I Have to Ask: From City Manager to Consultant

Posted on May 27, 2019

Jennifer Teal

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Jennifer Teal, The Novak Consulting Group, writes about the transition from city manager to consultant.

A couple of hours after I received Kent’s email with my potential “I Have to Ask You” questions, I got a phone call from a friend, who is a resident of the community where I formerly served as City Administrator. Her back yard is being torn up by a company that is running fiber lines in her utility easement. She called me after her internet had cut out several times while she was attempting to take an online final exam for grad school. While she knows that I no longer work for the City, she hoped I might still know who to get in touch with at City Hall to help her resolve the issue.

We spent some time catching up and making plans to get our daughters together this weekend, and then I walked her through the ins and outs of utility easements. As we wrapped up our call, I gave my friend the name and number of a person at City Hall who can probably help her get to the bottom of who is digging in her yard and how to get in touch with them.

When I hung up the phone, I realized I knew what to write about. I miss those calls. As much as they could sometimes throw a curveball in my otherwise well-planned-out day, I miss their unpredictableness and how they gave me the opportunity to really make a difference for that one person at that one moment in time. I miss having the opportunity to cultivate one-on-one relationships with residents and having the opportunity to influence their perceptions of city government by taking their concerns seriously and working hard to resolve their issues.

Sure, sometimes the calls I got were pretty “out there.” Like the time a neighborhood dispute led to the vigilante mowing of a dedicated open space easement, which in turn led to a mama deer attacking family pets in the neighborhood. But even that situation provided me the opportunity learn a ton about cervine behavior, what the word cervine means (adj. relating to deer; deerlike), encroachment enforcement, and neighborhood history.

NovakOn the other hand, there is so much to love about consulting! In my role at The Novak Consulting Group, I work with communities that have identified the need to assess and improve their organizations and processes. I get to use my problem-solving and process improvement skills on a daily basis, addressing big issues for people and organizations that are open to change. There is constant variety in the work, in terms of geography and demographics, and in the scale and types of problems we work to solve.

An unexpected benefit of working with The Novak Consulting Group is the team of talented and delightful former localgov practitioners that I get to work with. They bring such an array of expertise and perspectives to our work, and I am learning and growing constantly as a result.

And then of course, there is the most alluring perk of consulting work… no more night meetings. After nearly a decade of one or more night meetings per week, reclaiming my weeknights has been amazing. That extra few hours a week allows my family and I to pursue new hobbies and athletic adventures, and reduces the strain around childcare, homework and mealtimes. It really is a gamechanger for my family during this chapter of our lives.

As I reflect on this question a bit more, I can see how I’ve morphed my value for making a difference at a grass-roots level from being something that I do professionally to something that I do in my non-work life. In the time since I’ve stopped working directly for a city government, I’ve expanded my volunteer work and involvement in community organizations that matter to me. And as long as I keep making lame Parks & Recreation references when I’m out and about, my friends and neighbors will always know I’m the one to call or text when they need a government-nerd to help them out.

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