Sunday, August 20, 2006

A tale of two towns' head hunters

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 1st, 2006

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., a community in many ways similar to Chapel Hill.I continue to be very involved in both places, although in Ann Arbor, my greater interest is in the governance of the school district, while here I am most interested in the town.

This dual residency often gives me an opportunity to compare how each place does things. About half of the time, I see things in Chapel Hill that I think should be replicated in Ann Arbor, and just as often I see things in Ann Arbor that I think should be replicated in Chapel Hill.

Never was that more true than in the past two months as Chapel Hill embarked upon its new manager selection process while Ann Arbor picked a new school superintendent.

The most important thing in picking a new chief executive has to be getting a large field of qualified candidates.

When governing bodies need to do this they frequently hire consultants. Chapel Hill hired two experienced human resource experts who are also very involved in the local community, Anita Badrock and Tim Dempsey.

This decision drew criticism from some town activists who thought that hiring a firm that specializes in these kinds of positions would have been a better choice. Ann Arbor, on the other hand, hired the Michigan Association of School Boards to conduct its search, a group that among other things specializes in conducting superintendent searches.

Based on the number of applications for each position, the hiring of Badrock and Dempsey was clearly the right choice. Chapel Hill received 120 applications, while Ann Arbor received only 26.

The reasons for this are pretty clear. Not only are Badrock and Dempsey talented professionals, but they also have a personal interest in ensuring that Chapel Hill has strong governance.

They made this their priority for three months, and the results speak for themselves.

With a much larger pool to choose from, Chapel Hill was able to hire a manager with years of experience as the manager in a sizable city. Although I'm confident the new superintendent in Ann Arbor is going to do a great job, he has never held the top position before, and the district where he was the assistant superintendent is smaller than Ann Arbor.

The choice to hire qualified local residents to oversee the manager search process was a good decision by the town council, and one other communities could learn from.

When it came to engaging citizens in the selection of a new leader, Chapel Hill could learn some lessons from Ann Arbor, though.

For instance, while trying to develop a profile for the new manager, Chapel Hill invited about 30 citizen activists to a Saturday morning meeting to give their feedback at Town Hall.

Ann Arbor, on the other hand, had several well-publicized meetings at a variety of different times that the entire community was invited to for the purpose of stating what it wanted in a superintendent. This was a better way of encouraging people to get involved.

Once finalists were chosen, Chapel Hill invited the community at-large to ask the candidates questions at Town Hall.

However, there was no formal channel for residents to give their feedback on the candidates.

In Ann Arbor, the school district solicited applications for citizens to serve on a committee that interviewed the superintendent candidates and then gave formal, written feedback to the bard of education on what it felt to be each of the finalists' strengths and weaknesses.

This gave community members a more formalized stake in the process and is something local governments should think about doing the next time they hire new chief executives.

That said, I think the process as a whole for selecting a new manager in Chapel Hill was very well done. Some have questioned the fast time line, but I think it's great that the new manager now has two months to learn the lay of the land before moving into the position. He will be much better prepared now to hit the ground running than if he had not been hired until later in the summer.

Even though it only took a few months, the subcommittee of the town council that chose the finalists thoroughly vetted the candidates, going through a multilayered interview process.

It took an extensive amount of thoughtful work to choose the three finalists and Kevin Foy, Bill Strom, Bill Thorpe and Ed Harrison should be thanked for their willingness to put in all that extra time on top of their already large duties as members of the council.

And most important, Roger Stancil will be an outstanding manager. Not only does he have a lot of experience, but he is also a courageous leader. He has shown a willingness to make the right move even if it isn't the most popular one, and that's a trait I greatly respect.

Thanks to the work of the consultants and the town council, Chapel Hill has a bright future even as it loses Cal Horton's steady leadership.

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