager do? In between other duties as assigned, council meetings, and a bewildering assortment of public inquiries, several ELGL members have collaborated to identify essential advice for the MPA student with aspirations of one day having a job. Ryan Adams, Irving, TX and Nathan Mosley, Wheat Ridge, CO provided their insight, next up – Julie Eckenrode, Carrboro, NC.

Background Check

PP PIc Julie Eckenrode (LinkedIn and Twitter) is a recent addition to the Town of Carrboro, NC where she serves as Assistant to the Town Manager. Eckenrode completed her B.A. in History at NC State in 2007. After graduating she began teaching 10th and 11th grade social studies and in 2009 started to pursue an MPA. Upon completing her MPA through the University of North Carolina Pembroke, she transitioned to her current role. At the Town of Carrboro her purview includes oversight of the Town’s Twitter.

Lighting Round

Your first job? The IHOP.

Last concert you attended? Luke Bryan, swoon…

Book you are currently reading?

This summer was the first time in 5 years I was able to read for pleasure, so I’ve over-indulged in Jen Lancaster books (they comically describe her almost adult life in Chicago) but plan to read Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath (who also spoke at the ICMA conference this year)

Favorite restaurant in your community?

Calavela, they have a wide variety of $3.50 empanadas and you can order as few or many as you’d like and delicious margaritas, of course!

The Job

What are three projects you are currently working on?

  • Assisting the Mayor in a Zip Code Boundary Review Process
  • Organizing staffing data and call statistics for the Police and Fire-Rescue Departments
  • Creating a Local Matters Business Directory for our new Town website (www.townofcarrboro.org)

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

I report directly to the Town Manager and am one of 3 members of the Manager’s Office—the Manager and 2 Assistant to’s.

How do you interact with City Departments? 

Often!  It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.  In just 4 months I have worked closely with each department director in some capacity.  It’s a lot of learning, but I know it will pay off in the long run.

 Networking

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

  • My mentor during my internship, former Economic Development Director (now Inspections Director) in Garner, NC, Tony Beasley
  • Michelle Holder, ELGL member, former Carrboro intern, and shares an understanding of having great mentors in this field.
  • Christy Phillips-Brown, PR extraordinaire at Delhaize America (they operate the Food Lion grocery store chain).  She’s great for all things PR and etiquette in the professional setting.

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

I actually did not.  I was an online graduate student and a fulltime high school teacher so my time was tight and the right opportunity never presented itself.  In the future, I am attending the NC City and County Management Winter Seminar and would love to go to an ICMA conference.

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

People are busy. Be concise and willing to work around their schedule.  Also, career advice doesn’t HAVE to come from someone in your own field, many tips for career success cross the public and private sector.

Three questions to ask when connecting with a City Manager?

  • Share your career path.
  • What was the most difficult obstacle you overcame to become a city manager?
  • What is the biggest challenge you face today?

Getting the Job

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Preparing for an interview, 3 pieces of advice.

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare.  Yes, it’s time consuming but if you know your stuff, you’ll impress whomever is interviewing you.
  • Be confident and comfortable talking about yourself.  You’ve worked hard for a Master’s degree, you excel in some capacity, talk about it with pride!
  • “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”

How many jobs should I be applying for?

As many as you find that you think you’ll enjoy—BUT be able to give each application the time it deserves.  It is essential to tailor each resume and cover letter for EACH job.

What job titles should an MPA student be considering?

I’m all about self-awareness and self-reflection right now.  Know your career goals and what you want to achieve.  If a job title will help you get there, go for it!

Most difficult thing about getting the first job? Patience.

The Transition

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

Well… one day I was a student AND a gainfully employed public school teacher, then I was a Town employee.  Everything changed.  I had to work during the summer for the first time in my career (yuck!), but surprisingly my stress level went waayyyyyy down!  Yes, I’m crazy busy every day now and learning so much I can barely comprehend it all… BUT I no longer have to deal with 120 hormone-raging teenagers by day and read a bazillion pages of textbooks by night.  So for me the change has genuinely made me a happier person.

Changing careers is scary.  Like really, really scary… what if I didn’t like local government?  What if I didn’t excel in this position as I had as an educator?  You have to professionally redefine yourself.  I am no longer Julie the Teacher as I have been since 2007, now I’m Julie… the Assistant?  That doesn’t sound that great, right?

Luckily, it was a smart move (for my career and  my family)! Being a public school teacher actually set me up well for the transition.  I was used to juggling many things at once… the “things” just changed.  It’s no longer grading papers, lesson planning, and parent-teacher conferences… now, it’s planning a community forum on policing, representing the Town on the local public transit partners board, and organizing data & statistics for the Town Manager.  I also already understood how the public sector works.  I think transitioning from private sector to the public would’ve been more difficult.

I am so intrigued by the fact that the general public has little understanding for which details local government is responsible.  Deciding how each piece of land in town may be used to storm water mitigation to the number of chickens a household may keep.  Individually, these may seem like insignificant decisions but together they give a town its “personality.”  The careful and precise thoughtfulness that goes into each of these decisions surprised me at first (Does 10 or 12 chickens REALLY make a difference?), but now I can see how these decisions shape the feel of a town and why each town is so different than the next.  This is the part of local government I’ve come to love!

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

Time management, multitasking, working in groups and smarts.  As an Assistant to, I’ve quickly learned no day is the same; you have to stay on top of your work load, juggle several projects at once and be smart… figure things out on your own.

Best practical experiences vs. Academic experiences. 

Every experience I get with the Planning Dept is valuable.  I know the least about land use, zoning, inspections, etc. and that is probably because I didn’t have a graduate class on it.  I did, however, have several leadership classes and those have definitely helped me be confident in decision making and communication with others.

Supplemental Reading

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