Management & Labor

Courting Talent

Last year, the City of Boston needed help, and a lot of it. Its top management team was suddenly full of holes. In the space...
by | February 28, 2007
 

Last year, the City of Boston needed help, and a lot of it. Its top management team was suddenly full of holes. In the space of a few months, the city had to find a public works and transportation commissioner, a fire commissioner, a director of information technology, and someone to head up its office of intergovernmental affairs.

Just a few years ago, this would have been a painful but relatively simple problem. The mayor would have checked the roster of available candidates from within, placed a few discreet calls to friends in other cities, and made the best choice he could from the list he had.

What Boston did last year was nothing like that. Chief hiring coordinator Pat Canavan looked at the inside candidates, but she tried a host of other things as well. She advertised in general-interest magazines and on the Internet. She lit up local networks of experts and enlisted them to hunt for talent. She contracted with professional headhunting firms. She checked in with professional associations representing the specialists she was after. And she did what cities often do these days: She wandered far off the beaten path.

In the end, the four new vacancies were filled from every corner of the public-employment spectrum. The intergovernmental affairs job was handled more or less the old-fashioned way, by promoting a candidate from inside city government (although from a different agency). The new CIO came out of the private sector, a technology manager for a hotel chain who was interested in a civic-minded career switch. The public works commissioner came from Denver, where he'd helped build everything from transit systems to stadiums. And then, most intriguingly, there was the new fire commissioner -- a hire straight out of the ranks of the U.S. military.

That's a story worth telling. In casting around earlier for someone to fill the public works job, Canavan had noticed that one of the strongest candidates was an ex-military officer. The city didn't hire him, but it got Canavan thinking: What other skills do retired military have that might be brought to bear on municipal government?

So Canavan popped an ad for fire commissioner on the Web site of the Military Officers Association of America, the main association serving officer-level military retirees. That turned up Roderick Fraser, who had finished his military career training Iraqis on off-shore oil rigs and U.S. sailors in terrorism prevention and fire fighting. "I'd called seven or eight big-city fire departments asking for advice," says Canavan. "We advertised in every fire-fighting publication and Web site. And then I advertised on this Web site for people coming out of the military, and that's what worked."

Boston found its managers in a relatively short time. But the city's experience offers some lessons to any jurisdiction looking for help. One is that the hunt for high-level public-sector talent is getting more complicated. Cities such as Boston are feeling the need to cast their net wider and wider to find good people.

There are several reasons for this. One is that, in an age of Internet communication, it's less trouble to think broadly than it was before. But equally important is something simple and disturbing: the increased difficulty of finding top-quality candidates who are willing to take the job.

All over the country, municipalities are widely reporting that it's hard to recruit city managers, technology directors, engineers and people with expertise in the fields of accounting and finance. States seem to be having a little easier time of it right now, especially if they are in the heady throes of gubernatorial transition. In Massachusetts and New York, during these past couple of months, private-sector experts in areas ranging from public health to homeland security have been enticed to lend a hand to ambitious new governors, even though it has meant putting another career on hold and taking a huge hit in salary.

But those stories represent the exception rather than the rule. In most states and the vast majority of cities and counties, hiring is a much tougher job than it was even five years ago. And that, in turn, has led to the rapid emergence of broad-based and unconventional strategies for turning up the people that governments think they need.

"I don't know that it's necessarily directly related, but it began around the time of the World Trade Center attack," says Bob Slavin, a Georgia-based consultant who has been a public-sector headhunter since the 1970s. "When I first got into this business, everyone's goal was to be city manager of Dallas [which at the time was the largest manager-run city in the country]. That's just not the case today. I'm hearing more and more that people are satisfied to stay in a medium-sized city, that they're focused as much on their family life as their career." Kids in school, spouses working in their own satisfying jobs, a comfort level with the home community -- all of these were issues a decade ago, but now, in many cases, they are deal-breakers.

Frank Fairbanks of Phoenix, widely considered to be the dean of the city manager corps nationwide, sees exactly the same phenomenon. "Seven or eight years ago," he says, "we'd advertise for an upper-level management job, and we'd get 50 resumes. We had a good reputation as a place to work, and so finding people to come here wasn't that difficult. But things are changing. We're getting to the point where we're seeing huge turnover and fewer people willing to move." Fairbanks says an analysis of the 80 positions in Phoenix city government classified as "executive" level showed a 25 percent turnover in 2006 alone.

Spikes in turnover existed in the old days, too, of course, timed to changes in the national economy and the overall employment picture, but back then, it wasn't especially difficult for a city to turn inward for top talent to fill upper-supervisory and executive-level openings. Now that generally isn't an answer. "We work hard at developing our own people, but we're depleted there as well," Fairbanks says. "Among the 250 middle managers in Phoenix, people in top technical and supervisory positions who are ready to move into executive management, many of them are now retiring."

