What is an Assistant To: Rebecca Olson, City of Shoreview, MN

Posted on May 8, 2015

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

Rebecca Olson (LinkedIn and Twitter) currently serves as Assistant to the City Manager in the community of Shoreview, MN. Her interest in local government can be traced back to the University of St. Thomas where she completed her studies in Political Science, Spanish, and International Studies. After graduating she began a career in public service with the Minnesota Legislature where she served as a Legislative Assistant to a State Senator and staffed different committees such as the Judicial Committee and Income and Sales Tax Committee.

In 2005, Rebecca joined the ranks of local government employees in the City of Blaine, MN as an Executive Assistant. She eventually worked her way up to Assistant to the City Manager. While at the City of Blaine she helped create a non-profit called Blaine-Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, and was instrumental in getting the City of Blaine recognized state-wide as a Yellow Ribbon community. In addition to advancing in her career and starting a non-profit, Olson also obtained a MPA degree from Hamline University in 2009.  In 2014, Rebecca became the Assistant to the City Manager in Shoreview, MN, which coincidentally, gave her a whole set of new and different duties.

Lightning Round

My first job was.….

I started my career in public service by interning with U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone many years ago. So technically I wasn’t paid since it was an internship, but it was my first opportunity to enter the “professional” world.

That one internship sparked a passion and desire in me to help others which eventually led me to a career in public service. The Senator’s passion and dedication inspired me.  It made me realize that if you can find a way for your passion and career to intersect, you will have found a career path that allows you to not only find fulfillment professionally but also personally. If you’re lucky, those two paths will cross and when they do, you find yourself looking forward to each new day at work because you know that you are doing something you truly believe in and love.

The last concert that I attended was……

Pearl Jam – St. Paul, MN

I am currently reading……

A Prayer for the City, Buzz Bissenger

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

The Heart of Everything that is, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

True North, Bill George

Yes- I am currently reading all of those at once.  It takes a little longer, and sometimes the stories get confused, but it just makes it that much more interesting when the crewmen in the boat are crossing the Dakota Plains while struggling to find their true selves in the heart of a run-down city.

My favorite restaurant is…..

Clives Roadhouse – a neighborhood restaurant with good, fresh food and free popcorn for those days when my boys can’t seem to wait long enough for their food to arrive.

  The Job

What are three projects you are currently working on?

Re-defining the City’s cable presence.  The City recently withdrew from their local cable commission and we are in the process of negotiating a new franchise with our cable provider. We had to figure out a way to provide the services that our cable commission was providing on our own. What makes this interesting is that I have no background in cable television, production or equipment. I don’t even have cable at home! So, the learning curve is steep and it has been challenging to learn all the technical aspects of this as well as participating in the negotiations with the cable provider. Researching options, working with vendors, cross-departmental collaboration and just learning what questions to ask have all been something that I have learned a lot from on this project. Making a seamless transition for our residents was a priority and I think we have done a good job so far.

Human Rights Commission Collaboration – I am currently working with our Human Rights Commission on the goals they have established for 2015. One of these goals focuses on strengthening and maintaining effective relationships with key community groups to create a community where all people feel welcomed, valued and respected. We have started reaching out to organizations such as school groups to discuss diversity issues. In addition we are working collaboratively with a neighboring HRC to provide a forum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Why is this interesting…I enjoy the outreach part of this project, as well as the overall goals of the HRC. It fuels my passion for why I entered this career field and keeps me focused.

Communications – I am currently working to enhance the City’s social media, online and print presence. The City has a great reputation and the City Council is doing a lot of great work in thinking about the future and planning for a sustainable, quality community. Part of that is enhancing communications both with residents/businesses but also internally. There are so many different ways to connect with our targeted audience, but you can’t do everything. We are focusing on doing a few things really well so that our residents have the information they need and want in the most efficient manner possible. This is exciting because once again, I am learning something new as things change almost daily in the online world. I love helping residents learn more about what the city does and how it impacts them.

Where does your position fall on the organizational chart?

I oversee two employees within Communications. Technically I report to the Assistant City Manager/Community Development Director. However, I tend to get a lot of my direction and/or projects from the City Manager.

