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Council could pick manager recruiter next week

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 by Jo Clifton

After hearing from Human Resources Department Director Joya Hayes at Tuesday’s work session, City Council appears poised to select a firm or firms to move forward with the search for a permanent replacement for former City Manager Marc Ott. Ott left Austin in October to become executive director of the International City Managers Association.

Council members decided in December to upend a process focused solely on firms that recruit for the public sector and directed staff to come back with ideas for either hiring a firm that recruited from the private sector or a combination of firms to handle the process. In so doing, they rejected the recruiter recommended by staff, Ralph Andersen & Associates of California, although the firm was encouraged to bid again.

Andersen & Associates is now one of three bidders. The other two include a joint proposal from GovHR, a public sector-focused firm, and Transearch International, a private sector-focused firm, and a proposal from the private sector firm Russell Reynolds Associates.

Representatives from the joint proposal and from Russell Reynolds talked to Council during the work session and answered questions. Hayes told Council that the representative from Andersen & Associates was unable to make the trip to Austin on Tuesday. She pointed out to the Austin Monitor that that company’s representative had made a presentation to Council back in December.

It seems possible that the company may not think it would be worth their time, given their reception last year.

In response to a question from Mayor Steve Adler, Hayes said city staff would be able to put an item on next week’s agenda to allow Council to hire any of the firms or the joint proposal. Adler indicated a preference for all three firms to be on the agenda for consideration next week.

Heidi Voorhees, co-owner of GovHR, and Marie Guillot, managing partner of Transearch’s Houston office, told Council that regardless of whether Austin chooses them for the city manager search, they have decided that they will collaborate on other jobs in the future.

“By combining our two approaches,” Voorhees said, the search would be “a very thorough and exciting process.”

Guillot said the executive search process in the private sector is quite similar to what is required in the public sector, but the difference is how the search is marketed. “A lot that we do requires that it be confidential,” so her firm directly approaches possible candidates. In general, she said, her firm is “looking for people who are not looking for a position.”

While acknowledging that his firm has not recruited a city manager, Stephen Newton of Russell Reynolds pointed out that his firm recruited former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo for his current job as chief in Houston. He also said the firm recruited the new CEO of Texas Central, the developer of the proposed high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas.

Newton added that he has worked with three Houston mayors and done “tremendous outreach” on the jobs he recruited for. He told Council, “The worst thing that can happen is the search goes on forever.” Not only do the people engaged in the search, such as Council members, get “search fatigue,” but “you’re sending a negative message to the market.”

Newton compared a too-lengthy search for a chief executive to a house that sits on the market for too many months. Even though someone wants to buy the house, they may think there is something wrong with it based on the fact that no one else has bought it, he said.

Adler told Newton that he had heard that a corporate CEO might have trouble with the slow pace of city government. He or she also might have trouble appreciating the level of public involvement that a city manager must expect. Adler wondered if that might be a problem in recruiting from the private sector.

It might, Newton said, relating that he had such an experience when working to find the chief executive for the University of Texas at Arlington. Two regents in particular were strongly in favor of recruiting from the private sector, he said. “It was about halfway through the search process when, to their credit, the light bulb went off” and they realized that if they did not have the support of the academic side of the university – the faculty – the leader would not be successful.

“There’s an analogy here,” he said. “If you don’t have the support of city employees,” for example, “it’s just too difficult.”

Photo by Walker Harris made available through a Creative Commons license.

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