Written by Wade McKinney October 20, 2011
“You have to really care, but not too much.” Clay Phillips laughs. After 25 years working in Escondido, the last 8 as city manager, this is his most succinct advice on how to build a successful career. While he cares immensely for the city he calls home, he also believes that longevity as a city manager requires diplomacy as well as passion, strength combined with flexibility.
Most city managers would stop short of saying that their job is their life, but the fact is that the position requires an unusual amount of commitment. Families are uprooted, houses are bought and sold, and whole circles of friends change with every job transition. Most would prefer to change cities as little as possible, but sometimes it seems that some city managers move from city to city in quick succession, despite all the difficulties such changes entail.
“Some people move around a lot because they’re asked to,” says Rita Geldert, city manager in Vista for over 14 years, “but most people move around a lot because of their interests and what their skill sets are.” Some individuals are simply more fluid. They enjoy a good challenge, the thrill of a situation that requires a specific fix – one that they are uniquely qualified to provide. In fact, the more someone tackles these kinds of challenges, the more capability they have to do so. While the profession as whole sees value in having trouble-shooting city managers who can tackle specific problems in local government, most agree that stability is what serves cities best in the long run. “The life of any good government project is about 20 years,” says Geldert. “If you’re going to accomplish anything you have to stick with it for a while.”
But in these turbulent economic times, it can be tricky to maintain a position as city manager. A study done by The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) found that one of the biggest factors in city manager turnover was the local economy. In bad economic times, city managers often receive the blame for a city’s decline, and can be asked to leave. On the other hand, if a city experiences boom times and its economy takes off during the tenure of a particular city manager, that individual is much more likely to be head hunted by cities looking to give their own communities a boost. This same ICMA study found that the national average for city manager tenure is seven years, an average within a wide range. Just as in any profession, some people will change positions quite often, while others will settle in on their first assignment and never leave.
If, generally speaking, it is better to have a city manager in place for a long period of time, what is the key? What are the secrets of successful, long-term city managers?
Steve Adams, city manager of Arroyo Grande for the past 11 years, has developed a list of his secrets to success. First and most important, he says, is to select a city you really care about. “Even though you may not go into a job feeling you’re going to be there for ten or twenty years…” he says, “you should never go into a city where you’re just looking at it as a stepping stone.”
Once you choose a city, and the council chooses you, be sure to start off right, says Adams. Focus right away on the three sides of your professional environment by setting clear expectations with the city council, establishing core values with the city staff, and taking time to get to know the community. Once the relationships are established, be sure to pick your first challenge carefully. That first success is key in building the trust that will help you to get things done in the future.
Always make time for the day-to-day little things. Get the potholes fixed, volunteer for community events, and seize opportunities to explain things to your constituents. This, too, establishes trust.
Occasionally renew your energy and commitment. “Find ways to look at the community, and the organization, as if you’re new to the job,” says Adams. After a number of years in the same role, it is important to not grow complacent or stale.
Lastly, says Adams, respect your role as city manager. The position requires a unique skill set. You must carefully balance communication between the many parties involved in any project. It is important not to take things personally, to remain flexible, and still push for the things you feel are important. Relationships must be tended and not allowed to fall apart. And all of this must be done every day, in the face of frequent volatility and powerful fiscal stress. “There are huge ups and downs in this job every single day,” says Adams. “We want to be visionary, but we need to remember that it’s not our vision that matters. It’s the community’s vision and the council’s vision. So you have to always respect what your role in the process is.”
Of course, there are times when the best advice is simply to move on. In his article “When is it Time to Leave?” Dr. Bill Mathis outlines a number of reasons a city manager might consider finding a new city to work with.
The first is a loss of passion, or burnout, the traditional signs of which are a preoccupation with retirement dates, avoiding conflicts with elected officials, and an increase in grumpy behavior. On the flip side, and just as detrimental, is caring too much. Clay Phillips of Escondido jokes about not caring too much, but there is wisdom in his jest. “It’s your job,” says Phillips. “You have to be able to be passionate, but… if the council doesn’t want to go in a certain direction on a policy basis, you have to be able to change and not have it affect you negatively.” When a manager’s passion outstrips their role, leadership can be compromised and aggravation develops.
If there is a change in the elected leadership, city managers may find themselves fighting to keep their position, and unfortunately, on occasion, a major overhaul in the City Council is often followed by radical changes in management. Often this is no reflection on the city manager’s historical performance, but rather an unavoidable part of a city’s evolution.
Still other times it is simply time for a city manager to move on for personal reasons. The skill set developed in local government management often leads people toward careers in financial planning, nonprofit management, education or public advocacy. As in any other profession, careers grow and change with time, and it is important to respect that, to follow passions and interests.
City managers are hit by of a trifecta of pressure every day, coming from the public, the city’s employees and the elected officials. They facilitate everything from graffiti clean up to the building of a new overpasses. It is challenging work, to say the least. But if you’re passionate about your city, willing to pour yourself into it, and at the same time are able to make space for your own personal wellbeing, odds are you will thrive. In other words: you have to really care, but not too much.