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Career Compass

Career Compass is a monthly column from ICMA focused on career issues for local government professional staff. Dr. Frank Benest is ICMA's senior advisor for Next Generation Initiatives and resides in Palo Alto, California. 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] 2015 Annual Conference Speaker Spotlight with Pat Martel

The original item was published from September 16, 2015 12:44 PM to September 16, 2015 3:42 PM

Interview with Incoming ICMA President Pat Martel,
City Manager of the City of Daly City
Written by Chris Castruita

Picture of Pat Martel, ICMA President for 2015-16

In advance of her induction as the ICMA President later this month at the ICMA National Conference, and her participation as a speaker at the MMASC Annual Conference from October 28-30, I spoke with Pat Martel, the City Manager of Daly City. Over the course of nearly an hour, she discussed how she first got into the profession of local government management, what we can expect at the ICMA Conference, the importance of participating in professional development organizations, and ways that practitioners can support the advancement of diversity at the highest levels of the profession.  

What initially got you interested in local government?

Well, I actually wasn’t interested in local government management when I went to college initially. I actually studied journalism and public affairs, so I actually wanted to be a political writer.

I had an opportunity to to go to Washington D.C. after I graduated and I worked as a staff assistant on Capitol Hill on the Rules Committee. And so I got exposed to politics in Washington at the very highest level and I got exposed to media in Washington at the very highest level. And while I worked on Capital Hill, I did a lot of interface with Federal agencies, doing constituent work for the member that I worked for along with doing staff work on the Rules Committee.

One thing that occurred to me when I worked with a lot of the Federal agencies - Medicare issues, Veterans issues, a whole variety of things for people back in my member's home district - is that the Federal bureaucracy seemed very intractable, it's difficult to get things done. And the second thing that occurred to me was that a lot of really good legislation that was getting approved by the Congress at the time, by the time it went through the Federal rule-making process, by the time it got down to the local level it didn't really look like it was supposed to be.

So I decided that if I really wanted to have impact on improving the quality of life for people and making our society more fair and just and equitable, I really needed to do it from the inside instead of from the outside writing about what's wrong because I didn't really think I'd have the knowledge of what solutions to be put in place. And so I decided to go to graduate school, which I did after going back to California. And then I decided to go into local government because I decided that local government was the level where you could have the most impact on improving people's lives. I've been working in local government for 35 years now.

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

It's funny you should ask that because I was just telling someone the other day about sharing that experience. You know when I'm asked to share my most memorable experience it really goes back to my first job I had in local government.

My very first job was in Southern California in the City of Inglewood, and I started out as an entry-level management analyst, although then we were referred to as administrative assistants, but it was equivalent to an analyst. I had an opportunity in my tenure there to put together an application for our City to be a part of the All-America City program. At the time that I worked there in the early 80's, we had transitioned from a predominantly middle class white community to a predominantly middle class african-american community as a result of the desegregation of the Los Angeles Unified School District. People left Inglewood because they didn't want their kids to attend an LA Unified School District site in Inglewood, they didn't want their kids to be bused to other areas in Los Angeles. And so almost overnight there was a dramatic shift in the demographics of that community.

Because it became a predominantly minority community, an African-American community, the perception was that it wasn’t a safe place, which was totally untrue. But because it was a minority community, and because it had some major entertainment venues that contributed to law enforcement issues, vice activity really because at the time there was a racetrack and the Inglewood Forum where the Lakers used to play before they went to the Staples Center. And so there was a lot of gambling and Vice activity that went around and associated with those entertainment venues. But there wasn't crime, like personal crime and the kinds of things that would feed people's perceptions about it being an unsafe place.

So, we did a lot of community building around issues, work with the Lakers on an anti-drug initiative, and we did a lot of things to build community pride. And we used a lot of those things to build an All America City application and the first time we applied we didn’t receive it, but the second time we did. And I had the opportunity to work with the community group that did the presentation at the All America Cities, because it's not about the City doing it, it's really about the community applying. And the City won the second time, it just lifted their sense of pride in who they are and what they had accomplished in their community, and it really transformed the way that the community interacted with the City. I mean we created a real partnership with the community.

