Manager: Getting the right
individual to fill this important local government position requires a thoughtful approach
to the hiring process
(from Maine Townsman, October 1995)
by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer
In the past year,
- Union hired a town manager from another small town in Maine to serve as its first manager.
- Readfield hired a code enforcement officer/economic development director from a neighboring town to serve as its first full-time town manager.
- Houlton replaced its town manager of many years with a retired Air Force colonel from nearby Loring Air Force Base.
- Gardiner hired a seasoned manager from out of state with a master's degree in public administration to be its next city manager.
- Warren began grooming its code enforcement officer to be its next town manager.
How those towns went about hiring their managers, who they involved in the hiring process, what they went looking for in a manager, how much they decided to pay them, what they found the market in managers to be, how they conducted the interviews, and what advice they have to offer is the subject of this article.
WHAT DO WE NEED AND WANT?
You need to hire a manager. Therefore, the first thing to do is advertise for one. Whoa. Not so fast. You have some hard work - perhaps the hardest and most important work of the whole process - to do before you get to that point.
Just what are you going to put in the ad? What kind of person do you want? What kind of management style are you looking for? What kind of technical skills are you looking for? Just what are your needs and the needs of your city or town at this point in its history?
You need to know all this and more before you write that ad.
"Different situations require different kinds of people," says Brian Rines. Rines should know. Currently mayor of Gardiner (pop. 6,782), Rines has gone through the process of hiring a manager twice during his tenure on the city council.
"A town hiring its first manager will require a different sort of person than a town involved in a crisis, like a lawsuit with its police chief or facing bankruptcy," says Rines.
As Rines sees it there are at least two categories of managers: there are the "mediators" and there are the "gladiators." "The mediators are the people-oriented and process-oriented managers. The gladiators are the ones you call in to clean up a mess; they carry a big stick and usually have a short tenure," explains Rines. Gardiner has had both kinds; each appropriate to the town's needs at the time.
When Gardiner was facing bankruptcy several years back, it set out to find someone who would rescue them; someone with strong financial skills. When that manager moved the town into the black, he moved on to another town.
The council then set out to find a manager "to help us go and grow;" someone with "strong interpersonal skills," recalls Rines. "We had a new executive family; all the department heads were new; we were in transition; and, as such, the situation called for a person with powerful interpersonal skills," says Rines.
When Union went about hiring its first manager, it knew it needed someone who could sell the idea of the job to the citizens. Approval of the switch to a town manager form of government had passed by a margin of one vote at town meeting.
As former selectman Christine Savage explains it, "We wanted someone who could sell him or herself to the town; someone who understood small towns; someone who wasn't too professional; someone who interacted well with the people; someone the people could trust." Interaction and trust aside, the town also wanted someone who had experience with roads and managing a highway crew.
"You've got to know what you want individually and collectively in a manager and express it verbally. If you do not engage in this self-examination at the outset, chances are you will wind up with a bad fit," says David Barrett, who categorizes managers either as "salvage operators" or "steady-as-she-goes operators." Barrett should know. As assistant director of MMA's Personnel Services, he has years of experience in working with towns to help them in assessing their needs.
Only after you have figured out what you need, should you draw up your advertisement. As Barrett sees it, "Your advertisement is an outflow of your needs assessment."
WHO DO WE INCLUDE IN THE HIRING PROCESS: A CONSULTANT?
But suppose your board or council can't come to an agreement on what it thinks it wants and needs in a manager?
"Then find someone who is totally uninvolved - a dispassionate outsider - a consultant, if you will, to help you focus on what you want," says Barrett.
"Those who decide to hire a consultant are usually councils or boards that are already divided on issues and figure that having a third party involved in the process will help them through the process," says Barrett.
"But reaching consensus is not the only reason towns and cities have turned to consultants," says Barrett. "There are those who recognize that they cannot make the necessary time commitment to the process."
"The decision by a board or council to hire a consultant could be the hardest decision in the hiring process," says Rines. "There are always one or two board or council members who think they can save money and do it themselves," he adds, noting that in Gardiner there was a clear majority in the decision to spend the $3,000 and hire a consultant to do the work.
"But just because you hire a consultant, don't think you can now coast," says Barrett. "It's your job to make the consultant understand precisely what you want in a new manager; otherwise the candidate will not match your ad or your needs."
As Rines describes it, the consultant helped his council to "sharpen out some perspectives and dull out others."
