BY ROB CARTY, LOWELL CROW, JAKE JOHANSSON, BOB GEIS, AND DOUG BEAVER
Few people could say that local government management is not an interesting profession. As unlikely as it might seem, four U.S. Navy installation commanders stationed in the Mid-Atlantic area of Norfolk, Virginia, around the same time got that local government bug due to mentoring from managers. You never know when a positive interaction, experience, or guidance will mint a new local government professional, even as a second career. All four are now working in local government and these are their stories. Here they share some great lessons in how mentoring, encouragement, and engagement can motivate others to join this journey into public management.
Lowell Crow, ICMA-CM
City Manager | Freeport, Illinois
Three years prior to my transition to civil service, I began looking at careers where skills that I had gained in the military could be used in the civilian sector. All veterans choose to serve for many reasons, such as love of country and a desire to serve and protect our community. Transitioning to local government gives us the opportunity to continue to serve and make a difference at the local level, and this was attractive to me as a post-Navy career. Additionally, working closely with the municipalities in the area I found that the work I did with them was both varied and exciting and would provide the broad leadership challenges that I enjoyed in the Navy.
The first steps I took in my career transition involved applying to the master’s in public administration degree program at Old Dominion University and becoming a member of ICMA. At the same time, I connected to members of the profession about how to break into local government. This included working with Jack Tuttle, former city manager of Williamsburg, Virginia, who had also transitioned to local government, and joining a variety of organizations that would give me experience in areas such as economic development and tourism; things important to communities that we didn’t do in the Navy (though some retired Navy ships are now great tourist attractions).
Moving on to my second job in local government, and having been through several recruitments, the help that recruiters provided along the way was invaluable. Many of today’s local officials have little, if any, military experience which requires helping them recognize veterans as a key asset; especially if the community does not have a base near it. Working with recruiters helped me develop my resume and focus on available jobs that would be a good fit. Even today, I have found that headhunters are a vital resource.
The advice I received throughout the career transition process from non-service members was to focus on educational opportunities outside the classroom, which served to help further my knowledge base. Once I got my first job, I worked with ICMA Senior Advisors and participated in the Emerging Leaders program through ICMA, which assigns a mentor who I could lean on for advice. Making time to attend all the ICMA national and state conferences enabled me to develop key relationships with many fellow local government managers and administrators—again, more people to lean on for advice. This is a people business, both in the people we serve, and those we connect to for mentoring, coaching, and guidance.
I believe the biggest hurdle you will face in the career transition process is the multitude of stereotypes of what military leaders are like. When I interviewed for my second position, after serving in local government for three years, I was still getting asked how I was going to transition from a military to civilian career. Many base commanders have a large civilian workforce that work for us, and those workforces present the same challenges in local government. An example of this is how local government functions at a slower pace, oftentimes driven by the political nature of a decision which can become frustrating.
I would advise those that are looking to become a mentor to take the time to discuss a career transition with those that are seeking a role in local government. City and county managers and administrators provided me with useful information, while identifying gaps in my base of knowledge.
My final piece of advice, once you make the transition to local government, is to get involved at the state and national levels. For example, I served on the State of Illinois Board as the downstate president, the evaluation committee for the ICMA Annual Conference in Kansas City, and presently on the Credentialing Advisory Board for ICMA. The relationships I have formed over the years allow me access to a network of individuals in the profession. Finally, continue your education with classes such as an emerging leaders’ course, middle managers course, and Senior Executive Institute; this will grow your knowledge base substantially.
City Manager | Port Orange, Florida
The end of one career isn’t necessarily the end of working altogether, especially if you’re not ready for the kind of retirement filled with mostly leisure time. As I began exploring transition from the military, I found myself interacting more frequently in Virginia’s Tidewater area with local government managers, and found their work appealing to my interests. I was eventually introduced to Jim Bourey, former city manager for Newport News, and he started mentoring me about two years before my scheduled retirement. He convinced me that local government was very similar to what I was doing as an installation commanding officer, which initially led to my transition to local government. Jim had also spent time mentoring Lowell as I later found out.
It’s important to remember that when many military members leave service, there is a certain amount of change in leadership position and responsibility they had prior to hanging up the uniform. At the end of the day, I still wanted to continue in a leadership role taking on the challenges that come with leading a 500-plus person organization. I’m also motivated by giving back to the public, as I did during my 36 years in the Navy, and wanted to experience the direct positive results from my work in public service. Conversely, there aren’t too many days that go by where I don’t hear from a citizen that isn’t happy with the way their tax dollars are being spent, or some service that doesn’t meet expectations.
I started the process three years before retirement, as I was working towards my master’s in public administration at Old Dominion, based on Lowell Crow’s lead. My mentor, Jim Bourey, also provided me some direction while in school, and encouraged me to join ICMA as well as VLGMA (the Virginia state association). This is where I was exposed to many different people in all phases of the profession. Eventually, during an ICMA Annual Conference, I was introduced to two executive search firms that were instrumental in my future success.
In partnership with the executive recruiters, ICMA, and local government manager mentors such as Jim Bourey; Jim Baker, the city manager of Chesapeake, Virginia, and another great mentor; we identified the top two areas that could plague a senior officer in becoming a local government manager. First, everyone has a preconceived notion that all military leaders are authoritarians. Second, is convincing recruiters and local government managers that naval base and installation/garrison commanders do the same thing as local government managers. The good news is, a lot of executive recruiters have become more aware of these stereotypes, with the increase of retired military that are transitioning into local government.
