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Career Compass

Career Compassis a monthly column from ICMA focused on career issues for local government professional staff.  It is written by Dr. Frank Benest, ICMA's senior advisor for Next Generation Initiatives. If you have a career question you would like addressed in a future Career Compass, e-mail or contact Frank directly at

Sep 16

[ARCHIVED] Member Spotlight with John Keisler

The original item was published from September 16, 2015 11:36 AM to September 16, 2015 11:43 AM

Interview with Past MMASC President John Keisler,
Innovation Team Director for the City of Long Beach
Written by Ryan Park

Picture of John Keisler, Past MMASC President and Innovation Team Director for the City of Long Beach What City do you work for, what’s your department, what’s your title, and how long have you been there?

City of Long Beach, City Manager’s Office and Innovation Team Director. I have been with the City for 10 years, but have been in my current role for the past 5 months.  

How has it been getting settled into your role as the Innovation Team Director?

It is very exciting! This is a new initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which establishes a research and development unit for the City.

As the Director of the Innovation Team, how do you find new ways to solve old problems? How do you facilitate change with the community at large?

What we use is the innovation delivery approach. First, we investigate the problem by going out into the community and talking with the end user. Although investigations take time and require a lot of resources, it is necessary to understand the user’s experience. Next, we generate ideas by developing a sufficient model that address contributing issues. That said, generating ideas requires commitment from staff, support from the executive leadership, and collaboration from the community to truly find and meet the needs of your audience. Finally, we show our process by aligning the resources that lead to our results. This can be done through prototyping, finding outside funding sources, and understanding the value of the design. Overall, the City who really wants to innovate and adjust to the market really needs to take a look at the way the world is changing. Although it’s not what is traditionally done in government, I believe it is necessary.

What initially got you interested in public service?

After I graduated from St. Olaf College, I wanted to do some public service. I joined Teach for America as a full-time teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School where I taught English and Civics to 7th and 8th grade students for 3 years. During that time, I began to realize that I could not fix the chronic community challenges facing my students. At that point, I made a decision to go into city management and work on a variety of issues like public safety, infrastructure and economic development. After looking at programs all over the country, I ended up at the University of Southern California for its 85-year history focusing on local government and city management. In the end, I fell in love with cities and learned how organizations can make an impact in the lives of so many people.

What is the most memorable part of your past experience and how has that shaped you to lead the organization you’re in?

From an organizational standpoint, the most memorable part of my past experience was on April 8, 2008. At the time, I was working in the Budget Office when all of a sudden I received a call about a crisis that occurred at one of the animal shelters and how it brought a lot of negative attention to the City. After a series of events, I was informed that there were going to be changes in leadership and was directed by the City Manager to do the following: read the latest media stories, find out the location of the animal shelter, and show up the next day for a press conference at 9:00 AM. Even though I was supposed to be in the temporary position for 6 months, it ended up becoming 3.5 years. When I arrived, the first few staff meetings presented a lot of existing challenges. Although I was a young professional with no expertise dealing with animal shelters, I learned a lot about the values of good leadership and management. After going through a lot of changes, I focused on having a clear vision by understanding what we were trying to accomplish within our day-to-day output, key objectives and performance measures. Looking back, it was such an intense time with many unknowns. However, I am proud to say that we have record-low euthanasia rates, record-high adoptions and a host of new support programs for the community.

What advice can you give individuals looking to jumpstart their careers from middle management to senior management?

This is a really common challenge. There are the busy bees and the builders. The busy bees are competent and important workers. The builders are those who look at the world as it is and ask the question, “How can I make it better?” I know that there are a lot of frustrated analysts and middle managers that work hard, but are stuck in this cycle of adjusting to a high volume of work and dealing with the same problems over and over again. Although the busy bees are important, I believe the builders will be successful because they take an existing problem and develop a new approach that will create an additional 3-5 percent capacity in the workforce.

In my opinion, it does not matter what 
role you are currently in. If you can identify your own work by thinking strategically, you can prevent issues and add value to your organization.
-John Keisler                                                                        

How did you first hear about MMASC and what keeps you renewing your membership?

In the summer of 2003, I moved from New Jersey to California. As a graduate student, I interned with the League of California Cities and got exposed to MMASC by staffing some of its events. My first interaction was meeting Michael Busch, from the City of Claremont, to talk about his term as President. By staffing the Annual Conference, I gained a lot of friendships, which drove me to get involved in MMASC. After obtaining my master’s degree, I became a Regional Chair, participated in various conference committees, and eventually became the President in 2007. Over the course of 12 years, I continue to stay involved in MMASC because it has been a rewarding and exciting part of my career. 

What do you think is the biggest benefit to attending the MMASC Annual Conference? What would you tell individuals who have not attended in the past?   

The inspiration and the energy. What I mean by that is getting into the same space as other likeminded individuals. Generally, people who attend the Annual Conference are doers. By interacting with them, I noticed that people tend to get energized, inspired and set expectations for each other.
MMASC is a broker and convener of 
the best and brightest in our business. By getting people together each year, it's a reminder to not only build a support network, but also to get a better understanding of public service.
-John Keisler                                                                    

What do you think is the biggest issue(s) facing local government agencies?

I think it is creating the capacity to think ahead. In my experience, the last decade of local government has been about contraction and reduction. As cities, we have largely become reactive. If we are going to serve communities, we need to create the capacity to think ahead by interacting with our community, repositioning our organizations and designing services from the outside in.

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