At this writing, it’s uncertain as to whether McKinney’s City Council will name Jose Madrigal as Interim City Manager in the wake of former City Manager Jason Gray’s departure. For now, the 34-year-old Madrigal remains Deputy City Manager appointed to the role of Acting City Manager.
Recently, TSB sat down with Madrigal to get some answers to a few questions about his role and his philosophy.
TSB: Why do you feel you are suited to take over the reigns as Acting City Manager for the City of McKinney?
JM: I’m a history major. Knowing your past is what guides you to your future. I have 12 years experience in municipal government and it’s been a variety of experiences. I’ve served in a cities of 50 to 60 thousand (people) to a city of 200 thousand; in high growth cities to more mature cities and I’ve held different positions, so I’ve kind of run the gamut. One of the themes that goes through (my experience) and helps me in McKinney is that each of these cities went through a kind of a transition. I was an Assistant City Manager in Irving when they went through the process (of a city manager leaving) and you feel what that uncertainty could be. I think that’s what gives me the ability to handle the interim role. I think I know what some of these employees are feeling. It’s prepared me well as to handle different departments.
I kind of call myself a “swiss army knife” of departments. I think of every department you have in a city, I have gotten to manage that somehow.
TSB: What do you think is the most difficult challenge of managing in McKinney?
JM: The employees have seen change. The most difficult part is when you tell them, “We’re gonna move forward, we’re gonna be there.” They comment back that they have seen city managers come and go and there’s so much change.
In any organization change happens. It’s always scary, but it always happens. What I’ve been driving home (with employees) is that the council is taking their time (deciding on a new direction). They (council), too, want stability, they, too, want something that lasts for the long term. I think that’s where we see the difference. They (the employees) understand, they get it. They think, “We don’t want this process of change happening all the time.”
We are doing this a little differently. After the transition (the city manager leaving) I went to all departments to have an impromptu staff meeting to explain the changes and ask if they had any questions. There’s a lot of follow up that has to go into this. You have to walk the talk.
Hopefully, they (the employees) see that we’re gonna be ok. What makes McKinney great is the employees. They continue to build the city and make it awesome.
TSB: How do you go about building trust with city staff and the public?
JM: You start with the little things. You start by being open and honest, by really giving them the answers that they are probably seeking and not trying to dodge it. If you can’t answer it, you say, “I can’t answer that.” I think it’s about always being up front.
Then just follow up. Working with Rob (Daake, Deputy City Manager) we’ve been trying to hammer home that we are going to be open, and then that we will follow up – that’s probably the most important part. I want employees to know that they will get the information they requested.
TSB: The average tenure of a city manager is four years. I assume you will want to become a city manager, if not here, somewhere else. What are your feelings about going into becoming a city manager?
JM: I think the best analogy is it’s like being a head coach of a football team. You walk into it knowing the odds are stacked against you. You’re not usually going to be that person who will be around 25 years. But I think we all go into it hoping that this is it. You can do it. I think we all look at it like ‘I’m gonna be here the rest of my career’, understanding that the odds are, it will be four years. I’m very aware, but sometimes the time just comes. It’s a business. It’s a business relationship. It’s not usually so much about the person as it is that councils want something else – maybe a change in philosophy. As a city manager you end up saying no a lot, so if you continue to do that enough times, it weighs on you. Local government is tough. You really make decisions that effect peoples lives – zoning, streets, etc. It’s a lot easier to run a city when the economy is growing and healthy. It’s a lot tougher when it’s not.
TSB: How do you critique yourself as far as your ability to make decisions and you philosophy as a manager?
JM: My philosophy is that I have professional experts in each one of their fields. Our department heads are professionals in their fields, with years of experience. My goal is not to be them, but to listen to them, to hold that advice close. I see my role as bridging their knowledge and experience and making sure it connects with a council who is representing the community in order to make sure things go the direction the community wants. My management style is that I give a lot of freedom to departments. I allow them to make decisions and allow them to be part of the process. I like inclusiveness, but also understand that the reason it (an issue) comes to the city manager’s office is because a decision needs to be made. When it comes to this office, it’s because it’s a difficult choice. At the end of the day, you look at it and see what’s fair, what makes sense and what lines up with council’s vision.