The ad that grew out of the assessment attracted 57 resumes, with enough paper to fill two three-ring binders. The consultant selected out 21 in the first round that he thought fit our criteria for a new manager, recounts Rines. In the end the council interviewed four and wound up hiring its first female manager.
WHO DO WE INCLUDE IN THE HIRING PROCESS: CITIZENS?
Sometimes help is closer at hand. When Readfield's (pop. 2,149) popular part-time manager of 14 years gave 60-day's notice that he was moving on, the town immediately took out an ad in the local paper, but it wasn't for a new manager.
That would come later. The first ad sought volunteers to join a "citizen's advisory committee" to assist the five selectmen in the task of hiring a new manager.
"We have a tradition of citizen input in Readfield. There is a willingness of people in this town to volunteer; it's a very involved community," says board chair Rocko Graziano.
There were several reasons why Readfield stuck with that tradition when it came to hiring the manager. "It was hoping to attract people who had experience in the hiring process," says Graziano.
"Equally as important," he adds, "it was also hoping to attract people who had a perspective on the job the board itself did not have.
"The manager interacts more with the community than he or she does with the board and so it was important for us to get the community's read on the interpersonal skills of the candidates for the job," explains Graziano.
As Graziano sees it, the decision of Readfield's board of selectmen to open up the process to members of the community also sent a message to applicants about the nature of the community; and in Readfield's case, the message was that there is a lot of citizen involvement in the operation of the town.
The ad seeking volunteers ran for three days in the local paper at a total cost of $50. Nine residents responded, including two businessmen, a road contractor, and the assistant assessor. "Although, we realized that a 14-member board would be a challenge to work with, we accepted all nine volunteers," says Graziano.
The committee was involved in every aspect of the process, save the final decision, which was made in executive session by the five selectmen. All applications - there were 30 - went directly to the chairman of the board of selectmen, who developed an evaluation form for use by the committee members as they rated the resumes.
All resumes were read by all 14 of the committee members during a three-hour session; two of the three hours were used for reading and ranking; one hour was used for discussing. The committee came up with five top candidates and interviewed three. The board then went into executive session and made the final choice.
The full committee met over a period of eight to nine hours, with the chairman of the board of selectmen doing most of the background work and scheduling.
Graziano says he would do it this way again. It worked. He would not change a thing.
WHO DO WE INCLUDE IN THE HIRING PROCESS: AN EXPANDED BOARD?
Including citizens is one way of broadening input in the selection process. Another way is to expand the size of the board of selectmen. That's what Union (pop. 2,026) did when they decided to hire their first manager.
"By expanding the board from three to five members, we felt we had a better representation of the community and as such the taxpayers would accept the person we chose more readily," recalls former board member Christine Savage.
Most of the paperwork associated with the hiring process was done by the chairman of the board of selectmen. The chairman was self-employed and could devote the time to review the 60 applicants that were received. But equally as important, "he was totally convinced the town needed a manager, and as such he ran the show," adds Savage.
"If one person on the board does take the lead," says Barrett, "be sure it is someone who is familiar with recruitment processes, is well respected, and really does have the time to provide the leadership and follow-through needed."
As board member Jeff Nims recalls, "A consultant was out of the question. Given the fact the town meeting had established a salary of $28,000 for the manager, we wanted to put all of our money into the position."
HOW DO WE HANDLE THE ISSUE OF SALARY?
Which brings us to the subject of salary. "What you decide to pay your manager is often a reflection of what you want," says Nims.
None of the towns interviewed for this article advertised the salary they were prepared to offer. "A common practice," says Barrett, who generally advises towns not to include the salary in the ad.
"By omitting the salary from the ad, the board or council gets more candidates to choose from. If you include the salary in the ad, some candidates may self-select themselves out before you have a chance to negotiate with them," says Barrett.
But not including the salary in the ad doesn't mean you haven't decided at the outset what range you are prepared to offer. Talk about the salary range when you call them for the first interview. Talk about it again at the end of the first interview. Ask the candidates what they want; ask them what they are currently earning, suggests Barrett.
Union's Jeff Nims says the town was in a difficult position with its salary as it attempted to hire its first manager. On the one hand Union knew the salary decided at town meeting would probably only be attractive to rookies seeking their first job.
On the other hand, the position was a new one, and as such was an experiment that might attract veteran managers, seeking a challenge, says Savage. The ad said as much.
"We were afraid we might not get any takers if we put the salary in the ad," recounts Savage, who says if she were to do it again, she would include it.
