When I Wore a Tie

For nearly 38 years it was a part of the uniform, a tie with a single Windsor knot. Usually blended with an Oxford pinpoint, the combination served as a subtle offset to one of the Hickey Freemans hanging in the closet. Mixing and matching was a daily ritual, including sliding into a black or brown pair of Allen Edmond’s finest. Fully spiffed and ready to go, it was off to oblige the day’s sampling of some 60 California client agencies. After all, an expert must look the part.

The majority of purchasers of my professional services were local governments. Universities, real estate developers, retailers, and non-profits made up the balance. Having worked in public, private, and university settings, I had accumulated the full array of skill sets and responsibilities appurtenant to multiple career ladders: city manager, director (executive and otherwise), managing principal, vice president, senior consultant, advisor; I had even been president of a municipal 504 (c) (4) economic development corporation. The populations of my local government agencies ranged in size from a few thousand to a few million. Whether in inner-city, suburban, or agriculturally based rural environments, I didn’t miss much of California’s political, socio-economic, and ethnic topography.

Assignments were as variable as the clientele. From cities of all shapes and sizes to boutique consulting firms, the nation’s largest big-box membership retailer, and a billion-dollar residential development company, I learned that technical and financial savvy was just as critical as managerial and leadership skills. Consultants don’t just direct, they do. Balancing long-term strategic planning with short-term political and transactional necessities required an inherent understanding of each. Strategies required vision, patience, perseverance, and the long-term buy-in of decision-makers. Tactical applications were dictated by the demands of the moment. The latter usually took precedence.

Wearing my private sector hat, uh, tie, I negotiated, developed public financing structures, prepared real estate development feasibility studies, conducted pro forma analyses, and provided project management services to more than $4 billion (present value at the time) in industrial, commercial, and residential development projects. Still, there were other assignments including organizational assessments, executive recruitment, interim management staffing services, municipal financial workouts, site-specific fiscal/economic impact reports, and market-based strategic economic development plans. For me, the rewards came with the variety of assignments, not through the familiarity of a single workplace. It was about breadth as well as depth. 

Two of my greatest opportunities came while I served as an executive team member in the establishment of two newly incorporated California cities: As the first community development director and later, as the second city manager in one, and the founding city manager in the other. Very few in the profession get the chance to pour a municipal foundation. I got the opportunity twice. It was creating not amending.

Still, there were other ways to grow, to contribute, and find professional satisfaction. I had an avocation. Overlapping my day job, I was an adjunct instructor in graduate programs in public policy and administration. Since classes normally clocked in at 6:00 p.m., I entered the classroom more wrinkled than spiffed. Between 2004 and 2018, I facilitated the education of more than 1,000 graduate students in 50+ sections in the theory and practice of public administration, public policy, urban management, sustainability, globalization, and economic development. Mentoring, serving on advisory boards, writing for academic journals, and developing classes and curriculums came with the territory. Whether sitting at the dais, pontificating at the podium, or lecturing from where else, the lectern, I was a card-carrying member of the knife-and-fork speaking circuit. Hardware, plaques, and gavels, were collected along the way. Sleep deprived, I guess some people just like to hear themselves talk.

My suit and tie time is over. That was then. This is now. There are other ways to contribute that are not directly related to my past professional self. Teaching has become the vocation, with some volunteer board responsibilities on the side. It’s now about being appreciative of where I am, staying engaged, and paying it forward. Call it another graduation where the judgments, approval, or even the accolades of others are neither solicited nor required. In my own way, I’m hoping to continue to make a difference, trying to make the lives of those around me just a little bit better. Since the seat belt sign is off, I am free to move about the cabin. Besides, my current wardrobe requirements have been somewhat reduced. Depending on the day and time, even shirts with collars are optional. And the shoes? My God–Real comfort at last.

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