(I wrote this article and it was published in the Maine Townsman Magazine, April 2012 issue. The Maine Townsman is the magazine of the Maine Municipal Association.)
The most important responsibility of any Council or Board is to hire a top notch City or Town Manager. The success of your municipality is dependent upon having a highly qualified executive steering your operation. Absent that, you can expect trouble big time. Focus lots of time and attention on bringing into your municipality the best of the best. Great executives are out there. Your job is to find them—or engage someone who can.
Recruiting good candidates is not an easy task for anyone. The process is complicated and candidates often know what to say and do to get the job, and it is going to get more difficult. The International City/County Management Association’s Next Generation Initiatives study cited the “retirement tidal wave” as a major barrier facing local governments. They noted that the “local government management profession is at a crossroads as baby boomers that compromise the majority of local government managers approach retirement at a quickening pace, and statistics indicate the greatest number of retires will come from the management ranks.” Making matters worse, Maine’s oldest in the nation population puts this graying profession at a greater risk. And the problem doesn’t end at the executive level. This same crisis blankets all municipal management roles. So what should you do?
Putting together a successful recruitment program and search requires expertise, experience and know-how. Understanding what you are looking for, finding the right candidate, and getting him or her to say “yes” to your offer requires a comprehensive plan.
Every municipality dreams of having a steady stream of highly qualified applicants knocking at their door, hoping to be hired as your Town Manager–applicants, who are skilled, fully engaged and who mesh with their current employees and fit within their community. And as idealistic as this sounds, communities with a strong recruitment brand enjoy this benefit. There are many prominent examples of this at the corporate level. Just ask the folks at Google, Johnson & Johnson and Apple. They understand the value of a strong brand.
So what is a recruitment brand and how can you develop one? A recruitment brand is a message that communicates what it’s like to work at your organization. It tells the world who you are and what you believe in—your mission, culture and values. It’s your way of telling applicants “this is who we are and individuals who believe and think like us are welcome.” And for those who think a recruitment brand is not important to recruiting your next manager, you would be mistaken. Simply attend a gathering of city and town managers and listen to their conversations about various communities throughout the state. You will soon learn that some towns are coveted places to work while others are to be avoided. It is all about the brand.
With a strong recruitment brand, candidates will seek you out, saving you time and money on recruitment initiatives. But even more importantly, your brand is the glue that holds your current workers together, increasing employee retention, engagement, loyalty and productivity.
Building a brand takes two uncomplicated steps:
- Understanding who you are. To fully understand this, ask yourself and then ask your employees why do you want to work here? What kinds of people are successful here? What kind of people fit it? And what kinds of people are not successful here? Getting the answer to these questions will help you define your municipality’s brand. Listen to how your employees respond.
- Communicate your message about what it’s like to work at your municipality. Get your employees to offer their stories. These compelling stories of why people want to work in your town provide you the insights into who you are and your recruitment brand.
Communicate your brand consistently and with clarity in all your recruitment pieces. And as your brand evolves, listen to hear how former employees, residents and the public echo it. A positive recruitment brand will attract your targeted candidates to your town like a magnet, ensuring that you always have a steady stream of candidates drawn to your door.
Next, profile your ideal candidate. This sounds simple, but so often councilors do not know which candidate will be successful in their community and which one will fail. Knowing this is critical. Often we start the recruitment process without truly understanding what we are looking for. Job descriptions are helpful. They define the education, experience and tasks the new hire will perform. What they do not do is identify the traits, those qualitative factors that tell you who will fit and who will not. To do this, ask yourself these two questions: 1) what type of person will be most successful in our community? 2) What type will not? How you answer these questions will focus your entire recruitment search.
It is also important to understand that positions change and evolve overtime. With rapid changes in regulations, resident demands, state and federal mandates, revenue challenges and changing demographics, the type of Town Manager you need now may be very different from your previous manager. As such, simply using an outdated job description and a profile of the incumbent will not give you a clear picture of a successful new hire. It will not help you to identify what you need today and what you will need in the future. Remember, each time you are faced with making a hire, you must go through this process. Your investment in time now will yield good long-term rewards.
In developing the profile of your ideal Town Manager, look at six critical elements: 1) job priorities; 2) business/management/financial skills; 3) essential personal traits; 4) negative traits–traits that would make the individual unsuccessful; 5) short term challenges the candidate would face immediately upon starting the job; and 6) the long term challenges he would face in your community and state. Armed with this profile, you can use this tool to identify what you need in a candidate, what you do not want, where you should find such a candidate, and what questions you should ask during the interview.
Finally, hire for fit. Though you now have the profile of your ideal candidate, you must focus on the person who will fit within your community. He is the one who can work with your staff, elected officials, and residents; assimilate within your culture and community; and adopt your Town’s belief systems. Find people who best meet the requirements of the job. Critical job skills go beyond the technical—they must include personality traits and include those soft skills such as teamwork, relational competences, and empathy. Finally, select candidates with the right attitude. Remember, one thing you cannot change in people is their inherent attitudes. Evaluate the impact your new hire will have on your staff, residents and community. Be uncompromising about hiring the right person. If you make a bad hiring decision, you will soon have to make the tough decision to say good-bye.
Next it is important to understand where the right candidates are. Successful fishermen know where and when the fish are biting. Successful recruitment requires you to do the same. Ask yourself, if I were looking for a town manager, where would I find one? The answer could be towns similar to yours; professional associations; schools of government; etc. In other words, it isn’t just the help wanted pages or the Internet. Think creatively—think differently.
Once you’ve found your candidate, it’s critically important to conduct a thorough job interview. Prepare carefully. Formulate questions before hand, which explore ability, skill and fit. Ask behavioral oriented questions, which are questions that require a response based on actual experience. Probe until you are sure that you have all the information you need. Listen to what the candidate says and how he says it. Ask the candidate if he or she has any questions. The questions they have will tell you a lot about them and what is important to them. Put as many eyes on the candidate as you can, in multiple settings and times. Too many costly mistakes are made during the interview phase.
Resist the temptation to fill the job quickly. Don’t blame mistakes on the labor pool. Don’t hire until you are sure you have the right candidate. Trust your gut. Listen and watch for red flags—those signs that tell you something is not right here. People decisions are significant—they impact the overall morale, culture and capacity of the organization. You know the expression about the one bad apple….
Always reference check. You learn a lot from reference checking. Listen to what is being said and how it is said. Interview the references. Remember, your goal here is not to confirm your beliefs. It is to learn more about the candidate so you can make an educated decision about their ability to lead your local government.
Finally, make your final evaluation. Ask yourself: Can he do the job? Will she be accepted? Will he fit? Is she interested? What is the likelihood that he will stay? Will outside factors interfere with his performance? Remember, it is easy to hire, hard to fire.
There are many steps in finding the right Town Manager for your municipality. Recruiting your next manager is probably the most important responsibility of your Council. Putting together a strategic recruitment plan and following these steps, will ensure that you hire the right candidate.