Judging a candidate's qualifications
Plainfield's City Council is expected to meet and interview on Wednesday candidates being offered the City's top two financial posts (Certified Municipal Finance Officer and Director of Administration & Finance) by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.
Such situations are fraught with difficulties for both interviewers and interviewees.
Over the years since her very first nominations (which Robinson-Briggs demanded the Council accept without benefit of interviews or resumés, with very unhappy consequences all around), the Council has more and more strongly asserted its role in the 'advise and consent' process.
That reached a high point last year in which the Mayor dropped a nomination for CMFO when the Council failed to give consent (questions about experience had surfaced publicly beforehand).
Having been part of groups -- nonprofits, church and government -- charged with making hiring recommendations concerning key employees, I have always been intrigued by the process and why the outcomes often leave all parties more or less dissatisfied.
Herewith some observations that may be helpful to both the Council and the candidates --
PRINCES vs. GRINDS
Who is better qualified to get things done, to execute the organization's mission, the 'charming, smart and impressive' person who makes you feel comfortable (the 'prince') or the awkward, intense but often monosyllabicly inclined person who is happiest getting the job done and not in spending time 'selling' themselves (the 'grind')?
David Brooks of the New York Times took the matter up in a recent OpEd (see here), which I think illustrates the dilemma.
He suggests we are tempted to be seduced by the 'princes' and that is a mistake. Though he is not talking directly about the choices facing the Council, I think his advice is spot on and helps to illuminate the problems faced by both interviewers and interviewees.
Understanding the dynamic may be the key to dealing with it.
THE COUNCIL EYES THE CANDIDATES
Besides meeting any formal qualifications (certifications, education, etc.), one of the key pieces of information deciders look for is: Will this person be able to DO THE JOB? Experience counts, but can anyone possibly have the range of experience that either of these positions entails?
In the case of the CMFO, what if the candidate hasn't dealt with a situation with Plainfield's size or complexity? Or if they previously had a MORE DEMANDING job, why the interest in Plainfield? Or maybe they're qualified but have NO REAL EXPERIENCE. The Council certainly has its hands full deciding, though having a CMFO among its members (Councilor Mapp) should be very helpful.
As for the Director of Administration & Finance, Plainfield's unique blend of managing both the financial side of things (purchasing, audit & control, tax assessment and collection) and the City's social services (from WIC to the Senior Center to Plainfield Action Services to the Health Division), demands a breadth of knowledge and experience that few, if any, other communities must contend with in filling their top jobs.
Can any candidate possess the full range of skills and experience Plainfield demands? If not, how can the relative strengths and weaknesses be addressed? And how will the Council know what a wise decision is?
Among the constant whines from supporters of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs is that viable candidates have shied away from Plainfield because of a) a fractious political climate, and b) non-competitive salaries.
To those who argue that Plainfield is chintzy on the salary side, I say: Show me the numbers. Give everyone chapter and verse about how poorly Plainfield compares to other, SIMILAR situations. I don't think we will show up as shabby as some say. Also, folks should be aware we are in a DEEP RECESSION, and the public has no great interest in seeing public servants given juicy salaries in addition to plum medical and retirement benefits. I think that one is a CANARD.
As for the argument that a fractious political climate would influence the willingness of someone to take a job in Plainfield, we have to ask why it could be said there is political friction.
During the recess at Monday's Council meeting, I chatted with another observer of the Plainfield scene who suggested that the sharp questioning by citizens (including bloggers) and the Council act as a deterrent on possible job candidates.
Could things be a little more well-managed and less contentious if the Robinson-Briggs administration were more transparent, more forthright, and more timely in the business of governing the City?
Would it be helpful if less time were spent by the Administration in obfuscation, dithering, and delay?
Things looked like they would change when Mayor Robinson-Briggs appointed Bibi Taylor as City Administrator. She is smart, makes herself well-informed, and can be decisive. However, recent months have seen her mounting the barricades in defense of the Mayor (as well she must) in clashes with the Council over pressing the Administration to move city business forward -- particularly, but not exclusively, the two job slots under consideration now.
At the same time, with Taylor actually filling THREE job responsibilities, we learn that Mayor Robinson-Briggs has cut back her administrative support staff.
These are the kinds of questions that ought to be on the minds of the applicants who will sit across from the Council on Wednesday evening.
Take the CMFO, whose certification constitutes a license-to-make-a-living. Will Mayor Robinson-Briggs PUBLICLY STATE that she will not meddle or interfere with them in the execution of their job, that she will not ask for special considerations or that any directives of the State be circumvented or countermanded? That would go a long way to making the job offer more attractive, don't you think? What are the chances that will happen?
As for the Director of Administration & Finance, who serves AT THE PLEASURE OF THE MAYOR, a lot of mental juggling has to be going on to consider accepting such an appointment. Is the possibility of being out of a job in 3½ years at the end of the Mayor's term a deterrent? Or the real possibility of being forced out earlier in a contest of wills with Robinson-Briggs? Would any of this be worth giving up a presently-held job? How much will I have to scramble to learn the unfamiliar parts of the management portfolio, and how will I be judged while I'm getting up to speed?
There will certainly be a lot going through the minds of the candidates as they meet with the Council.
Can Council members get past looking to be made comfortable and figure out if the persons being interviewed will decently perform the job and advance the City's performance?
Can the interviewees get past the pressure to 'sell' themselves and candidly and fearlessly express their ideas about what needs to be done?
Let us hope so, for Plainfield's sake.
- David Brooks, NYTimes: "An Economy of Grinds"
-- Dan Damon [follow]