Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Interview with Scott Darrington, CAO, Pleasant Grove, Utah

City Profile:
Pleasant Grove, Utah
Population: 33,000
City workforce: Approximately 100 FTEs (25 police, 15 fire)
Largest sales tax revenue: Macey’s grocery store
Previous CAO positions: Afton, Wyoming and South Ogden, Utah

Ask Pleasant Grove City Administrator Scott Darrington how he got started in city management and he’ll give you a short chuckle, a slight rise in his shoulders, and a grin. “Now there's a story,” he says after a moment.

Darrington graduated in 1997 from the Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University (now named after three term Michigan Governor George W. Romney). The first few years after graduation were tough on Darrington.

“I think we had a 57 percent placement rate the year I graduated. I wish I had kept all the rejection letters that I got during that time,” he recalled. Darrington applied to many jobs around the country. Three times he was a finalist for three different positions in the city of Sandy, Utah. After long periods of no success, he used his own personal network and nearly moved to Kansas but decided against it. He also turned down a position in the city of Fresno, California.

“In some ways, I couldn’t just go wherever I wanted,” he said. “I knew that if I moved out to the middle of nowhere Kansas that I would have never met my wife. There are other things you have to take into account. Timing is a big deal. You also need to have a geographical preference.”

After three years of searching, Darrington obtained a position as the Administrative Assistant to the Mayor of Afton, Wyoming. “They were looking for the Mayor’s assistant. But above all, they were looking for someone to run their recreation programs. It just so happened that I had gotten my undergraduate degree in Recreation.”

The job was actually more involved than just running the recreation program. Darrington said he basically ran the entire town – budgeting, planning, recreation, and administration, among others – and supervised the other twelve city employees. After the city voted in a new mayor, Darrington asked if his title could be changed to Town Administrator.

“You’ve got to be willing to find the right title,” Darrington advises, “It also helps to have a direct link to the city council. That way, when you’re at your next job interview, you can say ‘I’ve interacted with the city council.’ That goes a long way for advancement.”

Darrington explained that the title depends on where you want to be with your career. Many people don’t want to be the city manager and are happy staying in senior management as a department director or as an assistant city manager. In his case, Darrington admits “Sometimes I wish I were the assistant.”

Looking back on his career thus far, he says, “It’s what I love. It’s what I like to do. And I think that’s how most [city] managers feel.”

Interview techniques and career advice

What are the top three skills you look for when hiring a new employee?

Darrington: First, I’d say I look for the right fit and the right attitude. I look for someone who can get along well with others in the organization. I can teach them how to write a budget or complete an analysis, but I can’t teach them to smile.

Second, I’d look for experience or capability to be taught or trained. No offense, but most recent graduates are inexperienced. But that doesn’t matter so much if someone is teachable.

I’d say third is I’m looking for someone who has a clear career path or career goal. I look for someone who is ambitious and passionate about local government. Personally, I prefer someone who will use this job to move upward, not someone who is looking for a decent salary and benefits. Some managers may disagree with me. I know Sandy [Utah] had hired several of my classmates. In a city the size of Sandy there were opportunities for upward mobility. In other words, these guys started as analysts and could move their way up. But after three or five years they got the itch to become [city] managers and they left. Some cities might feel they had lost an investment of time and talent. But I look for people who are interested in cultivating upward development.

What is the most awkward question you have asked or been asked during a job interview?

Darrington: I hate the “What’s your biggest weakness?” question. I just hate it. I’m prepared to answer that question, but personally I’ve given up asking it. You never get a real answer. Eighty percent of people who answer that question say they are perfectionists. The rest say “I work too hard” or “I care too much.” You’re not going to find someone who says, “Actually, sometimes I can be a little lazy” or “Sometimes I get distracted.” So I just don’t ask it anymore. I tend to stick to basic questions that can tell me if someone is going to fit in here.

As far as those crazy think-on-your-feet questions, I’ve never had any myself, but I know some people ask them. “Please describe yourself three different ways with one word each. You have ten seconds. Go,” for example. Those questions don’t really help me find the right person though, so I just stick to basic questions.

What trends, positive or negative, have you observed about recent MPA grads?

Darrington: For positive, I’d say they are smart. They pick things up quickly. I also get the feeling that they are looking for more than just a job. They are looking for a profession.

On the negative side, well, they are young and inexperienced. That’s not a true negative though. I wonder, though, how they are prepared to take over from the experienced baby boomer managers. We’ve all been talking about it for years now, but it hasn’t happened yet. With the recession, a lot of the managers who, in 2005 or 2006, had said, “I’m going to retire at 60” are waiting until they turn maybe 65. It will be interesting to see how this generation steps up.

If your goal is to become a city manager, how can you avoid getting pegged as a specialist in one department? For example, how do you avoid becoming “the Economic Development guru”?

Darrington: [Chuckles] I don’t have an easy answer for that one. I can understand that being an honest concern for your generation. There are fewer jobs out there right now that can help you gain general knowledge. But the short answer is every city is going to need something different. You have to learn to wear different hats. Try to get the generalist jobs – management analyst, assistant city manager, assistant to the city manager – as much as you can. But if you’re a management analyst, try to get different projects in different departments. Let the management know your career plans and ask them if there is anything else you can do that will help you meet those goals. As long as you get your work done, in my opinion, it shouldn’t matter.

That being said, economic development is great. If you’ve got experience and can show success in that field, you’ll always have a job. The same thing with finance. When I was in Afton, I was the finance director, but I honestly didn’t know all the ins and outs of everything. Here in Pleasant Grove I have a great finance director and we can at least speak the same language to one another. Experience in planning used to be the “in” field. But now it has kind of taken a back seat to the others. If you can’t get anything else, I’d take a job there, but the other two would be better.

Other thoughts

“You can’t get upset about time or money spent on policies that the council voted against. It’s sometimes a paradox. We, the administrative professionals, spend hours and hours of work putting together policies that the city council directs us to do. Then five residents come in to the council chambers and get upset about it and the council votes against it. If you get upset about that – if you get emotionally tied to your work, then you may be in the wrong profession. We can question them [the city council] all day long but it doesn’t change anything. You have to remember that as a city manager, you really don’t have the final say. The council was elected to make those decisions. Your job is to inform them the best that you can.”


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