As far as critique, I’m hardest on myself. You’re going to have to make decisions and recommendations to council. I do the best I can.
Communication is number one to me. Being able to listen and talk to people, to find out what is important to them – what’s important to the people, to the staff, and to council, is important to me. I think the more you communicate, the more people buy in.
TSB: At age 34, is it weird for you to manage people who are 10, 15, 20 years older? How do you handle that?
JM: First time this came to my mind is when I was in Cedar Park (North of Austin) At 26 years old I was Assistant City Manager and I was dealing with departments heads who were probably 30 years older. At the first staff meeting, I could tell they liked my work, but then it was, ‘Jose is going to start giving us direction’. You could see it in their eyes – what do you know kid? The only way you get through that is to take them seriously, don’t run over them. Get their information, and then learn to speak intelligently about a subject.
I’ve been blessed to have just great mentors – people who have been considered legends in city management. They sure did point out when I messed up. They tell me that one of my biggest strengths is that I listen.
After about eight years of being at the executive level, I’ve been through a lot. Now I’m perfectly comfortable in any type of role. Age is one thing I can’t change.
I also credit my mom. My mom continuously drove me. I graduated high school at 17, undergrad at 21, and started grad school at 22.
As long as you have what’s best for the community at heart, how can you go wrong?
TSB: You mentioned your mentors, is there one thing that was impressed upon you by one of your mentors?
JM: I have two…
1. Craig Farmer in Lubbock, who hired me as an intern said, ‘You know what government is? It’s this big ball of water. People sometimes come in and try to make government move – make it change and how you do that is these small little pitter pats.’ Because if you come in and push really hard at a ball of water, it comes right back at you at the same speed. If you want to get there, you can’t make drastic changes. You have to mold it, push it gently in different directions, step by step.
2. A former city manager in Dallas, Ted Benavides, had a formula which was ‘You will walk with kings, yet you are not one.’ For those who are assistant city managers or city managers, when you are with a council member, that relationship can get blurred because they ask you for advice, they bring you in on things, but as a way to check yourself, you are not one of them. Always make sure you keep that balance. At the end of the day, I still report to them and they are the decision makers.
TSB: Has council given you any sense of how long you will be “acting city manager”?
JM: I think they are still trying to figure out what’s best long term for McKinney. They have been great to work with. They haven’t given me a time frame, but they keep us informed. Rob (Daake, Deputy City Manager) and my job is to keep it all going.
TSB: How much have your day to day responsibilities changed?
They have gone more from the day to day operations to communication internally and externally, meeting with staff, with the community and trying to tell people what’s going on. A few weeks ago, I was looking at departmental goal and throwing goals out and seeing how we were going to be more effective.
Rob (Daake) and I have never worked in a silo or been territorial. We have the ability to move into each other’s territory and do what needs to get done. We usually work by project and divide it up that way.
TSB: How do you find personal balance?
JM: I’m a big fan of working out, although right now I’m trying to figure out how to fit that in.
Balance really starts out with my wife Devon. She works for the City of Arlington as a performance analyst. She understands the life of a city manager. We understand that time is critical, so we try to combine everything into a family event. If we are cooking dinner, it’s the family cooking dinner. Everything is just what we can fit in.
A peek into the personal:
Introvert or extrovert: Definitely an extrovert. I love people and love the social interaction of people. I love talking (Madrigal says with a laugh).
Are you a “do it myself” kind of guy or do you prefer to empower? I like to empower better. I can go either way, but there’s nothing better than helping someone to achieve.
Soccer or baseball? I love soccer, college football and basketball. I played basketball. Soccer is a sport that I got interested in later in life. Real Madrid is my favorite team.
Dancing or listening to music? Listening to music. My favorite band right now is probably Kings of Leon.
Salty or sweet? Salty for sure, though I did give up sweet things for Lent. I love Jolly Ranchers and Sweet Tarts, but if I had to pick a favorite food, it would probably be nachos.
Married 10 years in April, Madrigal says his favorite date night with his wife would be going out to eat.