For me, at an early stage in my career,
it really established a foundation of how important it is to work with your community, to do civic engagement. And that was before civic engagement became a buzz word.
-Pat Martel                                                                            

Back then we didn't...Government told people the way things were supposed to be, but now we do things differently. For us it was really important at the time to engage the community to help them overcome the sense that they had of their community not being as good as other communities. People were afraid to go there. And so it had a profound effect on me and the way that I view communities and engaging people, and particularly around issues of race and ethnicity, when we have changing demographics, whether people who are immigrants or racial changes occur within a community, how we can do that in a way that builds community and doesn't create polarization.

As someone who has gotten to interact with a wide swath of people throughout the country that work in our profession, what do you think is the biggest issue facing local government agencies today?

Well I think specifically for California, we face a lot of fiscal challenges. You know even though the economy has greatly improved, I think many cities are facing fiscal challenges. We all are continuing to face issues related to funding tensions about Post Retirement Benefits.

And I think we are also facing the need to really prepare for the continuing retirements of senior level managers in communities and having the next generation and the "now" generation be able to take over and assume the roles of those who will be leaving local governments. And some of those, particularly the latter one, affects communities outside of California as well.

I think also, with respect to that last one in filling those vacancies in local government from the wave of baby boomer retirements, I think we really need to focus on building gender balance in our organizations, advancing women in the profession, advancing people of color in the profession, creating greater diversity and inclusiveness in our City organizations to help our city organizations better reflect the changing demographics of our communities in California and across the Country.

You know in the next 20 years the U.S. will become a majority-minority country and our civic institutions, our government institutions are not changing to reflect that diversity as fast as the world around us is changing. And I think we really need to put focused effort on trying to improve our city organizations to include the advancement of women in the profession so that we can create gender balance and gender equity as well. Because I really believe that gender balanced organizations are better organizations. They provide for better decision-making, better team-building, just everything is better when we have gender balance in our organizations as well as diversity and inclusiveness.

It makes a lot of sense. Now I want to go back to one of the things that you mentioned there. You mentioned that the U.S. will become a majority-minority nation I think you said within the next 20 years. But the state has already become a majority-minority state. Do you feel that California has been able to lead the way in some facets. A lot of people think of the state of California as a more liberal or progressive place in certain aspects. Do you feel that we do mirror that in our actions within the profession?

Yes, I do think that California has been a leader in this area. But that's not to say that we can't improve as well. I think there's still room for us to improve. But I think that we have done a lot more.

And I think there's evidence of what we have done and are now exporting with Cal-ICMA, our Cal-ICMA Coaching program. All of the programs that we have established to help people advance in their professions from the encore program and other things that we are doing, presenting webinars for skill building for people to become more knowledgeable and hear from senior level managers on how they have built their skill sets in certain areas. All of these things have contributed to contributed for California to build a strong foundation for future advancement of women and minorities in the profession and to create more inclusive environments.

You know when I say inclusiveness, I mean that in every way. Historically women and people of color haven't had as prominent a role as the majority population, but there's room for everyone, and that's what inclusiveness is about. So we all learn from one another, we all bring our different experiences. But we're all better when we have the ability to interface and interact with people who come from those different experiences. And then, collectively, we are all better prepared to deal with the diversity of those communities that we represent.

But I do think that California has been a leader, and other states have seen that and have become members of Cal-ICMA and so we've exported that and we've allowed other states to rebrand and use our template. But I do think that we are recognized as leaders in this area around the Country.

