Home Government Where’s Batman in dealing with this conundrum?

Where’s Batman in dealing with this conundrum?

By David Rogers. January 1, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — When reportedly first used back in late 16th century England at Oxford University, the word “conundrum” referred to a riddle whose answer involved a pun or wordplay of some sort. Today, it is more commonly associated with vexing problems, even moral dilemmas. 

For example, in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight, the Joker gave two Gotham ferries filled with tourists and commuters each a single button which, they are told, if pushed will blow up the other boat.  Each group faces a moral dilemma: Do you with certainty save yourself by blowing up the other boat or trust that a bunch of folks you do not know and with whom you cannot communicate will not push their button (first)? 

Why Is This Important? 

Blowing Rock’s Town Council faces a puzzling dilemma of its own in hiring a new Town Manager. On the one hand, they could hire a professional search firm to help them through the process. Their other choice is to conduct the process themselves. There are special considerations to either choice. 

At a recent special meeting, the Town Council decided to “go it alone” after hearing presentations from two executive search firms. The individual Council members may not even be aware of the puzzle they face, but we will break down the conundrum as best we can. 

But first, why is this even important? 

Town manager turnover can have a profound impact on the municipality’s policy-making and even its economic development.

Turnover in a town or city’s executive office can have a profound impact on the municipality’s policy-making and even its economic development. While lip service is often given to the distinction between a town manager’s presumed role as an administrator vs. a board of commissioners’ role in policy-making, the lines today are increasingly blurred.  

This concept was discussed comprehensively in an academic study, “Turnover Among City Managers: The Role of Political and Economic Change” (referred to later as the “Turnover Study”) co-written by professionals in public administration and policy, government, and law at Arizona State University, Florida State University, Murray State University, and University of Nevada-Las Vegas. CLICK HERE to read more. 

Among other relevant observations in this study: frequently, it is the town manager who brings policy proposals before a town council for their consideration and a prospective decision rather than the mayor or commissioner. The town manager is simply closer to what is going on throughout the whole town. Sometimes the issue originates with a department head who has encountered a problem in the community or within the town code. He reports his concern to the town manager who, in turn, brings the matter to the attention of the municipality’s elected legislative body (the town council/board of commissioners). 

Those issues usually follow a process that might include a Planning Board review and recommendation but, ultimately, they are channeled through the town manager in being brought before the Board of Commissioners. High turnover in the Town Manager’s office means that each successive executive must be brought up to speed on current projects, as well as in town priorities via the various town ordinances and any precedents set by previous decisions. If only because of the need for manager education, there may be otherwise unnecessary delays in serving the community as a whole or one or more of its constituents. 

High turnover means that each successive town manager must be brought up to speed…

Town manager continuity vs. turnover is important. Among other things, the previously mentioned Turnover Study concludes that the political stability or instability of a Town Council contributes greatly to town manager turnover. Instability might be “forced” (i.e. resulting from term limits being imposed by statute), but it can also be present where serious political conflicts arise between Council members, staff, or citizens; or where commissioners are simply not prepared for the roles to which they were elected. Anything that causes instability in town politics that are largely out of his or her control has the potential to prompt a town manager’s early exit. Whatever the compensation, dealing with that instability may not be worth the sleepless nights and tumultuous work days – or perhaps the manager has other, more stress-free opportunities in mind. 

To reduce the probability of continuing high rates of town executive turnover, the integrity and diligence of the hiring process should be foremost in the minds of the current Board of Commissioners and Mayor. However, there may not be an easy answer, as this conundrum illustrates. 

The Case for Hiring A Search Firm 

According to research conducted by State and Local Government Review, the official journal of the American Society of Public Administration founded at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government on the University of Georgia campus, town managers across the United States have served from as little as one week to over 35 years in the same municipality.  Seven and a half (7.5), the Review reports in a study of manager turnover, is the median number of years served. 

The two most recent Blowing Rock town managers served, on average, less than three years, both cases where Town Council “did it themselves.”  One might conclude that they didn’t do a very good job of selecting a new town manager because the hires didn’t come close to staying for even half of the median number of years (7.5) served, generally, across the nation.

Seven and a half is the median number of years served. 

Of course, making such an assumption may not be fair. It is entirely possible that they hired some very good professionals for the job, but once in the position they didn’t find the job to their liking for any number of reasons, including the oversight environment facilitated by the Board of Commissioners themselves or the aforementioned political instability, from whatever source. 

Although it should be a rare occurrence, one of the most important responsibilities of a town’s board of commissioners is to hire a manager who can keep things running smoothly in town operations and implement the various policy decisions adopted by Town Council. 

The Blowing Rock Town Council’s adoption of the controversial “Town Manager Evaluation Form” in the late summer demonstrated just how naive a board of commissioners can be about this important “Human Resources” (HR) management activity. You can’t just copy a form from the Internet and “customize it” to fit a few commissioners’ (or a few citizens who might have their ear) priorities without any kind of professional counsel. If the adopted document is ever implemented, it may well open up the potential for HR-related lawsuits against the Town. That’s not just my opinion, but a viewpoint that is shared by several people from the business and public service worlds who know better than anybody how dangerous such documents can prove. 

Those demonstrated HR shortcomings alone argue for the Town Council to seek professional help. It doesn’t mean the Council members are bad people or unintelligent, just that they are unaware of the intricacies in the HR mission. Clearly, they could benefit from employing an executive search firm to guide the process.  

Individually, the commissioners may be very competent in their respective chosen professions, but they have little or no experience in hiring, firing, and managing employees in today’s complex labor relations environment.  

