Member Spotlight: Joshua H. Wright

Since I got into the profession, local government is something that I've appreciated because it's very simple in a way. It provides the most basic of services that we all need as humans, and it is about serving others.

ARTICLE | Mar 9, 2016

Joshua H. Wright is town manager of Wickenburg, Arizona, and past president of the Arizona City/County Management Association.

Why local government?

Since I got into the profession, local government is something that I've appreciated because it's very simple in a way. It provides the most basic of services that we all need as humans, and it is about serving others. It's not perhaps the thrills and excitement of a nonprofit, but it's very much directly engaging with citizens and it's the things that we take for granted but we absolutely need. I've always appreciated that aspect of it—that it’s very straightforward but also incredibly important.

How did you get into the profession?

I had no idea what a city manager did until I was working for one! I always thought I would be in the nonprofit sector or perhaps higher education—that was where I started and I loved all those things, too. In graduate school, I wound up in an internship program in local government. Having never thought city management would be a career course for me, the more that I was able to touch different areas of our business, of our community, and see just how everything kind of flowed together, I realized that it was actually a great opportunity for me. I was lucky to have some great mentors along the way who helped me in that process.

What do you tell younger people just entering the profession?

I was fortunate to be young when I first became a manager (south of 30, which I guess is considered young for this profession). I tell people now looking back on my own experience, there's no need to rush it. I think people feel like you have to get to that next step on the career ladder as soon as you can. Do what makes you happy, and in time everything will unfold the way it's supposed to.

I would also tell people who are just getting into the profession that you really have to love two things:

  1. At a core level, you have to love serving others. If you can't honestly say that—you’re a public servant above all else and you really want to do good for the world—then you're probably never going to really fall in love with the profession, because a lot of people are going tell you that you're not so great along the way. And if you don't really love it at the core, you're going to lose faith.  
  2. You have to be excited about solving really complicated problems. Most of the things that rise to the manager’s level in an organization, even a small one like mine, are those things that are not easily dealt with overnight. They’re going to take a lot of research, a lot of talking to people with strong opinions about how that problem should be solved, and you're going to have to bring that to some kind of cohesiveness and some kind of resolution in the end. You have to love dealing with very complicated issues and being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Can you give an example or two of the kind of complicated problem you’re talking about?

I’ve always had the manager's office as my home base. Earlier in my career, when I was doing economic development work, even our simplest negotiations would be multi-year processes. Even now in Wickenburg working on large land use developments—we have our first master planned communities ever coming to Wickenburg—those are not things that will happen overnight. You really have to stay the course to make sure your community is protected and that you're thinking about the long-term future. There are always going to be people at every turn telling you you're doing it wrong, that it's never going to work, that they don't like that way of doing business. You have to stay the course with what you and your council or your elected officials know is the right thing long-term for the community and not be dissuaded by people who are going to be trying to take you off that course.

What’s the value of belonging to both your state association and to ICMA?

I’m the past president of the Arizona City/County Management Association (ACMA). I've always been a member of both ACMA and ICMA since the early days of my career. Both organizations have provided great networking, allowing me to build great connections with people. The more that I’ve progressed in my career and gone to smaller and even more rural places, my ACMA and ICMA memberships become even more important. It’s very easy to feel like you’re the only person dealing with a particular issue. It’s very easy to feel isolated and alone. ACMA and ICMA provide a safe place to connect, discuss issues, and relieve stress. You can talk openly and honestly about the issues your community is dealing with, and you walk away not only with some great ideas and some inspiration to go back and try some new things, but also with the realization that you're not the only person dealing with that problem.

How did you find the time to serve as ACMA president?

It’s tough—I admit that. And in our community the town manager's office is very small, so I have one other person with me to do human resources work and then I share an administrative assistant with the town clerk. That's my entire staff for my department, so being able to also do ACMA things is kind of a challenge. But it’s also a huge honor. I was very humbled that my peers would elect me, especially so early in my career.

It’s a balancing act. You have to be disciplined about your schedule and also know that there are things you're not going to get to in your year as president or your year on the board. Just like in our professions, in daily life you have to set long-term goals and then start to pick your battles. You ask yourself, what's really going to pay dividends long-term, and decide to focus on that.

How can ICMA membership help managers in small communities?

Going to the conferences, going to trainings, using the resources that ICMA offers is really critical as a small community manager. It gives you an anchor with your career. It’s very easy to get caught up in small town politics and the day-to-day grind of working in a small community, where you're always in the spotlight. Everybody knows who you are and so there's just a different level of expectation. ICMA gives you time away in a sense. It gives me centering in my career. I still need to develop myself as a professional. I still need to take some time to generate new ideas and collaborate with colleagues all across the world (as well as doing my day-to-day job). It gives me that escape in some ways to refresh myself.

What inspires you the most at this stage in your career?

Public service and being a public servant has to be the center of who you are as a city manager, as a county manager, as any kind of public professional. My parents both worked in medicine and they were always very interested in serving others through that vocation. They taught me that the highest form of charity is when the giver and the receiver don't know each other. And I think there's a great parallel to a local government. Every day, I get to do things somewhat anonymously, that people will never recognize, that they will never really appreciate. And in fact people I don't know—maybe they haven't even been born yet—will probably benefit the most from those things. Everything in local government management is long-term. We’re planting the seed today so someone else can enjoy the shade of that tree tomorrow.

Of course, most everyone loves getting a pat on the back, and I do, too, in certain circumstances. But what really drives me long term is that we get to quietly and patiently make a very significant, lasting impact that unfolds over many decades.

With the quiet role of managers, how can we better explain your role?

That’s sort of what ICMA is there for, in a way. ICMA is the marketing arm of what we do and there's absolute value in that. We want talented people. We want the right people to be public servants of the future -- at all levels, not just city and town and county managers, but elected officials and department heads and governors and all those sorts of things as well. But I also think there's great value in finding people that really appreciate humility in what we do, too.

What’s the highlight of your career so far?

It's tough to name one project or program. As a local government manager, you get to work on such a great diversity of things—you can leave one meeting about public transit and walk into a meeting about the municipal cemetery, and most people never get to have that diversity of experience in their careers. That's one of the great selling points of it.

For all the sometimes crazy/sometimes awesome things that I've been able to get involved with, finding my own role has actually been the highlight of my career. Figuring out what kind of a manager I am, what kind of a public servant I am, what I want to leave as a legacy to my fellow human beings and the community I serve. Being able to help define that for yourself really is probably more important than almost any single project.

It’s also hugely important to surround yourself with the right team of professionals; that makes your life infinitely easier. Being able to assemble that team is what I’m most personally proud of in my current community.

What’s been the hardest thing in your career?

The hardest thing has been learning to confidently say “I don't know the answer to that.” None of us want to have to say that—ever. We're givers. We’re public servants. We like to have the right answers for people and be able to immediately help them. And sometimes that just isn't realistic. Again, it often takes a long time to really figure out a solution.

Betsy Fretwell, city manager of Las Vegas, has used the analogy that in the past, city managers were the ones who provided the answer to any problem and nowadays, we’re facilitators of finding the answer to those problems. Because everybody's got an opinion about things, and there's just so much going on day to day, the biggest challenge in the end is being able to say, “I don't know the answer to that, but let's work together to find it” and not doubt yourself and your own abilities when those words come out of your mouth.

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