Now I want to move on to another issues that is surrounding what we are talking about, that 13% mark that has been discussed a lot in local government publications recently. The fact that for the last 30 years women have constituted somewhere in the neighborhood of 13%  of senior leadership within local governments.
That is true, that is very true, and it's something that is a very big concern to many of us in the profession because as I mentioned, you know there's actually empirical evidence of studies that have been done that gender balance in organizations, whether it's in the public sector or in the private sector, provides for stronger organizations because it allows for more effective decision making with a variety of perspectives. It provides for management that is often more inclusive. It provides an opportunity for people to look at the world differently in the day to day activities, whether it's in the private sector in business, in understanding different markets or in the public sector understanding the different communities that we are serving. So I think that achieving gender balance should be a goal of every manager. And that's whether you are a male or a female manager. I think we all need to recognize the value of creating more inclusive environments.

So, if you don't mind my asking, what sort of changes do you personally see being implemented by people within our profession to move past the 13% mark?

Well, I think it’s very important that those who are in a position to do so really need to put forth a strong effort to mentor people, to support their advancement, to provide them with opportunities for stretch assignments that allow them to develop their skill sets and better prepare them for advancement. I think that providing opportunities when, for example, there are transitions that allow them to serve in acting or interim capacity at a senior level manager is a wonderful opportunity in building people's confidence in their ability to lead whether in their organization or in another organization.

I think we have to make a conscious  

and intentional effort to do these things and not just assume that if someone is capable they are going to advance.
-Pat Martel                                                                         

Or take the posture that "well I did it and so they can do it", that it's possible to do it. I mean, of course it's possible for them to do it. It's possible for anyone to do it, but we can make it easier for people.

And even myself, I mean I started out at a time when they first looked at this issue way back in the 80s. And I mean when I looked around my organization, even my very first organization, Chris, there were no women leaders to model. They were all white middle aged men. All good guys, all good guys. And my two mentors who I constantly recognize as being the people who helped me to get where I am today, they were white middle aged men. So, it's not a bad thing, but it could have been very different, where I saw women City Managers and Assistant City Managers and Department Heads in a broad number to be able to seek them out as mentors as well.

I think that we have that ability today because there are more women who are in more visible positions as Managers, as Assistants, and as Department Heads. But I think that we still have more work because while there are some women who have achieved those levels, obviously as the 13% indicates, the needle hasn't moved. So for every one of us who will leave government there's somebody there who will fill her spot, but that doesn't mean that we are increasing our numbers.

Most definitely. So, I want to move on to discussing professional development organizations. I realize that this was some time ago, but how did you first hear about ICMA and what made you want to join?

Well, my first manager who was my mentor, he was the one who said "I want you to join because this is what's going to help you become a better professional". He was the one who took me to my first ICMA conference in San Antonio, the first time that San Antonio hosted the ICMA conference in the 80s.

So, he was a very big supporter. And in fact, you know, he's been retired from the profession for something like 20 years now, and he's still a contributing member to the fund for the professional management in ICMA. He's still a supporter even though there's been all these years where he's been retired. So that's how important it was for him. He strongly encouraged me as well as all of our management staff to be members of ICMA, and their other professional development organizations, you know the American Planning Association, whatever their discipline was. He wanted us to be involved in our professional organizations so that we could become better professional and so that we could develop our skills in whatever areas that we wanted to pursue in terms of senior level management. And so he started out giving me that incentive.

I also was a member of MMASC when I was an analyst, and that was invaluable.

You know, I see that when I go to       
MMASC and 'NC, when I go to meetings, and I recall myself being an early career professional, and networking with my colleagues who were at similar levels, and sharing stories about our respective city organizations. You really value the network, and recognize that you have a lot of resources out there to call upon when you're facing an assignment and you may not know how to approach it.
-Pat Martel                                                                         

You can call people and say "hey, have you ever done this," and "how did you do it?" Everyone's there to help one another and to support people's career advancement.

It's just a way to develop a strong network of colleagues who will follow you throughout your whole career. And so as you advance in the profession and you become a City Manager or an Assistant City Manager those colleagues will remain there. And so, I think that professional development that's provided through our various associations is a crucial part of your development.