How do you interact with City Departments?  

I am interacting more frequently with individual departments as part of my role with Communications and as projects that I work on overlap different departments. Since I am still the “newbie”, I am striving to engage with each department on an on-going basis in order to develop better internal communications. Not only is this helpful when it comes to developing communication tools/messages, but it also helps to promote a cohesive team.


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

I’m going to cheat a little on this answer because it is impossible for me to pick only three people who I turn to for advice or value their opinions. Instead I will highlight three “groups”.

As part of the Board of our state’s “Assistant” group – APMP, I tend to turn to the other members of this group when I’m looking for advice. Having peers in different organizations to turn to gives a variety of views to learn from.

The second group I turn to is my professional support group. I’m sure some of you have heard of ‘True North’ groups, and this is a version of that. We get together on a regular basis and talk about not only professional issues (such as #13%), but also personal issues that we may be dealing with at the time.

Finally, the last group I would include would be a group of former colleagues from my previous job. Joe Huss, Finance Director (City of Blaine) Jeremy Johnson, GIS Coordinator (City of Blaine) and Bryan Schafer, Community Development Director (City of Blaine). Each of them has years of experience in their respective areas, and have dealt with the ups and downs of local government. They help me sort through the tough things with a sense of humor.

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

I completed my Master’s degree while I was working for a local government.  Luckily I had the opportunity to get involved with our Assistant’s group – the Association of Public Management Professionals (APMP) and attend their conferences as well as attend the annual Minnesota City Manager’s conference (MCMA).  I still attend the City Manager’s conference annually and have served on the conference planning committee for several years now.

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

Ask.  Most people love to offer their opinions on what others should do – but seriously, the biggest step to take is making that initial contact. A phone call is usually more difficult to ignore than an email. I would recommend reaching out with an initial email and following up with a phone call.

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

  • What jobs have you held to get you where you are today?
  • What is the toughest part of your job? What is the best part of your job?
  • What do you wish you knew when you first started in this position?

Getting the Job

Most difficult thing about getting the first job?

Proving that you can do the job and have the experience and knowledge to get you in the door. I would stress the importance of internships to give you that real-world experience as well as to make some great professional connections.

Three pieces of advice in preparing for an interview.

Research, research, research! Know as much as you can about their goals, current projects, and other issues of the organization.

Know who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Take some time to really think about them and then make sure can articulate what they are.

Make eye contact and don’t fidget.

How many jobs should I be applying for?

Quality is more important than quantity. Find an organization where you can see yourself staying for a few years and apply. You don’t want to jump at the first job offer from an organization and get there and realize that it is a toxic environment.

What job titles should an MPA student be considering?

Analyst, Assistant, Assistant To, Management, – just about anything that gets you into the organization. From my experience, employees of local governments tend to wear multiple hats and do a lot of different things. Once you get in the door you have more of an opportunity to refine your skill set.

The Transition

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

Responsibility. As a student, you typically have others check your work. As an employee you are responsible for making decisions – whether they are small or large. Don’t be afraid to ask as you learn to navigate those decisions.

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

Judgment – it takes time to build up the experiences to make a lot of judgment calls. I consistently have to make decisions on a daily basis on whether to do something, or how to handle a situation, or whether the message we are sending is correct. Take note of how others in your organization handle situations.

Practical experiences vs. academic experiences.  
Although I wish I could say that there was one class that was vitally important to my success, however what I remember the most about my experience academically was the constant juggling of different things I had going on. I completed my Masters degree while I had 4 kids, (the youngest was 6 months old when I started), and was working full time. It taught me how to prioritize the things that need to get done immediately, as well as how to think critically and quickly, and most importantly to have balance in my life. I could easily spend 14-16 hours a day every day at work making things perfect, but that doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Finding that balance of what makes you happy and recharges you is important so you can continue doing those things without burning out.

Supplemental Reading

What I Am with Rebecca Olson, City of Shoreview, MN
Blaine Beyond the Yellow Ribbon recognizes businesses
Blaine Committed to the Military Community

“Assistant To” Archives

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