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Looking down on downtown Greeley at sunset.

Building Greeley's Future: Alumna Kelli Johnson's Journey to Assistant City Manager

Colorado local Kelli Johnson, ’01, has spent time in and around Greeley since she was a child.Now, as the assistant city manager for the city of Greeley, Johnson has a vested interest in Greeley’s future, and has the ability to affect change.

As the Assistant City Manager for the city of Greeley, Kelli Johnson, ’01, plays a crucial role in the city's administration. Her responsibilities span a wide range of tasks, from strategic planning, to community relations, to operational oversight of multiple departments that impact quality of life in Greeley. She is a problem solver and thoughtful leader. In her role, Johnson is helping build the foundation for Greeley to thrive down the line. 

“I'm finding that I love recognizing where there are challenges and problems that I can help solve because when I help solve something, it means I'm generally making my community better,” said Johnson. 

Johnson sees many possibilities for Greeley. The opportunities available to the city now determine how the community will grow and what it will look like in the future, a task that Johnson does not take lightly. Greeley is her home; she has a family here and plans to be around to see how her decisions affect the city. Having spent time here throughout her life, Johnson has a deep commitment to the community. 

Growing up in Lyons, Colorado, Johnson first moved to Greeley to attend the University of Northern Colorado (UNC). She appreciated that UNC was far enough from home, but not too far away. Her connection to Weld County was formed early on as she was active in Weld County 4-H during her childhood. Choosing to participate in the 4-H program her mother founded when her family lived in Fort Lupton before she was born. When it was time to move for college, her transition to Greeley was easy. 

“I loved coming to UNC,” Johnson said, “It felt like home because I was so familiar with Greeley. I knew that college was an investment in myself, and I was eager to explore the variety of classes and programs that would ultimately lead me to uncover what my passions were. I quickly found my home at UNC, and ultimately the love of my life.” 

Public relations was Johnson’s first passion, and after speaking with her advisor, she knew following her interest would equip her with skills that played to her strengths and help her toward a career that was a natural fit. Earning a degree in Public Relations and Advertising with a minor in Communication Studies, Johnson felt she had, as she put it, “a package of 21st century communication skills.” She gained a foundational understanding of branding, advertising, public relations, marketing, and both written and spoken communication which prepared her well for her career.  

Even before Johnson earned her college degree, her work experience gave her a sense of direction. Starting in high school, Johnson worked for McDonald’s. Her experience there led her to realize that she was bound to be a leader.  

“When I tell people I used to work for McDonald's, [they react] like, ‘Really? You worked at a fast-food restaurant?’ And I respond, I sure did. It's part of what shaped me, and I'm really proud of that because it taught me things you don’t learn in a classroom – like kindness and patience to all sorts of people, how to coach and lead, and how to run a business – most importantly my experience there made me realize who I wanted to be and the type of things that were of interest to me,” said Johnson. 

From her time working in McDonald’s restaurants, Johnson went on to do a college internship with their corporate office in Denver. By the time she left McDonald’s Corporation, Johnson was one of the youngest general managers to run two billion-dollar restaurants.  

Paying her way through college, Johnson wanted to use her degree, and that’s why she pivoted to working in libraries. She started as a communication and branding coordinator. Over the 17 years that she stayed with the High Plains Library District, she built the team from just herself to seven full-time staff and led them through a full rebranding of the organization.  

After the loss of her mother in 2016, Johnson made the decision to go back to school, earning her master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Regis University in 2019. She knew it was time for the next challenge, so when the city of Greeley decided to centralize their marketing and communication efforts, she applied to be the director who would centralize the 17 staff across five departments. Eight months after she accepted the position, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Navigating an unprecedented global pandemic and how to communicate with the public after barely dipping her toes into her new position was a monumental task. Coordinating with public health experts to define what rules and regulations should be in place, and who should enforce them, was a new experience for everyone involved. It was a long year and a half working with a very small team of people designated as essential employees to run crisis communications. 

When the current city manager for the city of Greeley took over in an interim role, he asked Johnson to support him as his chief of staff. After they both spent seven months in interim positions, he was offered the city manager position permanently, and he asked Johnson to be his chief of staff. More recently, Johnson was promoted to assistant city manager to take on a larger portfolio overseeing the Communication and Engagement Department, the Emergency Management Department, the Government Affairs Department and the Culture, Parks and Recreation Department. 

Johnson’s journey to assistant city manager was a long and successful one with humble beginnings. In her eyes, all experience is worthwhile. Every opportunity can uncover an individual niche or area to make an impact. 

“Expose yourself to things that you may or may not have a long-term vested interest in because they're the things that are going to shape you into the type of leader or career professional that you want to be in life,” said Johnson. 

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