Private Sector CEOs Are Longshots for City Manager Jobs

After I wrote my story on the impending city manager brain drain cities are expecting, I got an email from a former CEO in the private sector who offered an interesting, and somewhat ironic, insight into the difference in culture between local governments and private companies.

Grant Curtis, who said he is the former CEO of a $13 million company, wrote that “he applied to more than five (city manager) positions only to get a generic email/letter six or seven months down the line.”

Curtis’ experience did not surprise Frank Benest of the International City/County Management Association. With few exceptions, Benest said, city governments don’t hire executives from the private sector. The reason for that is a basic difference in cultures that make private sector chiefs incompatible with running a public agency, and vice-versa.

Benest said the differences are everywhere. In finance, securing revenue for a public agency requires knowledge of state and federal grant programs. And it’s not as simple as raising taxes, either. Private-sector companies, however, are profit driven and often depend on slick marketing to make money.

But Curtis insists the values of the private sector are not only transferable to a public agency, but are also essential to much-needed reform of bureaucratic systems marked by terrible service.

Dealing with public agencies as a member of the public is a “nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” Curtis said.

“My job is to streamline processes — not to clutter them up,” Curtis said about the difference between himself and a public agency manager.

Benest said the difference in culture and skills means the hiring boundaries go both ways. “If I applied to be a CEO of a private corporation, what would they do? They would throw my application in the trash can,” Benest said.

He apparently has a point.

When asked if he would hire a manager from a local government to manage one of his companies, Curtis said, “Absolutely not.”