By Amy Resseguie
Common knowledge says that a career in local government management is a career on the move. A common refrain is, if you want to make this your life’s work, don’t get too attached to a particular place or colleague because you’ll be moving on to another community every few years. That’s just the nature of the beast. Right? It doesn’t have to be.
I talked with four executives who have worked in their organizations—and with each other—for more than 20 years about how they’ve carved a different path in the management profession. First, here is a brief overview of these executives’ careers:
Darin Atteberry (DA) has been with Fort Collins, Colorado, for 22 years, serving as the city manager for the past 14. He began his career in city planning, and prior to coming to Fort Collins, he worked with cities in California, Washington, and Georgia.
Kelly DiMartino (KD) is Fort Collins’ senior assistant city manager, currently overseeing the performance excellence program, information and employee services, and community services. She has been with Fort Collins for nearly 22 years, beginning as the city’s first communications and public involvement coordinator.
Michael Wilkes (MW) has served as the Olathe, Kansas, city manager for 20 years and is the longest-tenured city manager in its history. Prior to coming to Olathe, he served in cities and counties in Oregon and Georgia.
Susan Sherman (SS) started working for the city of Olathe 30 years ago, serving as the assistant city manager for the past 25. She currently is responsible for the day-to-day operations of police, fire, parks and recreation, municipal court, and information technology services.
RESSEGUIE: The stereotype about working in city and county management is that you’ll always be moving from place to place. Yet for the four of you, that has not been your path. Why not?
DA: Early in my career, I did move between a few cities, and it was a really valuable learning experience. Fort Collins, however, became home for my wife and me. We raised our kids here, and we hope to retire here.
This is an incredible community, full of people who are committed to working together to create the future we desire. You don’t have to be on the move all the time to have a successful career.
The long-term work we do to shape and grow with a community can bring a lot of joy.
MW: There are many ways to be fulfilled and rewarded in this career beyond just advancing to the next city. I had done the “climb the career ladder” thing. Taking the job in Olathe allowed me to achieve many of my goals. I honestly never imagined that I would spend the rest of my career here. It happened because the job has never been boring or routine, the council has given me freedom to innovate and try new things, and the people I work with are family to me.
KD: When I started, I never expected to be here 20-plus years. I stayed because this is a great community and organization. I’ve had opportunities to learn and grow, working for a visionary city manager who challenges me and values my opinion, and with colleagues who care deeply about this place.
SS: Olathe has given me such great growth opportunities. As my colleagues have moved around, I have had the opportunity to stay in one place, while learning from three different city managers and how they approach issues and opportunities. My husband is also in city management, and we’re in an area where we can both do what we love. There is no shame in moving around for your career, and there is no shame in staying in one area for 20 or 30 years, either. The management profession can give you all the options. Choose a path that works best for you based on your goals, your family, and your life.
RESSEGUIE: You’ve all worked with each other in your respective cities for more than 20 years. What is unique to these long-term working relationships?
SS: Working with someone for 20 years gives you real insight into who they are and what is important to them. You learn to anticipate how they will react—their questions, pitfalls, and general approach to issues. The best part is that you learn to play on each other’s strengths and talents.
KD: That shared history creates deep trust and loyalty and the ability to read minds—really the characteristics of any long-term relationship. When you stay in a community, you also get to see projects decades in the making come to fruition. Things like receiving the Malcolm Baldrige Award in 2017, launching a rapid-transit bus system, witnessing infrastructure improvements after natural disasters, and attending more groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings than we can count.
MW: Over the years we’ve built a high-performance, award-winning culture; passed designated taxes; implemented strategic planning and performance management systems; improved our downtown; built new city facilities, parks and trails, and much more. This kind of long-term work requires that we have a shared vision and are working in alignment for the good of the organization.
RESSEGUIE: How have these partnerships benefited your individual careers?
SS: You know and find opportunities to showcase each other’s strengths. Michael has always been great at asking if I want to go to conferences, for example, or present on behalf of Olathe. I take that as a high compliment.
MW: Susan could work anywhere, and she has chosen Olathe. I will never stand in the way of her career; however, as long as she is comfortable staying here, I want to make sure it is rewarding. I give her a lot of authority within the organization and as many opportunities as possible to continue to grow and develop.
SS: It’s true. I have the greatest latitude and can honestly say I absolutely love my job and wouldn’t have it any other way.
KD: Darin makes it a point to know what is important to me and support those opportunities. He advocated for me to get my master’s degree a few years ago; when I was a single mom with a young son, I was able to have more flexibility. Modeling these things at the top sets the tone for the entire organization.
