Time to revisit county recruitment process
There is an obvious need for improvement in how Douglas County selects its managers. We’ve struck out twice in as many tries and have no replacement for current County Manager Larry Werner, for whom we should be extremely grateful, but who remains in temporary service.
I hope we don’t simply go back to the recruitment that produced our latest failure. We need to stop and assess what we’re doing wrong. There is no surefire method for hiring county managers, but there are certainly better and worse methods. We need to figure out and use the former.
A fundamental problem is the common but misguided notion that government is easy, anyone can do it, and it can be done on the cheap by someone with largely unrelated experience. If we’re going to succeed as a county we need to get beyond that. Successful communities hire well qualified professionals to run them and pay what the market demands.
There has been discussion here in the past about the wisdom of the “nationwide search” versus “growing our own” or “promoting from within.” The truth is that the best prospect could be working here already, or might be in some distant place. We should use a combination of those tactics to find him or her.
It seems to me we also need to figure out where we fit into this particular labor market. Where do we stand in terms of salary and benefits, work environment and career progression? Are we where we want to be? And what does that tell us about where to target our recruitment efforts?
It would also make sense to do some confidential surveying to find out how we are perceived by existing, past and potential employees. Are we a desirable place to work? If not, why not and what can we do about that? Strong applicants research the employer. We should know what they will conclude about us.
We have had recruitment success in the past. So another step might be to identify the methods used to find and hire past managers who were considered successful.
But I suspect a lot of this comes down to inadequate screening, interview and decision making processes. The best advice I got about that during my 30-year career in county government was from a consultant hired to tell us what worked.
His approach was simple. Make a list of what the position requires and then ask candidates to provide examples of training or experience that demonstrate the ability to perform as needed. Use references only to verify the validity of what applicants tell you, not for the useless “would you hire him again” kind of inquiry.
Our consultant’s approach worked. The hard and most important part was to define what the job required. Many avoid this because they don’t really know or have difficulty articulating that, instead preferring the easy way out, like “I’ll know who I’m looking for when I meet him.”
I suspect it would be challenging to get our county commissioners to agree on an accurate and useful list of, say, the 20 top requirements of a county manager. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for you’re not going to find it.
A list like this can, and should, include both “hard” and “soft” skills. So perhaps a strong knowledge of public finance, but also deft political skills.
One way to begin might be to list the positive qualities of the successful managers we’ve had here. Some combination of qualities exhibited by Werner, Steve Mokrohisky and Michael Brown is probably a pretty good prototype for what we need here.
After that the job gets a bit easier. If you need someone who can successfully mediate community disputes just say, “We need someone who can successfully mediate community disputes, please describe your past training or experience that demonstrates your ability to do that.”
The key here is to keep the focus on past performance, not what the candidate says he or she would do in the future. Of course the candidate plans to do a spectacular job in the future but the real indication of his or her likely performance is what he or she has done in the past.
But couldn’t candidates simply misrepresent their pasts? Yes, but that’s where references (or other research) come in. If the candidate says she did this or that use references not to ask a former employer’s opinion of the candidate, but to verify whether what the candidate told you is true.
The bottom line: the best indicator of the performance we need is past performance on tasks similar to those confronting us. Not performance on irrelevant tasks or “meet and greets” or whether residents or officials “like” or “feel good” about someone or the candidate simply “lives here.”
It’s a simple approach but surprisingly difficult to pull off. If we don’t get good answers then dig deeper. Stay on topic, not taking easy outs, like, “Tell us about your hobbies.” And if we don’t find the person we need then start over.
We’re not going to get exactly the person who would be ideal for the job. But an approach like this would allow us to get as close as possible given our limitations as an employer.
We can get this right and find the professional we need. But only if we as a county approach this in a rigorous and professional manner ourselves. We’re hiring someone for a big, difficult and important job. Let’s do it right.
Terry Burnes is a Gardnerville Ranchos resident and former Bay Area planner.