The View From the Interview

Published Friday, April 11, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

It looked like we were in for a long afternoon. The first of the three finalists for Eugene city manager had brought along a series of overhead transparencies to teach us what makes a good city manager. “Integrety” (sic) was first and foremost.

Never mind that he was using 1970’s technology, or that he never quite managed to get the projected images to fit properly on the screen, or that he began with a misspelling. The candidate was given five minutes to tell three dozen civic leaders why he’d be the best city manager for Eugene, and he used most of that time to give a presentation suitable for a middle school Career Day.

“I’m afraid this is the best we’re going to get,” moaned one prominent business leader, as we took a break between candidates. As a university town, we’re used to getting better than we deserve for many things. The usual markers for a metro area are skewed when a prominent university dominates the scene — many of the most impressive buildings are not on the tax rolls and many of the people milling around them are not wage earners. Our civic pride “eyes” are bigger than our tax base “stomach.”

Our nationwide search for a new city manager attracted over 70 applicants, but would the quality match the quantity? We worried.

The mayor and city council chose three dozen citizens to interview each finalist for an hour in a Hilton ballroom the day before they would be conducting their own interviews. All the councilors received copies of our feedback forms, so they could gauge how each candidate might be received by the larger community.

“Interview” might be a slightly misleading term in this case. We each would be asked to submit a single question in writing. City staff would then collect all the questions, eliminate duplicates or combine overlapping questions. They would then choose 15 questions at random, and those 15 would be read to each candidate by a city staff moderator, who would also time their answers so that the process could be completed in the hour allotted. If there was time for appropriate follow-up questions, that would be our only opportunity to speak.

The morning before the interview, I got a phone call from Lauren Chouinard, Human Resource Manager for the city of Eugene. “We’re not going to ask your question,” he informed me. “It’s too weird.”

To Chouinard’s credit, he listened to my entreaty and relented. It was included after all. “Our zinger,” as Chouinard later described it.

My question was this: “You have three dozen citizen participants in the room with you this afternoon. Choose one, at random. What’s the one question you’d most like to ask this participant? After you ask that question, but before they answer it, tell us what you expect their answer might be.”

I figured my fellow questioners would cover the important issues of substance. I wanted to see if each candidate could ask questions as skillfully as they answer them, reasoning that nobody is smart enough to have all the answers. If there’s one thing you can expect from Eugene, it’s the unexpected. Asking good questions is how they’ll learn quickly about whatever surprises they encounter.

The asking was telling.

One candidate asked a generic question about citizen voices being heard, but then rebutted the citizen’s answer with what he thought was the correct answer.

Another candidate posed a question for which he knew the answer already, using it to show how he had “done his homework” and that he was well-versed in issues that matter to this community.

And one candidate asked something like “what’s the most pressing issue on the minds of regular people that the city can and should address?” He then admitted he had no idea what answer Ken Tollenaar might give. Tollenaar said people are concerned about pot holes, and the two of them began a conversation about street maintenance and public works funding, right then and there.

Jon Ruiz displayed in that interaction a curious mind, a willingness to engage others, and a confidence that doesn’t rely on being the smartest person in the room. He starts work Monday.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a marketing, media and management consultant to local and civic-minded businesses. He blogs and welcomes your weird questions.