One thing that I'm wondering is who this mentor was. Would you mind stating his name?

Absolutely, his name is Paul Eckels.

Sounds like a very good guy.

Oh yes, he was he was a tremendous mentor to me.

So, you've actually already hit upon a couple of the questions that I was going to ask you. I was going to ask if you were ever a member of  MMASC and that's really cool that you were a member of the organization and had a chance to take part in what we do. 

I did and you know, I'm very proud, and I still have it in my office today. I received the Ernie Mariner award, and I was very happy about that, and I still have it in my office. [Editor's Note: Ernie Mariner was the first president of MMASC. The award is now called the President's Award.]

So I was wondering, what is one thing that you most look forward to at the upcoming ICMA conference, besides the bestowing of the presidency upon you?

Well, I'm very excited about it because it's on the West Coast. You know, I started out on the ICMA Board representing the West Coast. And I'm particularly excited that it's going to be in Seattle.

I think we have a really good program that's going to touch upon some important issues in the profession. I'm very happy that we have a very strong series of sessions that are intended to deal with the 13% issue and to encourage the advancement of women in the profession. And those sessions are not exclusive to women, they're open to everyone, but deal with the issues that we've been talking about over the last year about 13%, about what we can do to move that needle and change that. So, I'm excited about that and to participate in that. The ICMA board, at their meeting just before the conference, is going to be taking up the recommendations of the task force on inclusiveness. That is going to be a really exciting conversation that we will be talking about.

And another overarching thing that is going to be going on is... We are just at the beginning of the recruitment process to replace the Executive Director of ICMA. Bob O’Neil will be moving on to his encore career in December of next year. And so, we are starting the recruitment process. We will be soliciting input from all members in Seattle on what they think should be the profile of the new Executive Director to lead ICMA into the future. And you know I'm really encouraging input from people, particularly from early career and mid-career professionals because the individual who is selected to lead ICMA into the future is really going to be leading you all into the future. Dealing with the issues of your particular generations and what you see as priorities into the future, in the next 5 to 10 years, when you all will be advancing in the profession. And so, your input into what that person will be like, and what are the priorities that person should be tasked with when he or she is selected to lead ICMA as the Executive Director are going to be really important.

Would you happen to have any online resources to go about providing that input?
Yes, the recruiters that have been selected... The firm Gov HR is going to be leading the recruitment and selection process with the board. They are going to be doing an online survey as well as in-person interviews with people at a sounding post that they will be setting up within the exhibition hall at the conference. But there will be an opportunity for people to weigh in online as well.

So you already touched upon one of my next questions regarding the importance of mid-career professional development organizations such as MMASC and MMANC. But, I was wondering if you could tell me what are the benefits for City Managers and Chief Administrative Officers to participate in some of these MMASC and MMANC events such our speed coaching, lunch with an executive and we have our own mentorship program geared to young professionals who are just starting to get into the profession, in their first one to two years. What sort of benefits do you see for executives for yourself?

I absolutely feel like it should be a    
part of every executive's ongoing work plan. I think it is part of our responsibility as city managers to support the advancement of all of our emerging leaders.
-Pat Martel                                                                      

You know, I take this very seriously and I say to all of my colleagues, you know, we have a huge responsibility to help prepare those who will take over in the profession. And so, participating in the conferences, participating in speed coaching, attending any events that you all hold. I think it is a very important responsibility of all of us as city managers and assistant city managers. And I strongly encourage everyone to participate in that.

And I do that by modeling the behavior that I think people should be following. And so I go to the coaching events, and I participate in the executive round tables and do everything that I can be an active support of MMANC and MMASC. Someone did it for me when I was a member of those groups coming up in the profession, and now it's my turn to give back.

And that's what I think is key to getting my colleagues, the city managers, assistants and department heads involved, is that someone did something to help you, and now you've got to pay it forward.

