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Want to Build a Great Leadership Team?

Don’t Just Choose the Best — Choose What’s Best for the Team!



Ken Hampian is a retired city manager for the City of San Luis Obispo and can be reached at kchampian@charter.net. Monica Irons is human resources director for the City of San Luis Obispo and can be reached at mirons@slocity.org.



An Introduction From Ken

All of us want to build great department head leadership teams composed of not only talented and skilled people, but talented and skilled people who work really well together. Yet a surprising number of recruitment processes are still using outdated “top down” selection models with overly structured interview panels that emphasize technical skills while neglecting the so-called “soft skills” and team fit.

For more than 20 years, the City of San Luis Obispo has selected department heads using a very different process that has stood the test of time. We don’t just pick for talent, we pick for the team — and so we involve the team (and others) in a unique and very integral way.

In order to “choose for the team,” it’s important to know what the team needs. Consequently stakeholder involvement starts at the very beginning of the process when we acquire extensive input to identify the attributes of the ideal candidate. This key first step isn’t only about seeking people who will be compatible with the team, but also about looking for people who will complement the team and make it stronger.

Human Resources Director Monica Irons will now share the rest of the story.

Monica’s Excellent Adventure in Recruitment

When City Manager Ken Hampian first mentioned San Luis Obispo’s department head selection process to me I was puzzled. I had applied for the position of human resources director with the city after spending my entire career in high-tech companies. Ken was enough of a risk-taker to invite me to interview even though I didn’t have any public sector experience. But when he explained the process, I wasn’t sure if I had just signed up for a job interview or a TV reality show.

“All of the candidates meet with the assistant city manager and me,” Ken said. “We brief them on the hot topics, give them a tour of the city, and then all the department heads join us for appetizers before we head off to a local restaurant for dinner.” Did he say all of the candidates meet each other? I laughed nervously and asked if the candidates were forced to vote each other off the island or perform extraordinary physical feats. “Not exactly,” Ken answered.

The process turned out to be quite an enjoyable adventure from my perspective as a job applicant — and later on, even better in my role as human resources director. Every department head hired during the past 20 years has been through this same process, including fire and police chiefs. Our city employees consider it a rite of passage. But it’s actually much more than that.

It’s true that the process is structured, consistent and defensible from claims of discrimination. It also involves expert interview panels, thorough background checks and all the other formalities inherent in a selection process. But it also provides creative opportunities to see candidates in very different and more authentic situations, and it taps the judgment of the entire department head team and many others.

While each step in the process is tailored slightly to the specific department head position being recruited, the city’s standard testing process — always conducted on a Thursday and Friday and, for some, Saturday — typically follows this scenario.

Day One: Just for Fun! (Or Is it Really?)

First Impressions. Late Thursday afternoon, initial introductions are made in an informal setting; a large room set up for appetizers and refreshments later on. Our six to eight applicants pull chairs into a semi-circle for some initial hellos. The city manager and assistant city manager join them and provide an overview of the organization and city council. The presentation includes some hot internal and external topics, but not too many — we don’t want to give away too much so early in the process. And so we see our candidates for the first time in a group setting.

City Tour. After 45 minutes or so, three department heads arrive to spirit the candidates off in small groups for a guided community tour. The route is mapped out in advance to provide an overview of our city: a sense of the neighborhoods and schools, municipal facilities, recent developments, downtown and the university. Typically, some candidates are engaged and curious during the tour and some are not.

“Speed Dating.” When the candidates return from the tour, they are joined by the other department head team members for appetizers, refreshments and light conversation. This portion of the process can look like a speed dating session with department heads introducing themselves to candidates, chatting for a bit and then moving on to another candidate. This gives us some insight into each candidate, but it’s really a warm-up for what comes next.

The Graphic Biography. The candidates are led to one end of the room, given a large piece of poster board and colored markers, and asked to prepare a graphic presentation of their personal and professional life story. After 10 minutes of preparation, each candidate presents his or her story in five minutes. It is remarkable what candidates do and do not share during this exercise. We gain even more insights.

The Dinner Date. All of the candidates and department heads then eat dinner together, typically at a downtown restaurant to give the candidates a taste of the city’s night life, downtown challenges and projects. Dinner is held at a restaurant where we can have privacy, a fixed menu (to save time) and two or three large tables where candidates mix with department heads. Everyone tends to chat comfortably during dinner, but there is also a substantive agenda; each department head gives a “two-minute drill” describing responsibilities and hot issues. We keep it fun and light. The candidates get a sense of our team interaction, and we get more exposure to the candidates.

After dinner, the city manager escorts the applicants through San Luis Obispo’s Farmers Market before they are shuttled back to the hotel. Doing this “walk and talk” reveals more about candidates through the interest they show and the questions they ask — or don’t ask.

