In light of the departures — whether planned or a surprise — peppering the Truckee/North Lake Tahoe area as of late (town manager, police chief, school district superintendent, county public health officer, etc.), 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.
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, of course, was to find the highest quality general manager,” explained Joe Horvath, TDPUD electric department manager, assistant GM, and part of the ad hoc committee. “That was the overarching goal of the committee … [looking for] outstanding skill sets as well as experience in leading high performance organizations. That was the goal, and we made a commitment to one another to speak openly and honestly, to be transparent, to come prepared to the meetings.”
Horvath and other key players involved in the hiring process sat down with Moonshine Ink to discuss the lessons they learned. Despite the global pandemic that ended up taking place during the latter part of the hiring process, those who spoke with us recognized how lucky they were to end up with Rem Scherzinger.
“A lot of key things went right for us in this process,” said Jeff Bender, board president.
With hindsight providing 20/20 clarity, below are 10 lessons staff and board members took away from their journey of hiring for such a key position.
1. 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 (in addition to the executive recruiting firm, Peckham & McKenney — another external entity) allowed a neutral party to diffuse standing tensions and expectations while laying out a pathway forward.
“There’s relationships between the board, between staff, between the current general manager that can be tense,” said Christa Finn, vice president of the board. “It’s somebody who can bring together all the different parties in a neutral area and make it easier for everybody to communicate with each other without allowing emotions or personal opinions or past history into it.”
2. 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 as well, were necessary.
As unoriginal as the idea is, Bender explained, communication really did need to happen to make sure everyone was on the same page in an honest capacity. For the board, because the GM serves as their sole employee; for staff, because the position guides what’s hopefully a well-oiled machine.
“This is a very, very high level position in the community, and emotions can run high at that time,” Bender said. “You’re talking about somebody’s retirement and then the legacy of the district and then the future of the district, so just keeping that all in check.”
3. You can go your own way
In sitting down to come up with what the next general manager would ideally embody, Horvath explained the ad hoc committee looked at examples of other general manager job descriptions.
“[We] quickly decided that’s not where we wanted to build from, from some other general manager job description,” he said. “We wanted to identify … what skill sets are important, and communicating that throughout the organization and really getting, from the ground level up, who are we looking for? What’s important to us?”
The committee wanted to paint a picture based on the district’s specific needs, not what everyone knew came standard with a job description.
4. The personal growth is painful, but worth it
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. Those involved were even assigned homework between meetings, reading assignments like Dare to Lead by Brené Brown and Grit by Angela Duckworth.
Both Bender and Finn expressed the challenges of working through the process for such an extended period of time.
“I feel like I’ve been in the trenches with [everyone], and even with our new GM,” said Bender. “When he started … I was just feeling relieved and relaxed. We know this guy because we’ve gone through this process, these values, and identified it. It was so intense and painful, but then [there were] enormous amounts of personal growth.”
5. It takes a village
A community workshop was hosted to encourage participation beyond just the board and staff. In September 2019, local attendees were asked to prioritize their skill set preferences for the next GM.
The public’s input wasn’t just a kumbaya affair; the identified skills were also prioritized by district staff and board members, and compiled into a bar graph that was approved at an October 2019 meeting. It basically said this is what everybody agrees our next general manager should embody.
“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,” said Finn. “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.”
6. 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. Not only was he willing to provide insight to the position when asked, but he also knew when to let the ad hoc committee and hired consultants do their thing and let the process happen.
“Very heartfelt and strong credit to the outgoing general manager to have that foresight, that this process needed to start from the beginning of where we’re at now and where we’re going,” pointed out Brian Wright, manager of the water department and assistant general manager for the district.
“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,” Finn noted.
7. You’re in the matrix
A gut feeling is good. A gut feeling backed up by positive numbers is better.
Of the 102 applicants to the posting, the board and executive staff reviewed 10 resumes and cover letters (winnowed down to that number by the recruiting firm), then had two-day interviews with the final three candidates. Rather than going off just the good vibes presented by a candidate during his or her interview, 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.
“The subjective, I-just-feel-good-about-that answer is one thing, to, on a scale of 1 to 10, we were looking for these things and what did we get?” explained Finn. “It’s much more specific and it’s much more fair. It’s a lot easier as a group to come to consensus. And that was a really important part of the process — we created a matrix and the scoring and how we asked the questions and how we heard the answers.”
Bender, an engineer, explained his need for metrics in ranking the final candidates. Because of the intense question-and-answer sessions (91 questions, by the way), he said he could argue out his feelings for any of the candidates, for better or worse.
“If someone questioned and disagreed,” he continued, “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.”
8. 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, “that threw a big grenade in the process,” said Bender.
