In light of the departures — whether planned or a surprise — peppering the Truckee/North Tahoe area as of late, one of the most advertised processes to find a new key position was that of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District’s search for a general manager. Wouldn’t it be great if other agencies could know the top 10 lessons the district learned in its process? Hmmm … your wish is our command.
I’m Alex Hoeft, news reporter for Moonshine Ink, here with today’s minutes.
Michael Holley, who celebrated his last day as the GM for the PUD after 12 years on July 31, had given his team over a year’s warning of his planned retirement. From that time, an ad hoc committee made up of board members and executive staff was formed and guided by Pamela Hobday, CEO of Pamela Hurt Associates.
The goal? To find a new best-quality general manager possible. I got to sit down with a number of key players involved in the hiring process to discuss the lessons they learned. One of them was Brian Wright, water department manager and assistant GM for the utility district. He described what it was like for him and Joe Horvath, another assistant GM, to be part of the transition process.
[6:51-7:36] “I think from the very beginning, you asked about what that work involved, the early phases were really an internal assessment of — Joe and I’s role on this as staff representative, was to meet with the ad hoc committee and go back to staff and leadership team, middle management staff, and really do a self reflective process organizationally on what we needed. What were we looking for? Before you can find or even describe the best candidate, we really wanted to break down and evaluate what would be best for the district, best for staff, the best for this community, and start from there.”
Despite the global pandemic that ended up taking place during the latter part of the hiring process, those who spoke with me recognized how lucky they were to end up with Rem Scherzinger.
Jeff Bender, president of the board, told me, “A lot of key things went right for us in this process.”
So, with hindsight providing 20/20 clarity, following are 10 lessons staff and board members took away from their journey of hiring for such a key position.
- Think outside the box
The TDPUD hired Pamela Hurt Associates to help guide the ad hoc committee in what an ideal general manager would look like. Having that outside body allowed a neutral party to diffuse standing tensions and expectations while laying out a pathway forward.
- Communication, cliché but key
Not everyone is going to agree about everything — we know that better than ever in the 21st century. But selecting the next general manager of a public utility district that’s been around since 1927 meant honest conversations about what would be best for not just the district, but the community, were necessary.
- You can go your own way
In sitting down to come up with what the next general manager would ideally embody, the ad hoc committee looked at examples of other general manager job descriptions. It was quickly realized the team wanted to start from scratch and paint a picture based on the district’s specific needs, not what everyone knew came standard with a job description.
- Buried in homework
The ad hoc committee members were told from the get-go that their work-life balance was going on an “excursion” — many hours outside of normal district dedication would be put into the hiring process. There were even reading assignments between meetings, like Dare to Lead by Brené Brown and Grit by Angela Duckworth.
- It takes a village
A community workshop was hosted to encourage participation beyond just the board and staff. I actually got to attend the workshop last September, and it was a pretty full house.
Board member Christa Finn talked about what the community input meant:
15:44- 16:17: “You can never have too much community input, and I think it’s very hard to get quality community input in this day and age. There’s so many things pulling people in different directions. A public utility district is not particularly sexy or interesting. It’s really hard to get people’s attention. It’s really hard to say, hey, this district is foundational to your health and wellbeing and that of this community. Your power and your water are the most important things, whether you know it or not.”
- Smooth operator
When you’ve announced your retirement a year out, it can be awkward to hang around while your staff and board try to find a new and improved version of you. But board and executive staff alike said Holley played his role admirably as he finished out his time with the TDPUD.
Finn said: 27:05 – 27:23 “He provided us with his knowledge and his blessing and he continued to run the district smoothly, and I think that was really, I think it could’ve gone very differently if we didn’t have someone so committed to the health and well-being of the district over himself.”
- You’re in the matrix
A gut feeling is good. A gut feeling backed up by positive numbers is better.
Rather than going off just the good vibes presented by the final candidates during their interviews, the board identified the types of answers they wanted to hear from candidates and scored each person on each answer they gave. It was a very data-driven process.
Bender, an engineer, explained his need for metrics in ranking the final candidates. Because of the intense question-and-answer sessions, he said he could actually point out his specific reasoning for any of the candidates, for better or worse.
36:47ish – 37:05: “If someone questioned and disagreed. I almost feel like, wow, I could really step up and litigate for that person because I knew exactly where I was feeling on one end, but then the data is there supporting that decision.”
- Prepare to pivot
The original plan was to invite the final three candidates to tour the district in-person and have interviews on-site. With the arrival of the coronavirus, plans changed. Bender walked me through what had to shift:
41:04-41:28: “That threw a big grenade in the process. We took a one-month pause, just to like, what are we doing? And then we regrouped, we have a timeline we need to follow. Everybody came together and we carried on with Zoom and did these meetings.”
- Utilize the process multiple times
The process to hire, known as the Pamela Hurt Associates process, had a couple of trial runs leading up to its main goal, hiring Scherzinger; the district also used the process to hire the executive search firm that would actually post the job as well as a new CFO.
Finn jokes, “I got a lot of interviewing practice. I’m far more educated on how to do this than before.”
- ‘Timeliness is an illusion’
The departure of Holley was announced over a year in advance, but not every agency or organization gets that same time slot. The last tip: Use at least 6 months for your hiring process. Utilize senior-level staff while the governing board recruits properly and thoroughly.
These top ten lessons were shared with me through smiles and laughter, but it was apparent that this process was quite the undertaking. Luckily, the TDPUD has decided to adopt the hiring process as its official go-to when looking to fill positions districtwide.
After chatting with staff and the board, I then spoke with the new guy himself, Rem Scherzinger.
Scherzinger came to the TDPUD from his position as general manager of the Nevada Irrigation District. It was joked by many that after such an expansive process, Scherzinger was waiting right down the road in Grass Valley.
I asked him about his own five reasons for deciding to go with Truckee. To hear his responses, though, you’ll need to head to our website and read the full article, “TDPUD’s Top 10 Lessons Learned from Hiring Their General Manager.”
The only thing I’ll give away from Scherzinger is that Truckee turned out to be the best scenario both personally and professionally. Oh, and please pardon my laughter — Rem’s eagerness is infections.
[8:22-8:40] “So Truckee shows up and you’re like, well yeah. And then it’s like PUD and you’re like, well yeah-yeah. And then you’re like well, so we were trying to take over PG&E, but they already have it — yeah! Let’s go, let’s go! How long does this have to take for me to get a job there?”
Is your own agency looking to hire for a high-level position? The TDPUD went through the refiners’ fire to get Scherzinger, but they’re also willing to share their secrets. Take a few leaves from their book and help keep Tahoe smart.