Day Two: An Intensive Process

Panel Interviews. The interview portion of the process typically involves three panels.

  1. City managers: Current and former city managers or former city council members who provide input on leadership, community and council relations;
  2. Experts: Professionals who are recognized in their areas of expertise and hold a similar position in other cities. This panel asks the technical or “how would you … ?” questions.
  3. Department heads: Current department heads who are likely to interact frequently with the new hire help assess “fit” as well as management abilities.

Candidates circulate individually through the panels in two groups, one in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Lunch — More Than Food. We invite all candidates to have lunch with the raters and observers. The morning candidates have already finished their interviews, and the afternoon candidates are still anticipating their interviews. However, because this is the last time all the candidates will be together, the city manager thanks them for their participation and estimates a timeline for the rest of the process, which always moves quickly. We don’t let hot candidates grow cold due to a lack of timely follow-up.

Wrap-Up Through a Three-Lens Looking Glass. Each panel ranks the candidates when the interviews are completed. Then all the raters and observers convene, and each panel’s rankings are presented. An overall ranking is established, but we don’t stop there — now it’s time to talk. The conversation is enlightening as differences in panel views are thoroughly vetted, comparing and contrasting each panel’s technical, managerial and team perspectives. For example, an experts’ panel may rank a candidate very high on technical skills while the department heads’ panel ranks the candidate low on “team fit.”

The City of San Luis Obispo doesn’t have a “rule of list” policy that would cause us to select in ranked order from top to bottom, so the city manager can ultimately select any candidate who doesn’t fail the interview. Sometimes the day ends on Friday with our heads spinning and three or four candidates still in the running. We have learned to trust the process and keep moving ahead. It’s important not to waste any time. As soon as the panel wrap-up is complete, we notify all the candidates of their status and invite the finalists back for a more relaxed interview on Saturday.

Day Three: Casual Saturday

Finalists typically meet with the city manager, assistant city manager and human resources director to explore areas touched on during the past two days that need further examination. A group of five to seven employees who will report to the successful candidate also meet with the finalists. This further acquaints the candidates with department staff. At the end of the discussions, the employees share their perceptions of each candidate with the city manager.

Although the Saturday conversations are far more casual than the Friday panel interviews, these conversations and the employee feedback to the city manager clarify the picture considerably. The favored candidate almost always emerges by the end of the day, pending a thorough background investigation.

The Final Steps: No Stone Unturned

Once we zero in on the favored candidate, we engage in very thorough background conversations where we try to dig a little deeper to make sure the person we think we know is the real deal. It’s often surprising how little attention some managers give to this important and often last step.

We also invite the chosen candidate back for final one-on-one discussions with our five city council members. While these discussions are not highly structured, this step does give council members some added investment in the process, while still preserving the city manager’s prerogative. It also gives the chosen candidate a chance to get acquainted with the city’s elected leadership and affirm his or her decision to join the team.

Ken’s Closing Comment: Why the Process Works

Let’s face it, some people are just good at being interviewed. But our process is designed to reveal the real person and whether they will strengthen our team and not detract from it. As Monica has described here, our process reflects our city’s organizational culture: engaged, involved, not overly formal, participative and creative. Technical skills are assessed but so is the more elusive “fit.” Seeing how candidates interact is invaluable, especially with those they may view as competitors (other applicants), peers (other department heads), subordinates (employees), and the “boss” (city manager).

We aren’t the only people who like the process — the candidates do too.

Whether or not they were chosen, candidates have given us consistently positive feedback, usually describing the process as thorough, fair and fun. When internal candidates compete they are more confident when selected and more supportive of our selection when they are not. After all, they have met their competitors and seen them perform too. The employees we invite into the process provide great insights, appreciate their involvement, and better understand the selection, even if a favored candidate is not chosen.

The City of San Luis Obispo’s department head selection process might not work for everyone, but it sure works for us.

For more information, contact Monica Irons; phone: (805) 781-7250; e-mail: mirons@slocity.org.


Nuts & Bolts: A Typical Schedule

  • Day 1: Thursday
    • 2:45 – 3:15 p.m. City Manager Briefing
    • 3:30 – 5:00 p.m. City Tour
    • 5:00 – 5:30 p.m. Social
    • 5:30 – 6:15 p.m. Graphic Biography
    • 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Dinner
  • Day 2: Friday
    • Panel interviews
    • 12:00 – 1:15 p.m. Lunch
    • Panel interviews
    • 5:00 p.m. Wrap-up & notify candidates
  • Day 3: Saturday
    • Follow-up interviews
    • Wrap-up