The continued success of professional local government management in the face of growing challenges to the public sector depends on future managers who possess both the technical competencies required to deliver municipal services and the leadership skills needed to navigate the complexities of community building. In an increasingly interconnected world, addressing pressing challenges like social and economic inequality, deteriorating infrastructure, and rapid environmental change cannot occur in isolation. Public administrators must collaborate not only with their own staff and elected officials, but also across jurisdiction boundaries and with citizens, business leaders, and academics. Building relationships among aspiring local government managers can be challenging for those who are new to the profession. Many emerging leaders do not yet have the resources to travel to multi-day, out-of-state conferences to engage in networking and professional development, and sometimes do not see the value they will gain. But these individuals—and the future of the profession as a whole—benefit greatly from alternative opportunities to connect with and learn from peers and potential mentors.
On November 13, 2014, I had the privilege of participating in the first Next Generation Leaders Conference hosted by the Alliance for Innovation and the Arizona City/County Management Association (ACMA). This conference brought together MPA students and employees from all levels of local government organizations to learn and network together. This low-cost, half-day event presented future leaders with professional development opportunities and exposure to city and county managers from across Arizona. For many attendees, this was the first opportunity to meet with local government administrators from all regions of the state. The day’s sessions focused on the needs and interests of early career professionals: future challenges to local government management, building a career, developing strong relationships, innovative service delivery practices, and advice from seasoned managers.
The event kicked off with a keynote welcome by Patrick Ibarra, former city manager and co-founder of the Mejorando Group. Mr. Ibarra spoke about establishing a career in local government and the future of the profession. He identified retention of top performers as one of the greatest challenges facing local government organizations today. Retaining those stellar employees aids in succession planning in a time when many organizations are losing long-time leaders to retirement. Ibarra noted that workplace culture, job design, and career development opportunities are crucial to retain and motivate emerging leaders. He emphasized that building strong relationships among employees in the organization leads to higher employee engagement and encouraged attendees to devote time to maintaining those connections. This advice was particularly valuable to me as I am setting the foundation of my city management career. Developing relationships with colleagues is crucial to excelling at work. These relationships provide the opportunity for sharing diverse perspectives, exploring new ideas, letting off steam, and solve multi-faceted problems.
The second session of the afternoon, organized by the Alliance for Innovation, was a Rapid Fire session featuring innovative programs from three Arizona cities and towns—Gilbert, Marana, and Sedona. Employees from each municipality explained innovative practices in the realm of citizen engagement, including involving local youth in the development of city mobile apps, creating an in-house City brand, and completely redesigning civic involvement by doing away with traditional boards and commissions.
Following the Rapid Fire program, five Arizona city and county managers participated in a panel discussion regarding their career paths and advice for aspiring managers. Five key messages stood out:
- You don’t need to walk into the job knowing everything.
- Set professional boundaries to preserve your health and personal life.
- Time really does heal all mistakes, and the sun will come up tomorrow.
- Networking is an ongoing process. Reach out to others in the profession regularly.
- Do not feel pressure to reach a particular career milestone in a certain time frame.
The mini-conference concluded with a speed coaching session. Over 30 current and retired local government professionals and consultants volunteered to be coaches. We had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with any coach for 5-10 minutes at a time to ask pressing questions about our career aspirations or current challenges in our work. We benefitted from being able to discuss our challenges and aspirations with experts outside of our current organizations and learned from the stories of experienced managers. From technical advice to friendly conversation, the opportunity to forge relationships with professionals who have “been there and done that” is inspiring and motivating, and a chance many early-career municipal employees do not always embrace.
The Arizona Next Generation Leaders Conference provided great value to all who attended and serves as a model for other professional associations seeking to encourage interaction among early-career professionals. I met many of my peers in the local government profession who are currently on parallel career paths to mine. Because I recently began a new position in a smaller city organization in southeastern Arizona, I had not yet had the chance to meet many others from neighboring cities and counties to continue building a regional network. The mini-conference allowed me to establish relationships with aspiring leaders like me who will become city and county managers. While municipal government is a vast field, opportunities such as this show the insular nature and collective mentality so many of us share. Together, we will carry the tradition of excellence in professional local government management to the next generation.
If you are looking to replicate this event in your region, please feel free to contact the Alliance for Innovation at firstname.lastname@example.org.