On President Svrcek’s recent trip to Portland she told us about the ICMA Assistants’ Exchange Program, which she labeled as “diamond” among the different programs that ICMA offers. To find out more and get the inside scoop on this program President Svrcek gave me two professionals to talk to about their experience going through the Assistants’ Exchange: Kent White, Community Development Director Lynchburg, VA; and Christopher Coleman, Assistant Town Manager/Director of Operations Needham, MA.
Kent White is the Community Development Director of Lynchburg, Virginia but what does that mean exactly? He said his primary role is to help advance various initiatives in three distinct service delivery goals: high quality development, strong neighborhoods, and community revitalization. In his own words:
“One of the great things about working in this area of public service is the ability to help people build their dreams. Their ideas can change our City and we have to balance that with the values of our community … Listening to others, finding compromises and making our services and information more accessible have to be recurring themes in everything we do. It can be difficult to come to city government and try to find your way. One of my goals is to make that process less intimidating. We need to be able to get people information, on their own schedule, and make it readily understandable.”
Christopher Coleman is the Assistant Town Manager as well as the Director of Operations in Needham, Massachusetts now besides sounding like two jobs in one what exactly is his role? He told me he is a part of the senior management team and assists the Town Manager with a variety of broad town management issues, including direction of departments.
Mr. White participated in the 2010 Assistant’s Exchange Program and visited the City of Morgan Hill, California. He described it as an “outstanding experience” as he toured their facilities, received process overviews, and participated in big picture discussions. Most importantly he met many great leaders in various areas of local government who all went out of their way to make his visit memorable. The city actually contacted him beforehand to find out his interests and they gave him a range of options including: city governance, economic development, planning, permitting, utilities, recreation, and public safety. The whole structure was informal and allowed him to ask questions and participate in the different discussions.
Mr. Colman participated in last year’s, 2012 Exchange Program and was partnered with the administrators at the Phoenix International Airport, which is run by the City of Phoenix. He told me that he spent most of the day with the Director and his two Assistant Directors, who taught him about the operations of an airport including emergency preparedness and security plans. During his day at the airport he also learned about different upgrades being made to each of the terminals, including the efforts to change the airport experience to more of a “destination airport” with upscale dining and entertainment experiences. He also sat in on a meeting with the architects for a PHX Sky Rail which connects the airport to the city’s Metro Light Rail system. Mr. Coleman also described the day as a “truly great experience”.
The learning that Mr. White did in Morgan Hill, CA impacted his work when he returned to Lynchburg, VA. He said that the opportunity to observe various city functions within the context of another locality was an eye opening experience. He credits the trip as a turning point in understanding the relationships in city service delivery. Back in Lynchburg, he implemented a “one stop” development services area based on the Morgan Hill model.
Observing and learning about the Phoenix Airport new Sky Rail system and the history behind it was a big takeaway for Mr. Coleman. The city had the goal of connecting the airport with their light rail system but the airport administration realized they needed to be able to move customers faster than the light rail would allow, as a result they came up with the solution of the Sky Rail. He said, “[The] team realized and accepted the overall city goal and found a way to help achieve that goal while also addressing their immediate customer, facility and operational needs.”
The Exchange Program directly affected Mr. White’s professional development and career path, while at Morgan Hill he met Steve Rymer and was impressed with his enthusiasm and charisma. Seeing this infectious energy and enthusiasm influenced his leadership style and when Mr. White returned to Lynchburg and interviewed for the Community Development Director job he approached it with that same fervor and got the job!
Both Mr. White and Mr. Coleman had advice for people thinking about participating in the program. They both felt it was a valuable learning experience, but in order to get the most out of it Mr. White said:“Think about why you want to do this. Are you trying learn more about services you are not normally exposed to? Trying to solve a problem and want to see how another locality deals with it? Or are you hoping to do a little self-reflection about your own career path [by] learning from other’s experiences? This is a great chance to put your ideas and preferences out there. Even if the program is scripted there may be an opportunity to secure a few extra minutes in your area of choice. Or make a contact that you can follow up with later. A friend of our family used to say ‘You don’t get a good job; you make a good job’. Same goes for this experience. Make the most of it!”
I took away from both of them that the Assistants’ Exchange Program is well worth the time and if you are heading out to the ICMA Conference anyway just arrange to show up a day early and participate!
If you have any questions feel free to contact:
- Chris Coleman, ccoleman
- Heather Harper, hharper
- Kent White, kent.white