Action Items for Generation X with Rob Carty, ICMA Next Generation Initiatives

The ELGL Take

We’ve read the Governing article on Generation X, we’ve interviewed Rob Gurwitt, author of the article, and now, we hear from Rob Carty, ICMA Director of NextGen Initiatives. We profile Rob to gain a better understanding of what to make of the recent attention on Generation X and what should we be doing with it.

One of Rob’s responsibilities at ICMA is to cultivate the next generation of local government leaders. In our interview, Rob addressed whether organizations are prepared for the coming wave of retirements, whether Ron Swanson is a good role model for government, and whether the career path for a city manager has changed.


Name: Rob Carty

Position: Director, Career Services and Next Generation Initiatives, ICMA

Previous: Consultant, REC Productions; Senior Account Executive, Katz & Associates, Inc.; and Staff Assistant, Defense Attache Office, Dublin, Ireland

Education: University of San Diego, BA, Economics/International Relations and University of Maryland – Robert H. Smith School of Business, MBA, Business Management

Connect: LinkedIn and Email ([email protected])

Connect with ICMA: Facebook,Twitter, and Website

Q & A

Tell our readers about ICMA’s three most recent NextGen initiatives.

  • ICMA Student Chapters – launched as a pilot in 2010, it’s gaining steam quite well now. Our goal is to make it easier for students to gain exposure to the profession and professionals, and get the attention of undergraduate students. Hopefully sway more of them into public service at the local level, and maybe get some into graduate work and the management track. (Related article: ICMA PSU Chapter: A Public Sector Startup)
  • Breaking Into Local Government Task Force – this two-year task force has created some great resources, including internship case studies, a new guide to help career changers break into the profession releasing in Boston, and the framework for an online mentor matching system.
  • Launched in early 2012, we expanded the capabilities of our job center to encourage employers to post career opportunities for early career job seekers. Our old system was cost-prohibitive, and we’ve seen a huge increase in jobs posted in this category. It’s still not a large amount yet but it’s definitely headed in the right direction.

Playing Devil’s advocate, we hear increased talk about the next gen and potential shortage of qualified workers to fill the positions of those who are about to retire. However, is this really a cyclical issue that comes up every 10 to 15 years and eventually works itself out? Or, should governments increase their focus on succession planning and become a more attractive employer for the next generation?

The baby boomers are the most numerous generation in the active workforce, so I wouldn’t say it’s cyclical. But I do think it will work itself out whether we plan or not. The question is, how painful do we want it to be? Boomers are going to reinvent retirement, as they reinvented many aspects of our society. Boomers will probably hang around for long enough for this to be more of a regular storm than a tidal wave as had been predicted. I think the recession certainly delayed retirements. But that has also prevented a lot of upward mobility, and caused a significant number of assistant and staff positions to be eliminated.

The challenge for the profession I see is that being a professional manager requires not only a certain skill set (which is different today from 30 years ago), but a specific desire or calling to do this work for the long haul, and a honed moral compass. There aren’t physically enough people out there with the skills, desire, and code to accept this calling to replace all the boomers, should they all retire within a short window.

Great organizations invest in their talent, true. To sustain any level of success they need to keep good people coming into the organization, and help them develop and even move up, or on to lead other organizations. I think looking at the talent pool for the profession at the macro level (global/international), rather than micro (organizational) will help us better manage the retirements. Small communities don’t have deep talent pools to rely on, so a trained and mobile talent pool is critical to their success. But a robust talent pool has more people than positions, because there are always people in transition.

The NBC show Parks and Recreation is one of the first shows ever to include a city manager. Tell us whether you think the show has been a positive or negative for local government.

I think that if you’re being parodied, you have arrived. Just like The Office, there is a grain of truth to every outrageous notion, but as long as people realize it’s satire and have fun with it, it’s all good.

Let’s pretend I am a city manager of a mid-size city, give me three action items for preparing my organization for the expected wave of retirements.

  1. Know who in your senior staff is eligible for retirement, and when they are planning to take it;
  2. Create a talent pool within the organization, and rotate them into different departments for 12/18/24 months so they can get a feel for all aspects of the organization and its mission, and get to know the staff and their skills;
  3. Create a means of bringing in new talent to the organization and training them quickly, like management internships/Fellowships or open recruitment positions you can use to feed item two. This will keep new people coming into the organization, knowing that regular attrition will occur in addition to expected retirements.

ELGL is hosting its first annual conference next October, advise our planning committee on three topics or speakers that should be included.


  1. I’d say preparing for/dealing with work-life balance today in the always-on media world,
  2. the social-media manager (e.g., not the manager of social media, but being a manager and using social media most effectively), and
  3. “the next 100 years” of the profession.

That’s what is interesting to me, at any rate.

