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How Denver's Attracting Top Private-Sector Talent from Places Like Chipotle

The city's new hiring approach has inspired many to take big pay cuts to work in government.

FlickrCC/Atomic Taco
When Denver went searching for a new Chief Information Officer (CIO), the local government was facing an uphill battle. The city's Technology Services agency was struggling: employees weren't happy; workers were stretched thin; and other city agencies viewed the department negatively. But the agency turned itself around by getting creative in the hiring process to bring in top talent from outside government. 

The agency turned to a panel of experts to focus on drafting a unique job posting rather than the standard, run-of-the-mill government job posting that lists key duties and qualifications. The panel's revamped job advertisement (which you can view in full at the bottom of this column) began with “Can you imagine being part of a team running a major metropolitan city? Can you imagine actually doing something about the issues facing your community?” and ended with “You could change the world.” That language helped get the attention of a number of top candidates, including the CIO of Chipotle.

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I spoke with David Edinger, Denver's Chief Performance Officer, about how they convinced Chipotle’s CIO to leave the private sector for government. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

What did you realize going into the hiring process?

We knew the folks we were home growing just had blinders on. They became known as the agency of "no." Agencies were told they couldn't do things. We had to find a different kind of inspirational leader who could turn that thinking around citywide and make it an agency of "how can we" versus an agency of "we can't." 

How did you develop the job posting to attract the type of candidate you wanted?

We started to look at how others recruit and specifically looked at the state's Secretary of Technology. What they did at the state level was they moved that IT position to cabinet level and it became less task-oriented and more of a leadership position focused on transformational change. We wanted to take that a step further.

We put together a small panel of key people, and we wrote the job description. We got a lot of the traditional "I've been a government technology officer for a long time and I want to do it again" resumes, but we were successful in getting a few great people from the private sector to apply.

How did you try to convince your top candidates to come to Denver?

The challenge was that we had people who were a great fit, but it was such a huge pay cut for those coming from the private sector. We really played up what was in the job posting. One of the candidates, Frank Daidone, was the director of IT at Chipotle. The advisors on our panel said "this is the kind of guy who gets it." It's not all about technical expertise, it's about getting the right kind of leader. So our recruitment became all about convincing him that increasing the market share of burritos was not his calling; it was instead improving the quality of life for the community where he lived. We made it clear that this is a job where, at the end of the day, you wish you could do more but you have to get home to family. It was also important to have the people on our panel and top leaders like the mayor have these conversations with him to turn him from "I'll never work for government" to "this is the place for me."

Does Denver, or will Denver, use this tactic for other key positions?

Certainly. It's very possible to do this at the appointee level, so we've used it a lot to find leaders who you might not otherwise think we have any shot at getting. We just hired a new HR director and she took at least a 50 percent pay cut from the private sector to come work for us. We have really started to push this idea that to get the candidate we want in the door, you have to do more than just post something -- and it's worked. Another example is the new director of planning and development who had been asked to do that job 25 years ago and said "no way." We managed to get him on board this year with a very similar approach.

Because these new leaders are all coming out of the private sector, is there any animosity from staff?

There is the long-standing renter versus owner culture, where the renters are appointees and the rest of the city who remain after the mayor leaves office are the owners. That issue has been there for a long time. I think it's diminished, going back to 2003 when now-Gov. John Hickenlooper was mayor and he started turning to the private sector. Right now, many of the 15 cabinet-level appointees don't have the traditional government background. There's some animosity, but nothing that keeps us up at night. As long as those we hire can deliver, it will be fine. They have to take into account the unique culture of government and can't think that everything that works for the private sector will work here. That doesn't go over well. 

Obviously it can be very different to move from the private sector to government. Now that you have convinced these folks to, in most cases, take major pay cuts so they can make a difference, how do you deliver in the face of bureaucracy?

Most of them come from big organizations where they had their own bureaucratic flavor. If you're coming from a bigger organization like Chipotle, you're used to the limitations, so it tends to be less shocking. 

How has the new leader impacted the IT department thus far?

We just did a spot survey on employee engagement, and they had moved from just above 0 to 28, which is one of the highest in the city. That's happened through a combination of things: Frank came in and set out a strategic plan and a lot of people felt more engaged in technology services. His plan attempts to move the agency from a place of pain to a place where people appreciate its existence. The management team was changed; we'll be doing more investment in people's skills; and he did simple things like listening to the employee survey, letting everyone wear jeans to work, painting the walls cool colors, bringing in good coffee, and putting in ping pong and foosball tables. It's cheap stuff, but that's what people want. They want to show up, have fun, and do their coding. All this has contributed to that huge jump in employee engagement that we have not seen anywhere else. And if you do this, then it snowballs in a positive way.  

Job Posting for Denver's CIO

The City and County of Denver is taking IT to the next level. Come lead the effort! Spurred by Mayor Hancock's vision for Peak Performance, the Technology Services agency has an opportunity to lead innovative changes in how government services are delivered to real people with modern technologies, including Social, Mobile, and Cloud. Help drive the Mayor's priorities around Jobs, Safety and Kids…make a real difference in a community that is poised like none other to drive innovation and improve the lives of our constituents. Are you someone with the courage and skills to make a difference? Has the need to contribute rather than be part of the rhetoric been nagging at you? This is your moment!

The individual selected for this position will be an integral member of the Mayor's team. Can you imagine being part of a team running a major metropolitan city? Can you imagine actually doing something about the issues facing your community? Can you imagine using the most modern technology available today to do so?

We need you. Public service is an honorable way to spend four years. Imagine if every successful leader spent even two years serving his or her community in a hand's on dedicated way. It could change the world. You could change the world. 

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.
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