Phil Smith-Hanes, County Administrative Officer for Humboldt County, CA, joins our team of columnists. He’ll write on topics ranging from career advice to the differences in working for a county as opposed to a city.
Career Advice (or Cool Like Clint)
Changing jobs sucks. Sure, 99.96% of the time the new job ends up better for you and allows you to grow and exercise new skills. But the actual process of making that change happen – the resume-writing, the filling out applications, the “what do I say in this cover letter?!” angst, the interviews, the waiting, the packing up your office, the saying goodbye to co-workers, the physical act of moving your accumulated junk, the completion of new hire paperwork, the feeling of unfamiliarity in a new environment – no two ways about it… all of that sucks.
So I’d like to offer three insights I’ve gained over the years (two from the same source). I share these in the hope that they might be helpful to someone besides me.
Once upon a time, I was looking at this “really great” job. It paid well, it was working for a manager with a great reputation, it would have significantly broadened my skill set… But it was in a community I just really couldn’t see myself living in. I was hemming and hawing over this decision when a voice of reason came to me in the personage of my friend Clint. “Phil,” he said,”a job in a place you don’t want to live is by definition not a great job.”
Okay, an aside about Clint: He’s the Town Manager of Snowmass Village, Colorado, and we were classmates in grad school. He’s a pretty laid-back guy, whereas I can be the tiniest bit high-strung on very rare occasions (stop laughing, those of you who know me). He has given me much sage advice over the years, beginning with “You don’t mix Jameson’s!” one night that I shall not further explicate. And he is also my coolness idol, not in small measure because he discovered that ICMA will print on your conference name badge whatever you enter into the “title” field on your registration form. For years after becoming a City Manager, he wandered the halls of various convention centers self-identified as “Bureaucrat II.” (Perhaps I have set a low bar for coolness idol, but we can tackle that in a future post…)
Anyway, back to our advice column. I realized that Clint was right (he usually is). You might not be able to actually live in the community that employs you. Family reasons, commute patterns, housing costs… There are plenty of reasons it may not come to pass. But to work for a place you wouldn’t want to live, well, there’s just something about that that violates my sense of why I’m in this career.
Am I prepared to contribute?
Which brings me to my second key insight, courtesy of Rod Wood (former City Manager of downtrodden and impoverished California communities such as Beverly Hills and Indian Wells). At a City Managers Department conference, Rod was speaking to a group of up-and-comers. “You have to believe,” he said, “that every community deserves professional management.” I pondered that, realized I agree, but then added a coda: “Yes, but they don’t all deserve me.” I’ve made career choices many of my colleagues would not have made, but they’ve worked out well for me personally as well as professionally.
Am I ready for the corner office?
One of the biggest career decisions to be faced in the local government management profession is when (or whether) to make the jump into the “big chair” – the chief administrator role. ELGL has explored the Assistant v. Manager conundrum previously. My own take on it is summed up by wisdom from my former boss Loretta Sands. In moving from Assistant to CAO, she said, “your center of joy shifts.” True dat.
For me personally, the question wasn’t whether to pursue a CAO role but when. Again, Clint’s words enter the picture. Speaking of his own experience, he told me: “When I started second-guessing my boss, thinking more and more ‘that’s not how I would have done it,’ I realized it was time to get my own shop.”
Clint got to that point before I did. I spent several years second-guessing myself. Did I know enough about budget? About planning?About public works? Did I have supervisory experience? Experience managing a group of other supervisors? Did I understand the politics? Would I be capable of working for five politicians? But when my thinking started to shift from what I didn’t know to what I did (and how I could have presented that report better than my boss just did), I realized once again the wisdom of Clint’s words.
So, changing jobs sucks. But sometimes it’s worth it. If it’s a good opportunity (by your own standards, not the prevailing wisdom), if you’re prepared to contribute, and if you’re ready (even if it’s not for the corner office yet), then go for it. We need your talents in local government!