Which coach or manager in sports compares most favorably to the leadership style of Bob O’Neill?

I’m not much of a sports guy, but from my experience he mostly resembles my old rowing coach. Once you get in the boat, it’s your job to pull the oar, and constantly hone your skill. He may shout some advice from the launch boat now and then but you own your successes and failures. He’ll also play around with the lineup every so often, putting you in a different seat, maybe changing you from port to starboard to test a hunch. He’ll also make a speech, or say something in a meeting you wish you had written down, or alternatively it will blow your mind. Oh, and he bought the boat you’re sitting in.

Related article: On the Public Record with Bob O’Neill, ICMA Executive Director

Twenty years ago, it seems there was a more defined career path for future city managers. Now it seems that city managers are rising from all functions and levels of government along with various areas of the private sector. Have you observed a similar trend? If so, tell us about steps ICMA takes to reach out areas of the public and private sector.

I have – this has a lot to do I think with shrinking budgets and the loss of assistant positions in many areas. A lot of assistant positions now have primary responsibility over a department, and we will likely see more department heads rising to the manager’s seat. On the private sector, as I mentioned above, we are releasing a new career guide for career changers that we believe will help folks understand if this is the right career choice, and how others in their position found the right entry point. We’re also planning to do much more on the veteran front. That’s a natural public service tie-in.

Identify a few organizations that have been successful in developing opportunities for early to mid-level professionals.

Dakota County, Minnesota currently holds the record for the most management Fellows placed through ICMA, and retained in their community.

Phoenix, Arizona and Long Beach, California have great well established management-track fellowships designed to attract and retain new staff. But even granting a one year Fellowship and helping someone launch a new career is just as valuable in contribution to the macro talent pool I mentioned earlier. The managers and communities doing that are many, and their efforts pay off almost immediately.

Related article: Congratulations Will Norris!

Taking off your ICMA hat somewhat, give your dream ICMA Conference. Who would be the speakers? Headlining bands? Topics?

Actually, my dream conference would be one I could attend as a member, not as staff! As for speakers, I usually get more out of hearing ICMA members speak than from the keynotes. Hearing their inspirational stories about great works accomplished and why it’s important really gets you recharged. Though I’d love to see Seth Godin address our profession. A good topic I think would be defusing political environments and creating harmony on the elected board. But more than topics and speakers, I’d like to see a lot more tech integrated into things like the name badges, exhibit hall, and registration. You know…unaffordable things!

You were recently quoted in a Generation X article in Governing magazine. Give us your opinion on how the article turned out and on the issues that were raised.

I was really pleased with it. Though my quote was the dullest thing in there, I think Rob Gurwitt interviewed a great group of people that told valuable stories. You could easily change the title to boomers, millennials, or women, and write a similar story about a group adapting to and molding the changing landscape. I think public participation is going to be a big part of the future role of successful local governments, informing and impacting each business unit, and the stories in this article reflect that.

Related article: The Rest of the Story with Rob Gurwitt, How Generation X is Shaping Government

Sandy city manager Scott Lazenby wrote an excellent fiction book called “Playing with Fire,” which addressed tough issues faced by city managers. First of all, have you read the book? Secondly, give us your must reads.

Scott actually chairs one of the committees I staff at ICMA. I have it on my reading list, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I have too many interests, but related (and unrelated) to work, I’m reading or have recently finished:

  • Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Madson: You could also read Bossypants by Tina Fey for a similar take, but with more biography: Good advice on how to prepare yourself to handle things when life goes off-script. Which is daily.
  • Do the Work by Steven Pressfield: Great take on how to avoid procrastination, busy work, and actually create something.
  • Great by Choice by Jim Collins: That’s a no brainer.
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun: I’m a public speaking geek, and this book gives you tips on how to rule a crowd.
  • Blueprint for Community Building by John Perry: John was a longtime manager, and this is an ode to the profession and his experiences.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: Just read to my seven year old. It’s a classic.
  • A Thousand Days of Wonder: A Scientist’s Chronicle of His Daughter’s Developing Mind by Charles Fernyhough: Fascinating insight into how the human brain develops.
  • Selections from Dreamsongs 1-3 by George R.R. Martin: If you like Game of Thrones, check out his earliest short stories. The parallels to hit films and stories in work he crafted decades ago is stunning.


  • The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin: Why flying high isn’t a bad idea. Your wings might melt, but the risk is worth it.

Of course, some of these I started a year ago and am still getting through, others I breezed through quickly. With small kids the time available to sit down and read is limited, but audiobooks have been a savior on that end.

Finally, what question(s) should I have asked?

  • What color is my parachute?
  • Who moved my cheese?
  • Did my iceberg melt?

I think you covered good ground.

Supplemental Reading

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