"We had a number of well-qualified applicants who turned down the job because of the salary," notes Nims. "But we tried to make it up to those who didn't by offering three weeks vacation. It doesn't cost the town anything and the manager appreciates it. We also offered family coverage on the health insurance," reports Nims.
How do you decide how much to offer? For a starter, most towns look to see what other towns are paying their managers. Such information is contained in MMA's annual Salary Survey.
According to the 1994 Survey:
--Towns with a population of 25,000 or more paid managers an average $77,000.
--Towns with a population of 15,000 - 24,999 paid managers an average $60,000.
--Towns with a population of 10,000 - 14,999 paid managers an average $54,000.
--Towns with a population of 5,000 - 9,999 paid managers an average $49,000.
--Towns with a population of 3,500 - 4,999 paid managers an average $38,000.
--Towns with a population of 2,000 - 3,499 paid managers an average $31,000.
--Towns with a population under 2,000 paid managers an average $26,000.
WHAT DOES THE JOB ENTAIL?
As Readfield's Graziano sees it the hiring process should recognize "why the last manager left and what the town is trying to do with the new manager."
With 60-days' notice, Readfield decide to take the departure of its popular part-time manager of 14 years as an opportunity to create a full-time position, so the town could embark on some long-range planning, says Graziano.
The only way Readfield could do that would be if it grafted the position of manager of the transfer station onto the part-time manager position and come up with a starting salary of $25,000. It was a position that already included the job of treasurer and tax collector.
If Readfield's list of hats worn by its manager comes as a surprise; it shouldn't. The TOWNSMAN recently delved into MMA's database and discovered that the 191 municipal managers currently employed in Maine wear numerous hats, especially those in the smaller towns.
In addition to serving as manager, many also serve as clerk, tax collector, treasurer, welfare director, and road commissioner, not to mention the few who also wear the hats of code enforcement officer, registrar of voters and CD director.
The database revealed that approximately 70 percent of the managers also served as tax collector and treasurer. But of those 70 percent approximately 50 percent are aided by deputy tax collectors and treasurers. Which is to say that about half of them do not have deputies.
It also found that approximately 40 percent of the managers also served as the clerk. But of those 40 percent, approximately 60 percent had deputy clerks; which is to say approximately 40 percent did not have deputy clerks.
It also found that approximately 50 percent of the managers also served as welfare director and 48 percent served as the road commissioner.
One argument used by those in Union and other towns seeking to switch to a town manager form of government is that the manager will save the town money. In Union the argument was that the manager would save the town money when it came to general assistance because he or she could attend GA workshops to keep up with the rules and regulations and thus better keep a rein on GA.
Welfare director aside, does the job of manager include managing all of the personnel in the town office? If it doesn't - if the clerk, tax collector and treasurer are elected - it could be a problem in hiring a manager, says Savage.
"Union lost a prospective manager because all of the positions in the town office were elected; the candidate felt they could not operate effectively unless they could manage all of the personnel," recounts Savage.
And she adds: "This is a particular problem for towns switching to the town manager form of government after years of electing clerks and treasurers and tax collectors who never served under a manager.
WHAT'S THE MARKET FOR MANAGERS?
Rines says the market for municipal managers is changing swiftly. Compared to the former search he was involved in, today there are many more options to choose from.
"The world is far richer in terms of applicants; people are coming in from the wider world," says Rines, advising elected officials "to keep their options open and wide during their search."
Rines notes that many of the applicants come from the military, which is also downsizing and that many of them are officers with master's degrees in government and public administration.
He also notes the rise of women in the system, adding that there were two or three women among the top ten candidates in the recent hiring in Gardiner. As noted above, the council hired one of them: a woman who had a master's degree in public administration and had served as a manager in three states prior to applying for the job in Gardiner.
Barrett says he is seeing a lot more applicants coming from the private sector due to the downsizing/rightsizing that is going on in the corporate world. At the same time, there are many fewer managers from the public sector moving around. As a result, he guesstimates that half the applicants for municipal management positions are now coming from the private sector.
"Just because they never ran a municipality before doesn't mean they can't," says Barrett. Rather than look at what sector they worked in, Barrett advises municipalities to look at their management style and ask: "Is their style of making decisions compatible with the way the town has and wants to conduct its business?"
Houlton is one of the towns that hired a former military officer. In fact two of their top applicants had extensive military experience, according to councilor Mike McLaughlin. "They are still young when they retire; and they have a good pension and therefore their demands for salary are less," notes McLaughlin. The man they chose had been the commanding officer at nearby Loring Air Force Base. "That's the same as being a manager in a major city," notes McLaughlin.
