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Image of a new manager with her new staff

The successful transition of a local government manager to a new organization is of critical importance to both the manager and the organization.

The manager wants to get off to a positive start that will ideally result in a long and successful tenure. The organization/agency also has a lot riding on a successful transition, recognizing the likely significant investment made in the selection process and the critical role the manager plays in achieving organizational success. A short and/or unsuccessful tenure will be disruptive and will likely have significant negative impacts on the agency and the community it serves.

While a good deal has been written regarding what the new manager should do to help increase the odds of a successful transition (including ICMA’s First-Time Administrator’s Handbook ), not nearly as much attention has been brought to the issue of how the new agency (including the staff and governing board) can help increase the likelihood of a successful transition.

The intent of this article is to offer suggestions on how the organization can be an effective partner with the new manager to increase the odds of a successful transition and hopefully a long and successful relationship.

A Positive Start

Reach out in advance. While most new managers will not be shy in requesting information to help them orient to the new agency, appropriate staff should reach out and request what information would be helpful to provide in advance to the new manager, or upon his/her arrival. And staff should be willing to suggest any additional information and resources beyond those identified by the new manager. In addition, be sure to ask about any special needs/requests they may have for setting up their office.

Helpful information. A briefing packet of information should be prepared including a summary of all significant issues that the new manager will confront as well as key documents such as the budget; annual financial report; general/community plan (or other key land use documents); strategic plan; governing board goals; etc. Also, background information on the community in general can be very helpful.

An easy first day. Meet the new manager at the door on their first day and plan for them to receive an orientation to the telephone and computer systems right away. Ensure that the office has plenty of office supplies and check back often to see if there is anything else they need.

The first day of work is often a good day to meet the human resources director for necessary paperwork and an opportunity to meet and have conversations with the senior staff. Taking the manager to lunch on their first day is also a nice touch, and don’t forget to give a tour of the local government offices, including the location of the restroom and break room!

Visits to local government facilities. In the first week after a manager begins his or her new job, offer to facilitate visits to all work locations and facilities for the new manager to informally introduce themselves to as many employees as possible at their respective work locations.

Key issue briefings. In the first week, offer briefings on key issues in the community and within the organization. Involving the staff working on these issues also provides the new manager the opportunity to get to know more employees early in their tenure. Consider whether it would be helpful to include the mayor and/or other governing board members in one or more of these briefings depending on the topic.

Departmental briefings. Within the first two weeks, offer the opportunity for the new manager to meet with the department head and staff of each department. This will allow for a review of important departmental issues and to allow staff to review their approach to their work, as well as departmental operating plans, goals and objectives, and linkages to the overall organizational strategic plan.

Key community contacts. Within the first two to four weeks, develop a list of key community leaders and organizations (schools, neighborhood associations, business associations, local nonprofits, etc.). Include contact information and offer to schedule introductory meetings with these individuals and groups. Staff should also be sensitive to the fact that many of these community leaders may reach out to the manager to welcome them to the community, so if that occurs, a brief update on these individuals and their organization affiliation will also help the manager to navigate relationships in the new community.

Sensitive topics/individuals. Offer briefings, as needed, regarding particularly sensitive issues (and individuals) to help the new manager avoid inadvertently creating a controversy or difficult interaction.

A “welcome event.” Within the first month, provide a “welcome event” for the new manager (and perhaps his or her family) to be able to meet staff (and possibly community members) in an informal social setting. Consider having the mayor host the event and encourage board/councilmembers to attend to demonstrate support for the new manager. If the manager has a family, include them as well, recognizing the substantial commitment they are also making with this change.

The new manager’s family. In addition to the welcome event, if family members will be relocating with the new manager, look for ways to help the family adjust to their new community, including identifying information regarding housing options, schools, recreational opportunities, etc. If the family feels welcomed and makes a good adjustment to their new community that will assist significantly with the manager’s transition.

Staff Support Is Critical to the Transition

Kind, open, and helpful staff members can truly be the key factor in helping the new manager in the days, weeks, and months after assuming their new role. Once the basics have been handled and the new manager is on a positive path to assuming their new job duties, staff members should always try to understand the following:

Risk of information overload. Recognize that starting a new job in a new community can be both intimidating and overwhelming. The amount of information needed to be assimilated can be daunting, as might also be the number of people wishing to meet with the new manager. Prioritize what information is most important and be sensitive to the need of having to space briefings to avoid information overload.

Show openness. Be open to the manager suggesting and implementing new ideas and approaches. While explaining the background of why the organization does things a certain way, avoid the “we have always done it this way” attitude. New leadership is both a time of change, but also an opportunity for the organization to grow and evolve.

Be understanding. Be sensitive to the fact that new managers can sometimes “stub their toes” in new and unfamiliar environments. Be helpful and supportive of the manager as they make some initial missteps as they work to get familiar with issues and people.

Work to understand the new manager. Work diligently to gain an understanding of the new manager, including working style, communication preferences, and work product expectations. Be sensitive to the type of organizational culture they wish to instill—especially if he or she is advocating a departure from the current style and culture of the agency.

Clarify openness to feedback. Create an understanding with the new manager regarding their openness to feedback regarding how the organization, community and council may react to certain changes and initiatives they may wish to implement. Try to establish an open, frank, and respectful approach to communicating such feedback.

Maintain realistic expectations. Don’t expect the manager to be able to address, no less resolve, months or years of accumulated issues during their first few weeks on the job. Those who have not gone through this type of transition tend to underestimate how challenging it is get up to speed regarding all the issues and individuals a new manager encounters.

City Councils/
Governing Boards

It is particularly important for city councils and governing boards to be sensitive to all the manager must do and learn when coming to a new organization. As with staff, there can be the temptation to expect the new manager to immediately address all the issues that have accumulated for the governing board (or individual board members). It’s important for the governing board members to give the manager time to get familiar with the agency, its issues, and its members.

It is also important that the council/board establish realistic priorities regarding the issues they would like the manager to address. Without clear priorities it will be difficult for the new manager to be successful in this regard.

All this being said, it would be nice if elected officials were to invite the manager for coffee or lunch, get to know them, and share personal insights on the community, all the while resisting the urge to advocate for pet projects or air personal grievances.

Managers Promoted from Within the Organization

When a manager is promoted from within the organization, the information needs are certainly less onerous. However, many of the same suggestions apply. The newly promoted manager may not have worked with all departments and department heads directly, may not be familiar with all organizational issues they now need to address, and may not have engaged the council and community leaders in the same fashion as in their new role. Underestimating the on-boarding needs of the newly promoted internal candidate may disadvantage the manager who promotes from within. It’s better to offer more information and support than too little in such circumstances.

Conclusion

So whether the newly selected manager comes from outside the organization or is promoted from within, the staff and governing board can have a significant impact on the new manager’s transition and ultimate success. It is also a great opportunity for the new manager’s staff to demonstrate their commitment, competency, and professionalism. It’s always important to make a good first impression!

 

 

KEVIN C. DUGGAN, ICMA-CM, is an ICMA senior advisor, and former city manager of Mountain View, California (kduggan@icma.org).

 

 

 

 

CHERYL HILVERT, ICMA-CM, serves as Midwest regional director for ICMA. She previously served as Midwest regional vice president on the ICMA Executive Board. She has served for more than 31 years as a local government manager. (chilvert@icma.org)

 

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