I think veterans’ bias is still present today, depending on where you are; however, there are ways to counter that bias while working towards a position in local government. I attended the Civic Leadership Institute, which became a platform for me to shed my military mold and show other leaders in the area what I had to offer. Unfortunately, in other parts of the nation, being a retired senior military officer is a non-starter when it comes to job applicant finalists.
My final piece of advice is that once you have transitioned from the military to local government, become a mentor! Visit the ICMA veteran’s website and volunteer your time and energy. I’ve had several military members contact me for mentorship and advice, most of whom ended up in local government across the nation. The transition from military service to local government gave me the sense that our community was bigger than us, and that we were a very important cog in a bigger wheel of the local community we called the Hampton Roads area.
Deputy City Manager | Chesapeake, Virginia
I feel the same sense of mission and teamwork in local government that I felt in the Navy. Serving in local government, and truly helping people as they move through their daily lives, provides very similar job satisfaction as in the military. I know that every day I will play a role in helping make someone’s life better by working to provide improved services to our citizens. The starkest difference between the two is that local government functions intimately with a political body for policy guidance. In some cases, a very simple decision is impacted by what could be strictly political reasons, even though it may only help a handful of citizens. The power of “not in my backyard” can certainly be frustrating. This is an important lesson to learn early in your tenure as a local government leader.
My transition to local government was slightly unusual in that I wasn’t planning on retiring when the opportunity to move from the military into local government presented itself. I didn’t start my transition planning until I accepted a new position in the city of Chesapeake. For me, reaching out to local city managers immediately prior to applying for my current position was instrumental in cementing my decision to actively seek a role in local government. I also participated in the CIVIC Leadership Institute, a regionally focused executive leadership program in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. This program helped me understand the importance of looking at issues not just through your own lens, but from the lens of others impacted by the decision.
If an installation commander is considering a career in local government, I believe it is vital to talk to local government leaders in your area to get a feel for the types of responsibilities they have. As installation commanding officers, our skills are highly transferable to local government. I think those who have made the transition successfully must share our experiences, both positive and negative, to those considering local government management. I consider it an honor and a privilege to help others make the transition to local government, while growing the ranks with younger and more diverse leaders.
Bring your “A game” to local government and you will be rewarded with a challenging, frustrating, and extremely satisfying second career. Every day I can make a difference in someone’s life, and the impact we have in local government on the community is the most direct form of government Americans have. I think serving in local government is an extremely rewarding career.
Chief Resilience Officer | Norfolk, Virginia
The installation that I lead during my time in service was celebrating its centennial anniversary, and we partnered closely with the city throughout the year to highlight the close-knit bond between the military and surrounding community. Spending time with the mayor and key city staff during the planning process afforded me an opportunity to learn more about local government. Throughout the process, it became clear that many of the same skills I was using as base commander were the same needed in local government.
Continuing to serve the greater good is high on the list of why local government is a natural fit for those who have served in the military. I was drawn to the mantra of Team Norfolk and their mission to provide services to a community where almost 1 in 5 citizens live at, or below, the poverty line. At the same time, many transitioning service members have an unrealistic expectation of the starting salary they believe they will earn in their first job outside of the military. It’s important to remember that like the military, compensation in local government will come in the form of successfully completing meaningful work with a talented team, while making a tangible difference for the community.
My transition planning started relatively late in my retirement timing, approximately six months before my last day. While this put me at a disadvantage, the strong network that I had established while serving as a base commander living in the community for most of my career, allowed me to identify my interests with relative ease. I had established relationships with key community stakeholders who were able to provide advice that was invaluable in the job search process.
Mentoring helped me manage my outlook on what to expect working in local government. It quickly became evident that the soft-skills I learned in the military were far more important than the technical knowledge or experience I had gained. Having completed a nine-month local civic leadership program where I established relationships with executives and thought leaders in the community, I was being mentored without even realizing it at the time.
I was fortunate in that I did not experience any veterans bias, as veterans in the military-friendly community in which I reside are respected and treated well. One challenge I did experience in the career transition process was talking about my military experience during interviews. It was critical to equate my military experience, in leadership and managerial positions, to the skillset the hiring organization was looking for. As a result of going through the hiring process, I learned that properly articulating the value you will bring to the organization you are looking to join is something that takes time and practice.
If you bring the same passion and drive that propelled your military career to your transition to local government, or any job for that matter, you will inevitably be successful. While it doesn’t get any easier in the public/private sector, focusing on the core attributes of being a leader and stepping outside your comfort zone to learn new skills can be rewarding. Lastly, continue to grow your network of professional and personal relationships. The knowledge you gain, and share, will allow you to seek opportunities and accomplish goals you couldn’t foresee during your transition from the military.
ROB CARTY is director, career and equity advancement, ICMA, Washington, DC (email@example.com).
LOWELL CROW, ICMA-CM, is city manager, Freeport, Illinois (firstname.lastname@example.org).
JAKE JOHANSSON is city manager, Port Orange, Florida (email@example.com).
BOB GEIS is deputy city manager, Chesapeake, Virginia (firstname.lastname@example.org).
DOUG BEAVER is chief resilience officer, Norfolk, Virginia (email@example.com).