The board, Holley, and Hobday put a one-month buffer in the timeline to figure out what ways COVID-19 might change the process. Ultimately, everyone regrouped and decided to carry on with the timeline as planned, but virtually. Interviews were held via Zoom.
“We pivoted,” said Horvath. “We used that opportunity to actually pivot and, before they came on site, we delayed the interview a little bit and had a debrief so … each department was able to give a debrief to the candidate … We worked with it as a way to further the process and to give the candidates a better view of the district, which I think ended up giving them a better interview process.”
Obviously the TDPUD would have preferred to not have the COVID pandemic swirling above its head, echoed Wright, but staff and the board adapted well to the guidelines and closures that were implemented statewide.
9. 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.
“It was extremely beneficial really going through a detailed and transparent recruiting process for the recruiter,” Wright said. “But it also served as part of the process for the board to have some experience in this, or the ad hoc committee, and staff to start to get a sense for how this lays out.”
A new chief financial officer, Michael Salmon, was also selected for the district through the same process.
“I got a lot of interviewing practice,” laughed Finn. “I’m far more educated on how to do this than before.”
The board ultimately decided this established process will be used for recruitment throughout the district henceforth.
10. ‘Timeliness is an illusion’
As mentioned previously, the departure of Holley was over a year in advance. It was a lengthy and thorough process for the TDPUD, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily set expectations for every agency out there. Scherzinger himself said pieces could be pulled from it to successfully hire other key figures across the region.
A little public input here, some position research there, and “you could get to a full-bodied recruitment very quickly, for sure,” he explained. “But quickly for me, you’re not going to do it in three months. If you’re really gonna lay some groundwork, you’re going to be close to six months.”
Timeliness, he furthered, is an illusion that agencies often get trapped in. There are always senior-level staff who can take over the position while the governing board pursues a thorough process to recruit the best candidate.
Five Reasons Rem Scherzinger Decided to Pick Truckee
Scherzinger came to the TDPUD from his position as general manager of the Nevada Irrigation District, which he led for eight years. Finn, as well as the others interviewed, mentioned how despite a massive and thorough search around the world for the public utility district’s next top position, Scherzinger “was right in our backyard.”
Turns out that was one of the reasons Scherzinger chose Truckee, too:
1. Joining the ‘Truckee way’
Because he’s lived in Grass Valley for nearly a decade, Scherzinger is very familiar with Truckee, both in the summer and winter. “It’s where we play,” he said of his family.
What he recently came to learn as “the Truckee way” was a draw for Scherzinger.
“Every time we came to Truckee, we experienced a kind of community that our family had enjoyed in Sonoma County,” he explained. “… When we would go to Truckee, that was our other side. We felt it [the Truckee way], we knew it, and now we know what it is and we’re just super excited and lucky to become a member of it.”
Scherzinger’s contract does require him to live in the district, and he’s still house-hunting, mentioning the increasingly competitive housing market in the Tahoe area.
2. The process caught his eye
Scherzinger compared the transition from Holley to him as a relay race, where the best hand-offs happen at speed. When Scherzinger saw the TDPUD working together and being guided by outside experts, he knew it was a model he wanted to be part of — and one that could take place at full speed thanks to the effort put into it.
“One of the aspects of this process that Michael [Holley] and the board and staff put together (with the shepherding by Pam [Hobday]), really allowed for, I think, an excellent transition of leadership within the district,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often and from my perspective, to be the beneficiary of all that hard work at the district is incredible.”
3. Alignment with career goals
Not only is Truckee an exciting place to head to, says Scherzinger, but the general manager position he was interviewed for turned out to be an extension of his career goals. He hasn’t had a chance to do anything in depth with power distribution (check one for the PUD), and that ended up being the icing on the cake.
“So Truckee shows up and you’re like, well yeah,” Scherzinger joked of his job search. “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?”
4. Community-centering isn’t just lip service
Knowing that not just the board and staff, but the community, too, played a significant role in the hiring process, adds more peace of mind for Scherzinger. He mentioned that he appreciated that a workshop was hosted to understand community members’ values, and that the interview questions were crafted based on what the community wanted.
Because the board listens, Scherzinger says, it shows a recognition that the public utility district belongs to the people.
5. The people who make it go ‘round
Scherzinger was most energetic about the staff he gets to work with, and said that the “dedicated team of highly trained, committed people” were a major box to check when looking for other job opportunities.
“I can tell you that from working with those folks for a month and watching them for six months, they are tremendously dedicated,” he continued. “They are extraordinarily smart; they are brilliant. They’re ready to go out the gate. These folks are really, they want to do great things for this community and they’re looking forward to doing it. I’m blessed to be part of the team.”
You can get by with a backhoe that doesn’t work, Scherzinger said, but you can’t get by with a lineman who doesn’t: “The single greatest resource of our district are the people that make it go ‘round.”