SS: When you’ve been there doing it—building your career, raising your family—for 20 years, people believe it. They know we’re not just saying the right words about development or work-life balance, but we’ve actually made it part of our culture. When we eventually leave this organization, we want that core belief system to still be true.
RESSEGUIE: And how have the partnerships influenced your cities’ organizational cultures?
MW: Susan and I are both committed to our families, and I think that shows in our culture. We are a family-friendly organization. We are also extremely competitive individuals. Excellence in what we do is our personal standard and the standard by which we measure the success of our organization.
DA: I talk about “The It, the We, and the I.” It: Does your work give you goosebumps? Is it meaningful, challenging, a fit for your skills? We: Do you genuinely enjoy and respect the people you work with? I: Does the job meet your personal needs in terms of compensation, benefits, and schedule? I believe that if those are true for you, odds are good that this is the best place you have ever worked. The work we do matters, and so do the people we do it with.
SS: One thing that both Michael and I bring to the job every day is passion. We are different people and sometimes approach issues in different ways, but I think the organization sees us both as highly committed. We bring the best out in one another to build an organization that will continue to thrive, because of the strong foundation that has been built by many over time.
KD: I think there’s also value in the organization knowing that Darin and I have each chosen Fort Collins for our home and our career. That means that we care deeply about the long-term good of the organization and the larger community. We’ve chosen to invest here, and we’re in it for the long haul.
RESSEGUIE: Surely you don’t always see eye to eye. What happens when you disagree?
MW: No one will ever be totally effective as a leader without a right-hand person whom they completely, implicitly trust. I have never, ever had to worry about Susan having my back, and I rely on her strengths to complement my weaknesses.
SS: It’s not always a walk in the park. We disagree, we have hard conversations, and we push each other to be the best we can be. After 20 years, I’m not going to offend Michael with anything I say, but I’ll push him. And I expect the same from him.
KD: I don’t know, I might offend Darin sometimes.
DA: (laughing) She offends me often!
KD: But he rebounds right away.
MW: It’s about speaking truth to power. Every leader needs somebody who will tell the truth, and it can be an incredibly hard thing for the average person to tell the boss he or she might be wrong.
KD: Part of knowing we’re always going to have each other’s back is that sometimes we’re going to tell each other things we don’t want to hear. Often, I’m at forefront of implementing organizational priorities and initiative, and can sometimes hear a lot of pushback or concern. It’s my job to know when I need to be Darin’s representative and cut through that resistance, and when this might be something he needs to hear.
DA: That’s when we rely on the history and trust in the relationship. I know when Kelly’s really being serious; when it’s something big on which I need to focus. I am absolutely convinced that she’s batting a thousand with telling me when I need to reconsider something.
RESSEGUIE: Are there any inherent risks to having long-term leaders?
MW: I think the biggest risk would be if we ceased to grow, develop, and push ourselves. If that were to happen, group-think could set in and effectively create a leadership void.
KD: We all share an underlying value of doing what’s best for our organizations to keep them healthy, sustainable, and successful. Fort Collins’ executive team is a healthy mix of people who were promoted from within and hired from outside. Each of them brings new ideas and perspectives and has helped us create a truly collaborative team dynamic.
DA: We have elections every two years. By design, our elected leadership is transient, and today’s workforce can also be transient. There’s tremendous value in bringing in new colleagues and elected leaders who can see Fort Collins with fresh eyes. And to balance that, it’s been extremely helpful to have some long-term colleagues with a deep understanding of the organization and community.
SS: We’re not potted plants. We’re not just plugging along doing the same things in the same ways. We very intentionally keep our minds open to other ideas. Neither of us will be here forever, and we owe it to the long-term viability of the organization to bring in another assistant manager at some future point. It will be hard to fold someone else in, but it’s so important that we do.
RESSEGUIE: What have you valued most in developing long-lasting working relationships?
DA: There is a lonely side of leadership. It is so important to have someone in your corner and know that you don’t always have to do all the pushups yourself. You don’t necessarily have to work with someone for 20 years for that person to have your back; however, you do need to find those people in your own life and career.
MW: Susan and I have been through the good, bad, and indifferent. We can finish each other’s sentences. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up. It’s been a partnership, and I know I would not have been able to accomplish what I have in Olathe without her.
KD: Darin and his family have become like my own. We’ve been to each other’s graduation parties and weddings and baby showers. When you consider the amount of time you spend with your colleagues, I am incredibly thankful to work with many people whom I consider to be true friends.
SS: There are a lot of ways to have a local government management career. You can hop across the country if you want to. You can stay in one place if you want to. This career path doesn’t have to dictate your life path—you can choose.