The end of the year is for many a time for reflection and introspection. Looking back over the year, what progress did you make on the personal and professional goals you set for the year? What were those unexpected encounters, both positive and negative, that affected your success and outlook? How well did you deal with them?
Looking forward, what do you want to accomplish in the new year? Where should you focus your precious time and energy? Resolutions are passe, but the commitments you make to yourself are not.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Reflecting on the year’s accomplishments from the vantage point of a long career in public service, some will conclude that now is the perfect time to move on. Those who have find that their talents, skills, and values are an asset for an encore career.
Others will conclude, whether for personal or professional reasons, that remaining in their position and organization best meets their needs. A host of others will wrestle with the question, concluding that now is the time to move on.
Moving to the Next Level
Taking your career to the next level is an exciting prospect. With a huge talent shortage now, local governments are wooing good candidates. There are tremendous opportunities in all disciplines of local government and at all levels.
For those who serve in or aspire to executive-level positions in local government, that move up or onward brings a unique set of obligations, challenges, and yes, quirks. One challenge is that it may require relocating. The position and organization you are eyeing may seem to be the perfect opportunity. Do the research and take the time to ensure that it is. Is the community with its amenities a good fit for you and your family? Can you find and afford housing? Will your spouse find a position suitable for their career?
One of the quirks with finding a position in local government is the expectation of transparency. Unlike counterparts in the private and nonprofit sectors, you may not have the luxury of competing for the next position quietly behind closed doors. Expectations of transparency, especially in the selection of the individual who will lead the entire organization, have risen so high that in some states merely applying for the position is a matter of public record. Even absent that level of transparency, anyone successful enough to reach the finalist list should be prepared to have that information disclosed to the media and public. The public’s right to know and to have confidence in the integrity of the process is certainly important. But every disclosure that someone is seeking a position elsewhere has the potential to burn some political capital at the home base.
Public processes by their very nature are not speedy ones. From application to interview can take months. Those actively searching for a new position can find themselves involved in multiple recruitments, each at varying stages of the process. Then there is the challenge that if you are offered the job, you end up negotiating terms and compensation with an individual who doesn’t have the legal authority to seal the deal. Hiring the manager and approving the employment agreement requires the vote of the full governing body.
Vying for a position as an assistant or deputy in another organization presents another unique set of issues to navigate. It won’t be subject to the same level of public scrutiny. But the issue of confidentiality, especially within a tight network of managers, is real. Upon seeing my application, will the manager in the organization where I have applied pick up the phone to chat with my current manager?
Given the unique nature of the process, the profession has laid out some ground rules based on the values of integrity and commitment for your consideration.
Once you post your credentials online and submit your resume for a position, you are creating a permanent record of your education and work history. A resume that doesn’t match a LinkedIn profile raises a red flag. Tailoring your resume for the position is fine, but the basic facts on all versions must be consistent. Your credibility with a recruiter or the HR staff is in question if you have multiple stories about your credentials. Misstating your credentials and employment history—yes, even omitting short tenures—can have serious repercussions for your reputation and future employment.
At times there may be something in a candidate’s record that is best shared early in the process and by the candidate. Better to be forthcoming as a demonstration of honesty than to stay silent and have a matter unearthed in a background check.
Just like the sports athlete, a local government professional is a free agent. You can apply and interview with multiple organizations. You are not under any ethical obligation to inform your employer that you are looking elsewhere. As with most things in life, timing matters. If you don’t wish to burn any bridges, letting everyone know before the news leaks out is best. And of course, if you are relying on certain people for a reference, advance discussions are a must-do.
Participating in multiple recruitment processes gets challenging as you progress to the next level. You may find yourself a finalist in two or more recruitments. It’s fine to continue interviewing as long as you have a serious interest in the position. Don’t waste anyone’s time if after the first interview you can’t see yourself working in that organization. If you progress beyond the initial interview, you may want to consider informing the recruiter or HR staff within an organization of your status as a candidate in other places.
Responsibility for thoroughly evaluating the position, organization, and community to determine whether it will be a good fit both personally and professionally rests with you. The guideline on committing to a two-year tenure only applies to the appointed manager. But everyone should avoid short tenures that happen because you didn’t do your homework. They aren’t good for the individual or the organization. If you gave your word when hired that you would stay for a period, honor your commitment.
Early career professionals may feel a sense of urgency to fast track their career to the next level and regard even a one- or two-year stay as harmful to that effort. Balance the urge to move on with opportunity and obligation to make an impact. The adage to “leave no trace” applies to hiking, not to your career! You want someone to remember you and the contribution you made to the community.
Getting to Yes
The offer to join the organization as the next manager is just that—an offer. It’s entirely contingent upon both parties reaching agreement on the compensation and terms. The process of getting from offer to the finish line (i.e., governing body approval) is a tango. Both parties need to be moving in sync.
If you want to work for the organization, the appropriate response to the offer is “yes, contingent upon reaching agreement with the organization.” Regardless of how much ground was covered during the interview about your terms, do not be surprised if the governing body’s representative starts the negotiation from a different position. Or has an issue with a particular request that you make. That’s why it’s called a negotiation.
Your verbal acceptance starts the negotiation process and signals your willingness to get to yes. Never start the negotiation process with an organization if you do not intend to work there, regardless of how much compensation they are willing to offer. At this point, you should pause your search. Taking an interview at this stage with another organization is like going out on a date after getting engaged to be married: it sends the wrong message about your level of commitment.
Once you give your verbal acceptance of the terms outlined in an employment agreement or offer letter, you are committed. Oral acceptance of an employment offer is considered binding unless the employer makes fundamental changes to the terms of employment. With your commitment in hand, it is up to the governing body to hold up its end of the bargain and approve the agreement.
Unlike the professional athlete who goes to the highest bidder, ICMA members should not entertain a counteroffer from their current employer. In a very public process, you have given your word. Withdrawing your acceptance to take more money is bad form and reflects poorly on the profession. Members who accept an appointment to a position should not fail to report for that position.
Integrity and commitment are two core values that should be a factor in every decision you make about your career. Your reputation, which can be tarnished in a moment, is as critical to your success as talent and skill.
MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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