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When a Local-Gov Manager Leaves

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jerry Newfarmer
August 18, 2015

The leaders of local governments, whether department heads, assistants or chief executives, frequently move from job to job; one look at my email database can confirm that. When a manager or department head leaves, there are a few priorities that leaders should consider. Following these will likely make the transition to a new leader smoother and can result in a department that runs more efficiently afterward.

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Hire an interim. Many governments will try to have staffers cover the work of the departing leader until someone new is hired. However, I believe it is better to hire an interim manager from outside the organization to do the job until a permanent replacement is found. An interim from the outside eliminates conflicts that can arise when internal candidates are applying for the position. When more than one current employee is vying for the job, and one is named interim, the process becomes more difficult for everyone and conflicts can linger past the naming of a new leader.

Additionally, the process of finding the right candidate can last weeks or even months. It is impossible to tell at the outset exactly how long it will take. The responsibilities of running a city or county ought to be more than a current staffer can simply add onto existing duties, especially when the new responsibilities will be new and unfamiliar. Finally, the perspective of an outsider can be helpful to evaluating the department for potential improvements. A qualified interim can help ease the new person into the job.

Review the department. An organization review can uncover opportunities that aren’t always visible in the day-to-day operations. It is especially helpful when a department head leaves, since the transition is an opportune time to take a fresh, honest look at the health of an organization. Reviews are particularly relevant now, in the wake of the recession, since they can identify where to restore staffing and determine whether department goals are still relevant.

A good organization review will look at the goals and performance measures to ensure they are meaningful and that staffers have the tools and mechanisms to achieve them. It will examine the rules and policies that govern the work. Since responsibilities change over time, they need to be updated regularly to remain relevant. It will look at technology to ensure its up-to-date and able to support best practices. Technology upgrades have been a victim of recession-related cuts and a lack of technology may be creating inefficiencies that are far more expensive than a fix.

A thorough organization review will also look at the org chart to see that there are clear reporting relationships. Again, this is a great time to review the structure of local governments, because positions lost in the recession have created confusion. It’s always a good idea for an employee to report to a single supervisor who is responsible for monitoring and managing the employee’s workload and holds them accountable for meeting performance and customer service expectations.

Create or update your organization’s succession plan. The ranks of city and county management have aged considerably. Having a current succession plan is especially important with the coming wave of baby boomer retirements. In the early 1970s, nearly three-quarters of city managers were under 40. However, a 2008 study found that only 13 percent were under 40.

A good succession plan nurtures talent within an organization and uncovers ways to find talent outside the organization, always with the goal of preserving knowledge in the face of departures and retirements. Steps in a succession plan include identifying the skills needed for specific positions, the gaps associated with those positions and the training and coaching needed to transfer knowledge from experienced employees to the next generation. By building talent throughout the organization, instead of focusing on finding someone after a retirement or departure is announced, local governments will build their bench strength and make their organization more attractive to future employees.

The departure of a local-government leader can be a difficult time, but it’s also an opportunity to examine the organization’s goals, roles and responsibilities and make improvements as needed. It can be hard to lose a valued employee, but the priority is always the overall health of the organization. These steps will go a long way in making the organization stronger as it transitions to a new leader.

Author: Jerry Newfarmer, a national leader in local government performance management, served as city manager in Fresno, California; San Jose, California; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Newfarmer is founder and president of Management Partners, which helps local governments improve their operations. Newfarmer has led his firm to nationally recognized expertise in municipal development review processes, strategic planning, budgeting and finance and organizational analysis.

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One Response to When a Local-Gov Manager Leaves

  1. Julie Ann Racino Reply

    August 24, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    At high levels of government management, policies vary with the manager not simply the politician. However, the public is usually not informed of these changes, and are not give the opportunity to respond to major policy changes, or if you prefer, initiatives. Public strategy forums and citizen rankings of issues with discussion are always good components of good government/governance.

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