So, if you don't mind my asking, should we expect that you will be participating in some of those functions at the conference?
Absolutely, absolutely! I will be at the [MMASC] conference in October. I've agreed to make some remarks about diversity and inclusiveness. I will be a participant in the executive roundtable. I will be a part of it. 

You mention that you will be making some remarks. What sort of things can we expect you to discuss at the MMASC annual conference?

Well, actually some of things that you've asked me about this morning, Chris. I'm going to be talking about advancing the profession and preparing yourself. I'm going to be talking about having a career coach or mentor to work with as means to help broaden your perspective about the profession and to have as a sounding board when you hit some rough spots in your career and you want advice to get through those things.

I'm going to be talking about the importance of gender balance in our organizations, and gender equity and inclusiveness. I will be talking, then, about what the ICMA board will be looking at, with the recommendations it will receive in Seattle on inclusiveness. And I will be highlighting some of those at your event so that people will be aware of what we are going to be focusing on in trying to develop some strategies for members to get better at developing their skills at broadening inclusiveness.

So, I'll be touching on all of those things as important aspects of career development. Because, there's a couple aspects to career development. There's one side, the technical side, to develop your technical skills. But there's the other side to broaden your management and leadership skills. And those soft skills are different that the technical skills. And so I'll be talking about that and giving some examples about how and why developing those soft skills will be so important in the future. Because the higher up that you go in management, when you get to the executive level, you don't really spend time on the technical issues. You have staff who do the technical work for you. You have to be the person who takes the broader perspective. You've got to be the visionary, you've got to set tone and the strategy for things. You've got to really focus on being the leader of an organization, more than being the technician and doing the work. And so, you've got to build those skills at same that you are sharpening your skills as a technical professional.

That makes sense. So, one thing that many past MMASC speakers have discussed at various points is the need to find your super power, that one skill or subset of skills that really differentiates you as a professional from some of your colleagues. What do you think of as your super power, as it were?

Well...If I have one overarching skill, I think it's my ability to engage people, and to build strong teams. I'm a firm believer that I try and get the best and brightest around me. In hiring people and advancing people I like to get people around me who are smarter than me. And I like that because I think that it challenges both them and me.

And so I think that skill that I bring to my job of managing is to bring good people together, to facilitate them and guid them in the areas to deal with problems and issues and come up with solutions, but then basically to let them go with it and not get in the way. Just to help them be successful at it. You know, everyone thinks the city manager is the one who solves all of the problems, but we don't. It's our staff. We bring them together, and you know they're the ones who do the work and really help to create the solutions that we need to solve the big problems. But we have to be able to be like a conductor. You know, not every conductor can make really good music. You have to know how to use all pieces of the orchestra to make wonderful music and to help them achieve their dreams and aspirations, and in so doing to contribute to the success of the organization. And then, you just kind of sit back, and you relish in what they are able to accomplish.

That definitely sounds like an important skill set. Now, you began your career in Southern California, and eventually moved to a position in, I think it was South San Francisco. And, I know many people in local government often struggle with the decision of whether to make the jump from one region of the state or from one state to another in order to take that next step in their careers. As you look back, do you feel there is ever really a good time to make that jump? If so, when do you think that might be?

You know, I don’t know that there's ever a good time. I think that you have to be open...Because you never know when an opportunity is going to come around. For me, when I started out, I spent 10 years in my first city, in Inglewood. But I moved up and was promoted like five times. So, by the time I left Inglewood... I had started out as an entry-level administrative assistant, but I left as Executive Assistant to the City Manager. But at that point, I didn’t forsee the opportunity to advance to an assistant job in that organization. And as much as I really liked the organization and all of the training and development I received, it was time to for me to make a break.