At the state level, the situation isn't quite as dire, says Boston headhunter John Isaacson. He says states are still finding decent pools of talent in health and higher education. But he acknowledges they are having trouble in human services and corrections. "Nobody ever grew up wanting to be a prison warden," Isaacson says. And nowadays, it's more difficult for a state to come up with the inducement that might overcome the initial reluctance.

Internet Strategy

One way to broaden the pool of applicants is to move the most important part of the process to the Internet. That's what Deval Patrick did as he prepared to take office as governor of Massachusetts in January. He set up a widely publicized one-stop electronic resume drop for anyone wanting to get into state service. In one respect, it worked well. The volume of applicants for the jobs was much higher than could have been achieved any other way. But the experiment created serious administrative problems of its own.

Candidates who chose to go the electronic-application route uniformly reported a "black hole" experience, in which inquiries and resumes seemed to take a fast track to nowhere. One reviewer who screened the electronic applications reports that highly qualified aspirants were frequently bypassed by inexperienced gatekeepers, who simply weren't tuned in to the applicant's reputation. "There were a bunch of campaign volunteers managing that whole thing," says Polly Price, the former director of human resources at Harvard University who supervised headhunting for Patrick during his transition. "They culled through resumes and came up with pages and pages of people they perceived to have cabinet-level potential. The whole thing turned out to be overly paper-driven and inefficient," says Price. And she can think of nobody who was hired as a direct result of the Web-based campaign.

There's little question, though, that the electronic talent hunt is an important part of the future in government hiring, for states and local jurisdictions alike. It's an inevitable response to the increased difficulty in finding talent the traditional way.

When Antonio Villaraigosa became mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, his headhunters required all potential high-level aspirants to apply online, says his transition chief and now chief of staff, Robin Kramer. In the end, Villaraigosa ended up filling most of his top jobs the tried-and-true way: He approached people who were known to him or his top staff or who were referred by some other trusted source. Still, Kramer argues that the Web-based approach is the wave of the future. First, she says, the Web-based application process helped define a universe of talent so that the transition team could more confidently pick and choose those who were willing and ready to work for the mayor. And while Kramer agrees that the personal touch will always be important in hiring, she argues that future public executives will grow increasingly used to electronic job seeking rather than "calling or putting pen to paper."

This helps explain the increasing popularity of Web sites that list jobs in specific disciplines, such as the one maintained by the American Public Works Association. The APWA's Web site has a heavily trafficked "WorkZone" page devoted exclusively to job openings in the highly competitive world of public works and civil engineering. At any given time, WorkZone has upwards of 100 to 150 jobs listed. The listings have proved to be a popular and effective avenue for connecting jobs and applicants, says APWA executive director Peter King.

Still, King acknowledges that for high-profile jobs in larger cities, he often gets a phone call. "Maybe once a month I get a call from a municipality, or a firm that's been retained by a municipality, wanting to have an informal discussion about candidates who might fit their criteria." In other words, the Web plays its role, but few governments are comfortable using it as the decisive instrument, even in situations where the need is urgent and the supply of candidates is limited.

Non-Traditional Candidates

One reason the Web is still viewed with a bit of skepticism among government headhunters is that they are looking harder than ever for generalized management ability, not just technical skill. A city might need a finance director with experience in cleaning up fiscal messes or a public works director who understands the politics of snow removal.

Overall management skills and the right temperament for the job in question are always going to be hard to ferret out electronically. Dennis Royer, the Denver official hired away by Boston to be Public Works and Transportation commissioner, found himself working his way through nine separate interviews with Boston officials, only half of which focused on his technical knowledge. The rest aimed at his temperament as a manager and how he might fit in with Mayor Thomas Menino's top team.

The emphasis on management skill is gradually taking hold in every area of public hiring. Joey Rodger, a long-time urban library official and now a professional headhunter for libraries, says it took her profession a while to figure out that finding technically proficient librarians wasn't much help to the larger cause of generating executives who could function in the broader -- and highly political -- world of advocating for public library budgets and priorities.

Because of that, libraries have begun to work harder on broadening librarians' skill sets to include managerial, financial and political competence. And increasingly, that is leading to hires that would have been considered eccentric, even outlandish, not too long ago. Rodger cites the case of Herb Elish, a retired steel company executive, who in 1999 was selected as the library director in Pittsburgh and proved to be a success.

