Townsman, March 2004)
By J. Michael Huston, Town Manager, Oxford
In the more than 15 years I have been involved in local government, as a consultant, elected official and municipal manager, questions have frequently come up concerning the tenure of managers. In everyday conversations with friends or acquaintances, at meetings or school sporting events, the question is often asked, “What do you think the average tenure of a manager is?” Most people, outside the profession, seem to think that about five years is the average time a manager spends in any one community. Inside the profession, the most common guess is an average of seven years.
Where does this seven year, or five year, number come from? Does it matter what people think is the average as opposed to what may really be the number? If it matters, why does it matter?
People’s perception of a manager’s likely tenure is important. That perception affects decisions that are made on such issues as pay and benefits, requirements to live in the community where one manages, and a willingness to accept suggestions and plans for the future, both by the manager and by the community as a whole.
If the residents and selectmen/councilors believe a manager will be gone in less than five years, this may well set the context in which a manager’s decisions are received and reviewed. If the mindset of a community is a revolving door profession, how does that contribute toward welcoming a manager, finding ways to work with him or her? Much is made in our profession about how we have to learn the psyche of a community, and adapt ourselves and our management style to that psyche. Perhaps equally important, we need to understand how we are viewed. Not just in the short-term, but in the sense of whether we are viewed as someone who will be around to see the fruits of their labors — the results, good and bad, of their ideas.
Average tenure, of course, does not mean that all managers in similar-sized communities will equal years of tenure. It is, however, reasonable to assume that managers will serve shorter periods of time in smaller communities, if they are just starting out in the profession. The tenure of managers tends to increase as they move up the career ladder to larger communities. In fact, the common perception of those in the profession is that managers in small towns typically serve five years or less, while those who make it to the largest communities in the state generally hang on well beyond the seven year average.
But are these common perceptions accurate? If not, some effort should be undertaken to educate municipal officials and the public about what the reality is, on the chance that making decisions, policy choices, and plans based on reality instead of misconceptions has value.
The idea for this article was triggered by a comment made by a manager responding to an email question on the Maine Town & City Management Association’s website listserv. My interest in the subject was aroused and some research was undertaken.
Tammy Thatcher, assistant to the town manager in Lisbon, helped with some follow-up calls to managers making the sampling a bit larger than it would have otherwise been.
The survey does not strictly qualify as random or scientific. An email was sent to all managers on the listserv, not all of whom chose to respond. Additional information was supplied by managers who had knowledge of some of their colleagues’ tenures.
The 90 managers contacted in this survey held their positions in mid-February, 2004. The tenure in their current position (for that community) is what this survey attempted to measure. Admittedly, it is only a snapshot for that period in time.
Some managers had just made moves from a community where they had a long tenure. At least one manager with a long term of office in southern Maine left his position at the end of 2003. A few managers added information about previous management positions they have held. None of this information is included in the survey.
Maine has 491 municipalities. A rough count showed fewer than 275 have a town or city manager, administrator, or administrative assistant to the selectmen. It appears that around 200 communities have adopted the statutory town manager plan or established a similar position by charter. Thus, the sample of 90 individuals, in this survey, may actually turn out to be fairly representative of the entire field of managers in Maine.
The only measurement techniques used in analyzing the survey results are the mean and median. The mean tenure of this group of managers is 8.3 years, which is 19 percent higher than the “assumed” average (7 years) by those in the profession. The median is 5.5 years, which is 27% less than the 7-year assumed average. The median is higher by 10% than the public’s assumed average tenure of five years.
Does town size matter?
It is a common belief in the profession that larger communities tend to have more stable management. Perhaps this is because they can pay more; have more staff so that the manager can manage and be less concerned with day-to-day worries; or because larger communities hire older managers who are less inclined to move. Our survey demonstrates that size of the community may not be as important to longevity as we might have thought. Perhaps this reflects a willingness or eagerness on the part of many of Maine’s managers to devote time to hands on functions of government that can occur more easily in smaller communities.
The largest city in Maine has a manager who has been in office for just three years (although he has a long-time tenure in the community in a different capacity). The manager in Maine’s second largest community has just two years on the job, and he replaced someone who stayed for less then one year. These relatively short tenures in Maine’s largest two communities are pointed out, not to counter the common belief that larger communities keep their managers longer, but rather to emphasize that this survey is just a snapshot in time of a transient profession. Using a different point in time would have produced different results. However, while using another time period would have undoubtedly shown individual town differences, my guess is that the overall samplings represented by the mean and median would pretty much stay the same.
Taking the 16 communities in the sample whose population exceeds 10,000 (an arbitrary starting point for “large” communities) the mean tenure for those managers is 9.14 years, significantly higher then the overall mean. The median for these 16 communities is also significantly higher then the overall median of 5.5. In this “large” population sample, there are 8 managers serving more then 8 years, and 8 serving less. In Maine, therefore, size of the community appears to raise the number of years in the average tenure of a manager.
On the other hand, looking at the 19 individuals who have served the longest in their current communities (arbitrarily defined at 15 years or longer) and comparing those tenures against the size of the community, the mean population for those 19 municipalities is 6,742 (well below the “large” community dividing line of 10,000) and the median is 4,611. So does size matter? Or does it only matter depending upon how one does the measuring?
One might conclude that for many Maine managers, although the size of the community might lead to somewhat longer tenure, longevity on the job is certainly not dependent on being in a larger community.
Does salary matter?
One might well presume that higher salaries are typically paid at the larger community end of the spectrum, and this appears to have some validity (salaries come from the 2003 MMA Salary Survey). However, higher salaries are also paid to managers in more remote areas, perhaps in an effort to attract managers away from population centers. As well, smaller coastal communities where the cost of living is higher tend to pay their managers more. Longevity in a smaller community also seems to play a role in salary levels.
There are 16 communities in the survey that have populations above 10,000. Twelve of those 16 are among the sixteen highest paying communities.
Looking at salary and longevity, the mean term of office for the nineteen communities that pay the highest salaries, defined as $80,000 or higher, is 10.43 years, and the median is 10 years, both significantly above the mean and median of the entire sample.
What does matter?
There are some easy conclusions to be derived from this sample. But without knowing what else drives some of our colleagues to stay in one place for years and what other factors enter into the decision by a board of selectmen or council to keep a manager around, the conclusions may not be all that meaningful.
What is clear from this survey is that we managers in Maine hang on longer than the public, or ourselves for that matter, believe.