The demonstrated HR shortcomings alone argue for the Town Council to seek professional help.

It must be clear, however, that any consulting firm works for the Town and not for the candidates identified. The consultants’ role should NOT be to “coach” any or all of the candidates through any part of the hiring process. Instead, the consultants are coaching the Town Council members in identifying and narrowing down the list of applicants. The Commissioners still retain the privilege of making a final decision on whom to hire, but by employing a reputable search firm they know with a high degree of confidence that they have the best potential suitors for the position that are available at this time. 

Another benefit of using a search firm that surfaced during the recent presentations: if the eventually selected hire does not work out within a specified time frame (usually six months to a year), then the search firm re-orchestrates a search to fill the vacancy at no extra charge. 

BOTTOM LINE: Anyone can put an ad in a couple of newspapers and that may well result in dozens of applications or inquiries. But locating and identifying qualified, even outstanding candidates for the open position is a specialized skill. Use of a search firm may go a long way toward separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff right from the get-go.   

Even more specialized (and very time consuming if done correctly) is the process of verifying experience, core competencies and character traits of the candidates who submit an application.  Do-it-yourselfers might even get “bamboozled.”

Case in point: After coaching college football for two decades at major universities, George O’Leary was forced to resign from the head coaching position at the University of Notre Dame after only five days on the job because a New Hampshire newspaper reporter uncovered two decades-long of blatant “resume padding.” He hadn’t really gotten a Master’s degree from NYU-Stony Brook and he had not really been a member of the University of New Hampshire football team — even though his resume claimed that he had earned three varsity letters on the UNH gridiron before earning that (made-up) Master’s degree. 

KEY QUESTION: Do any or all of our current Town Council members have these skills, as well as the time to do a thorough job of vetting the candidates who apply? 

A search firm may go a long way toward separating the wheat from the chaff right from the get-go.

The Case for Doing It Themselves 

And yet, and here’s the other half of the conundrum, one could easily argue that a town’s Board of Commissioners should only use a professional consulting firm as a last resort.  It’s expensive. At $18,000 or more, it may be the cost, in aggregate, of a half dozen or more of a town’s property owners’ annual tax payments.  A decision to hire a professional consulting firm is as if to admit to voters, “We are inept — but please vote for us next fall.” 

There may very well be one or two of our sitting commissioners willing and able to diligently study the mandates of today’s HR processes and spend the time required to become proficient, but that is unlikely. There are entire university majors devoted to the subject and with the need to perform those HR-focused duties once every three to seven years it just does not seem practical to invest the time and money to acquire those HR skills. Moreover, it takes years of experience in hiring senior executives to become proficient at the job. 

In choosing to conduct the process themselves, Town Council members deserve accolades for attempting to save taxpayer monies, but there are times when it doesn’t pay to be “penny wise and pound foolish.”  In both the private and public sectors, consulting firms have proven that it can often be less costly to use them rather than attempt to accomplish a task where specialized skills are required.  A more logical approach might be to emphasize, even publicly, a decision to use external assistance when in-house skills and experience are in short supply or non-existent because, you point out to constituents, the final outcome will be enhanced by outsourcing at least some of the recruiting effort. 

When a Board of Commissioners adopts a “do it yourself” approach to hiring the next town manager, keep in mind that they are actually assuming the mantle of executive recruiter. They are selling the job opportunity as well identifying candidates to fill the position and screening them to a final selection. Interviewing candidates is a two-way street. The interview is also an opportunity for the candidate to determine whether or not he or she can work with the people interviewing him or her! 

All is not lost for the board member with little or no HR experience.

ERE Media (www.eremedia.com) is an online resource for human resources, talent acquisition, and recruiting professionals. Morgan Hoogvelt is the director for global talent acquisition for a leading engineering company with expertise in human capital strategy, executive search, recruitment process outsourcing, essential hiring practices, candidate sourcing, Internet recruiting, and social networking. In an ERE post online that is titled, “8 Skills Recruiters Should Have,” among other observations, Hoogvelt offers, “Recruiting is a science and there are methods and processes. The majority of hiring managers need to be consulted on these procedures and processes.” CLICK HERE for a link to the entire post. 

A Conundrum Compromise? 

And yet, all is not lost for a board whose members have little or no HR experience. They can still (competently) do it themselves — if only they admit their shortcomings and ask for help from readily available resources. 

Blowing Rock is blessed with so many professionals from a variety of fields living right here in town, some full-time, others seasonally. I am aware of at least one retired HR professional for a Global Fortune 500 company. Another individual is a retired senior executive for large, publicly-traded U.S. companies with billions of dollars in revenue and highly profitable. Yet another is retired from serving as chairman and CEO of one of the largest financial services firms in the world. From real estate, to insurance, to textiles, we have highly qualified senior executives of major corporations who have hired and probably fired senior executives during their careers. At the very least the members of Town Council should listen carefully to the guidance of the interim town manager, and very possibly seek counsel about the process from a respected former town manager. 

To be sure, if the Town Council asks for help from anyone, there are confidentiality considerations in the screening and hiring process. Rest assured that retired senior executives are likely to have had more experience with abiding by confidentiality agreements during their professional careers than any or all of the town commissioners. 

Given the recent track record of high turnover, the one member of the Board of Commissioners who voted against “going it alone,” Sue Sweeting, had it right, in my opinion. Whether accepting the services of a professional search firm or guidance from a retired professional who understands today’s labor market, as well as the special skills used in recruiting and hiring, Town Council should really reconsider the merits of asking for needed help. 


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