Governors and mayors increasingly are adopting the same attitude. Specifically, they are looking for retired private-sector executives to take cabinet-level positions. "There's a very clear strategy among governors these days to expand their search beyond traditional areas," says Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association. "They are trying to reach out to smart people who've had successful careers, people who are 60 or 61, who are willing to take the salary hit, and pull them in for four years."

The key to attracting that kind of help, of course, is the willingness to ask. In seeking agency heads for Los Angeles, Villaraigosa made an explicit pitch to both late-career and well-situated public- and private-sector executives: "Come here, work hard, sweat a lot, and change the world and for not a lot of money." The strategy lured top executives out of high-paying jobs and drew public-sector high-fliers from as far away as Washington, D.C.

Juliette Kayyem says a significant part of her decision to become Patrick's top homeland security adviser in Massachusetts was simply that he issued a personal invitation. "You have governors like Patrick and [New York's Eliot] Spitzer pulling in a vast array of people who wouldn't have been considered for state jobs, or who wouldn't have considered working in state government," says Kayyem, who quit two jobs to go into state service, one as a lecturer at Harvard, the other doing terrorism analysis for NBC News.

The Outside Imperative

Of course, relying on the personal pitch is one thing for high-profile governors such as Patrick and Spitzer, sweeping in anew and promising to transform government. They can call on a vast network of friends and acquaintances who might be amenable to dropping other, much more lucrative jobs for public service -- in fact, Kayyem worked with Patrick when they were both in the Clinton Justice Department.

In the less-lofty reaches of government, however, the search for top talent is still going to boil down to hard work, unconventional approaches and, more frequently than ever, outside help. Just a few years ago, Fairbanks of Phoenix used headhunters in only about one-third or one-half of his searches for top talent. Now the city uses them all the time.

Bob O'Neill, executive director of the International City/County Management Association, can rattle off a short list of top municipal headhunters without even consulting his Rolodex, and agrees that their role in matching up cities and talent is on the rise. There are still "marquee" locations, says O'Neill, cities that maintain reputations as top of their class and so have a bit less trouble recruiting. But for the most part, municipalities are accepting the fact that there is no alternative to the "wider net" strategy.

Which is where people like Bob Slavin come in. Slavin, who specializes in recruiting city managers, fire chiefs and police chiefs, says one of his more interesting recent talent hunts kicked off in the fall of 2004, when the citizens of Topeka, Kansas, voted for dramatic change.

"The city was going from about the strongest mayor-council form of government you'd find to the strongest council-manager form," says Slavin. Under the new system, the city council chooses the city manager, but the city manager gets to make every other top municipal appointment after that. And so Topeka had to get the best manager it could find, and quickly. But it didn't need just a manager, it needed someone with experience in wholesale culture change. The new job required an executive who possessed the skills, temperament and confidence to work with a council and a corps of employees used to an entirely different political and administrative structure.

Not too many years ago, that might have meant expanding the search a little bit beyond Kansas and Missouri, looking to managers in cities of comparable size around the Midwest. But in the changed world of headhunting, it meant looking as far as both coasts, which led Slavin to the unlikely destination of Plainfield, New Jersey, and to its city manager, Norton Bonaparte. In 2000, Bonaparte had been asked by New Jersey's governor to go to corruption-plagued Camden and do something to clean it up. He was met by a vow from the mayor that if Bonaparte tried to set foot in city hall, he would be arrested as a trespasser.

Bonaparte went in to Camden anyway, and spent the next two and half years restoring its government to reasonable functionality. Then he moved on to Plainfield, a smaller but also troubled New Jersey city, and had some tangible successes there. All in all, it was a record that convinced the Topeka city council that he was the man for the job. But the city and the manager would never have found each other if a headhunter hadn't been brought in to spin the search nationwide -- something that almost certainly wouldn't have happened a decade ago.

In the end, however, even the most carefully cast nets often aren't enough to catch -- and hold -- prize talent. While Boston's mayor had good luck last summer filling his four vacant posts, right now he's stewing over the one that got away -- a prime example of how hard it can be for an entrenched administration to compete with a new regime that can promise job prospects they'll be on the leading edge of sweeping change.

Menino spent an entire year looking for a new school superintendent, and by the end of 2006, he was so convinced he had a prize hire that his coup was reported in the local papers. Manuel J. Rivera, superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York, and one of the recognized all-stars in the field, would be heading to Boston.

It was with a great deal of chagrin -- and not a little anger -- that Menino discovered in January that Rivera wasn't coming after all. He had been lured away to be Spitzer's top education adviser in New York. Spitzer's promise that he owed Menino "two draft choices" didn't do much to assuage the mayor. For Spitzer, it was another hiring triumph. For Boston, it was back to the now-familiar grind of casting the big net for big-time help.

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