I think sometimes we hesitate in our
careers and we like an organization that we are working for, and so we just keep hoping. "You know that person's going to retire some time, and I'll get the job." And, you know, some time can be a long time!
-Pat Martel                                                                     

So instead of looking outward and thinking that going to another organization and gaining some perspective on what organizations are like, on what other communities are like, what working with other kinds people would be like and how that would be an enhancement to my career. It's something that people miss out on in striving to move up in an organization and to get the top spot.

And so, it can be hard. You know it was hard for me, I had spent 10 years in my first city, but it was 10 years of continual growth and advancement. But at the point where I realized I'm going to have to wait a really long time to become an Assistant City Manager or I can go somewhere else maybe and get that opportunity sooner. And that's why I took the leap and moved to Northern California, because that's where the job was.

And I only planned to be here about five years, but I've been here for like 25 years.

So that leap was a great decision to make then?
Yes, it was, and it did create other opportunities for me to move into other positions, because I have worked for several other cities up here in Northern California.

What is one lesson that you wish you would have learned sooner in your career?

Probably, that what we do is important, but that it's important to have balance in your life. I think too often...I am one of those who really put a lot of emphasis on my career advancement early on, and made sacrifices that in retrospect I probably wouldn’t make today. I would realize today that doing a good job when you're working is very important. Giving 100% every single day is really important, but at the end of the day, it's a job. It doesn’t define us.

What defines us are the people in our lives, you know our families and the other pursuits that we have outside of work. They all define us as well. The job itself does not define us. It's what we do, it's not who we are. And I learned that lesson. But, you know in my early career I think I put too much emphasis on being very focused on my career at the expense of other things. And I think it's really good that today your generation and the next generation put more emphasis on work life balance. And that's a good thing.

It's constantly raised with me, "how do you create work life balance?" Well, I'm probably not the best example of it from my early career, but at this point I understand that, and understand why it's important that people put everything in perspective that it's what we do, it's not who we are.

Because, otherwise, if you get to a point in your career, and it has happened, where if a manager has a falling out with a council, if it's a change of council, if it's politics, it's nothing a manager did, but they transition, you know they lose their job. People often are devastated by that because you know they put so much of themselves into it. That's why I think if we create that balance you know, and recognize it's what we do and not who we are. People are still going to love you when you're not the City Manager anymore. Your family will love. Your friends will love you and know that you're a great person whether you have that job or not. Those are the things I think that we need to remind people early in their careers so that they take it with them on their journey. 

On that note, what is your favorite thing to do to unwind, to go out and do when you're off work?

I love two things. I love music, going to concerts and particularly listening to jazz. And I also really enjoy traveling. I travel as much as I can even though, you know, I travel a lot for business, particularly my ICMA responsibilities. I love traveling just for personal enjoyment, experiencing new places, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, seeing historical sites...I just really love traveling.

But I also really love music. And it's something I can always combine with travel. I always find a jazz club or a concert to see when I'm traveling. So I try and pursue both of those things to balance out my life.

That sounds really cool. So, what is your favorite musical moment or musical act recently that you have seen? Not necessarily new and current, but just something that you have recently seen or heard.
Well, probably... You know I'm sort of old school. And I have a group of friends that are sort of old school music fans like myself. And I've been to a couple of old school concerts. One of them was the Eagles and one was Jackson Browne. I really enjoyed those a lot, because it brought back a lot of memories of my younger days as well as earlier in my career, when I would go to concerts with friends of mine and we'd have a great time. It was sort of a nostalgic thing.

Well that gets to my last questions. What book is on your nightstand?

Oh jeez...I have a whole pile of them. It would depend on whether I was just reading it for enjoyment, or I whether I was reading it for work and for thought. But I just recently picked up...It's not a new book, but it's one that I've been thinking about, particularly when I think about my future and my encore career, for what I would like to do in terms of working with a non-profit. And so, I've been reading Bill Clinton’s book “Giving”, and talking about how philanthropy can help support a lot of the changes that need to happen in the world. And so, that's been on my nightstand.

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