Equally as important to the Houlton councilors was the fact "that the military candidate had strong public relations skills; something not common among military people; something Houlton needs badly," says McLaughlin.
"The issues now demand it. Citizens are involved now more than ever. If we are forced to cut services, we will need a person who is able to explain why," says McLaughlin.
Also important was the fact that the candidate was retiring and was committed to the community. The town had wanted a long-term commitment from their candidate. The town was not offering a lot of money for what it wanted. Younger people would be attracted to it, but they would want to move on.
Sometimes the person you want is right there working in the town office. That was the case last year when Warren's (pop. 3,253) manager Christine Savage, having been elected to the state House of Representatives after many years in municipal government, decided to retire. But before she did, she suggested and the board selected her successor: the town's current code enforcement officer.
As Savage saw it, he was "management material." He had learned his current job extremely well on the job and equally important, he interacted extremely well with people.
"That kind of skill with people is something you don't learn; but it is something that is very important when it comes to managing a small town like Warren, where they have a history of changing managers like socks," says Savage. Savage has served as manager for four years, longer than any of her predecessors.
The CEO is currently serving as both CEO and assistant town manager, while Savage trains him. At no additional cost, actually, at a savings to the town, notes Savage.
Savage says that hiring from the inside is not without its problems. "If you need some fresh ideas; if you need someone who is not carrying a lot of political baggage, you should steer away from insiders," says Savage.
INTERVIEWS & BACKGROUND CHECKS
"Interviewing is much more than fact finding," says MMA's Director of Personnel Services Michael Wing; "it's where the personality shows." And adds Wing, "it takes a skilled interviewer to get beyond the glib candidate."
If Wing had any advice on conducting an interview, it is: "Don't be afraid to follow your instincts. Don't be afraid to probe and press the issues. Ask hard questions. If you are concerned about an issue, press the candidate until you are satisfied."
Instincts aside, Wing also notes that "you often hire who you are and cautions elected officials to be aware of their own biases."
And he says, that while it is important to ask questions that help the candidate "sell themselves," it is also important to take control of the interview. "Let the candidate talk, but if they go on too long, stop them and go to your next question," says Wing, who advises that the optimum time for an interview is about one hour.
Instincts, biases and control. What about the setting of the interview? Different settings lead to different kinds of interchanges, says MMA's Barrett. Intimidating settings are not conducive to discussions; he notes, adding that the style in which you conduct your interview will tell a lot about your municipality.
"As you get close to the hiring decision, remember you are not the only one doing the interviewing; you are being interviewed as well," says Wing. As such, the board or council needs to put its best foot forward.
"If board members interrupt each other or make snide remarks, or show disinterest in the process, the candidates will get a picture of the town that may make them turn down the job," says Wing.
As Wing sees it, "The process by which you select your manager tests or prefigures the working relationship between the elected officials and the manager."
As to the questions themselves, Wing says, "If you've done your work up front, determining what you and your municipality need, the interview process should be easy, because that is where you get to tailor the questions to your needs."
If you want a manager that obtains and administers economic development grants or negotiates with organized labor, ask what their experience is in these areas.
If you want a manager that has strong interpersonal skills, ask them "situational-type" questions. For example, if you have a board member that tends to micromanage, ask them how they would handle that member.
"Not only will their answer tell you a lot about their interpersonal skills, it will also tell you how they view the relationship between elected officials and the manager," says Wing.
Last but not least, advises Wing, allow time for the candidates to ask their own questions; stress that the process is a two-way one. And, he adds, be sure to get the candidates to summarize their own strengths and weaknesses. Ask: Why should we hire you? What areas do you think you need to strengthen?
There is no one way of conducting the interview. In Readfield each member of the committee developed their own set of questions to ask the candidates. In Houlton, the chair of the council was designated to ask the main questions that had been developed by the consultant. All agreed that to be fair, the same questions should be asked of each candidate.
- Know what you want before you go shopping for a manager.
- If you need help in figuring out what you want in a manager, get it. But just because you hire a consultant, don't expect to coast.
- Decide on the salary beforehand, but do not necessarily include it in the advertisement. Refer to MMA's Annual Salary Survey in determining what you will offer.
- Expect to receive at least half your applicants from the private sector and expect that at least half of all the applicants will not be contenders for the job.
- Expect the process to take at least two months; more realistically figure three months. But don't let the process take too long.
- As you get close to the hiring decision, remember you are being interviewed as well. Your process tells a lot about your community and the manager's future working relationship with your elected officials.