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Tim Myers: Succession planning with big kids

Posted: September 8, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 8, 2012 2:00 a.m.

When I attended college in the late 1970s and early 1980s I participated in various intramural athletics, very popular at Drake University and in retrospect extremely well run and highly organized. During my freshman year, the long-serving director of intramural athletics retired, and after a “nationwide” search the university hired the director’s long-serving assistant director to ascend to the position.

Now, the first year of the new director’s tenure caused many to scoff: After looking throughout the “nation” it ended up the best successor sat just next door to the incumbent director. Who knew?

When I matured and began to assume positions of leadership myself, I understood the wisdom of Drake University. Promoting the assistant made perfect sense for the following reasons. First, the assistant possessed all the institutional knowledge of the prior director since they worked side-by-side. Second, the assistant director understood the position fully, felt comfortable assuming the responsibility, and felt satisfied with the pay and benefits. Finally, the hierarchy of the athletic and student affairs functions possessed knowledge of the assistant and how they would perform their duties.

Thus, it made perfect sense to promote the assistant to the head job. What made little sense? Conducting the national search.

Four decades of management science and study later, most agree that the duties of a person in a leadership position also require the training and identification of his eventual successor, particularly if the person stands relatively close to retirement age or wishes to undertake some other challenge. Nothing can disrupt an organization more than a sudden change in a key leadership position with no one waiting in the wings to take on the mantle of responsibility.

And now the citizens of Santa Clarita find themselves faced with a leadership change in city governance brought about by the relatively sudden retirement of 25-year city employee and 10-year City Manager Ken Pulskamp by the end of 2012.

Now over the next few months the few that care about such things will examine the tenure of Ken Pulskamp and his relative success or failure in the position of only the second permanent city manager in the history of the city. In the first analysis, Ken Pulskamp can claim the mantle of success for the simple reason that the vast majority of the citizens do not know his name or position.

How does one equate anonymity with success? Think of the city managers in the news and one thinks of embezzlement on a grand scale like the city of Bell or financial distress like the cities of Stockton and San Bernardino. The fact the average citizen would struggle to identify the city manager states volumes about the relative health of the city more than the relative lack of information of the average citizen.

For those in the know, however, Pulskamp attracted criticism from all quarters that dislike something occurring in the city, from development to redevelopment to the library takeover. Pulskamp sometimes took criticism actually aimed at elected officials, since the opposition saw Pulskamp craftily manipulating the City Council to act in the capacity of rubber stamp.

From personal experience, I can state that any kind of delay with city departments would quickly dissipate with a personal e-mail to Pulskamp, so he certainly backed up his belief in customer service at the municipal level.

Which brings up Pulskamp’s successor. Unlike Drake University, the City Council met within three days of the retirement announcement and voted 4-1 to promote Ken Pulskamp’s deputy, Ken Striplin, to the position of third permanent city manager in the city’s history. Councilman TimBen Boydston cast the sole dissenting vote, stating a preference for a (probably) faux national search to eventually hire the person that sat in the office next door.

Depending upon the performance of Striplin, we will determine if Pulskamp fulfilled his last obligation leading the city of Santa Clarita: training a competent successor.

And Striplin will begin his quest to become the perfect city manager: Achieving the relative anonymity enjoyed by his predecessor.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident.


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