Institutional Knowledge with Cal Horton, Part 2

As a part of the Institutional Knowledge project, we are recording the wisdom and experience of retiring and retired leaders in local government. If you know someone who could add something to this project, let me know! You can reach out to me on TwitterLinkedIn or send me an email.

Part I


As a part of this project, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet some incredible government leaders. It was a real treat to interview Cal Horton about his many years as a public servant. He had so much advice and wisdom to share with me as I begin my path to public service. This is the second part of my interview; here’s the link to first part

Learn more about Cal Horton – The Takeaway with Cal Horton, Former Chapel Hill Town Manager and Guidepost #4 – Cal Horton, Town of Chapel Hill (NC)


What was the worst career advice you ever received? The best?

I don’t remember receiving any particularly bad career advice.

The best career advice I ever received was from Don Hayman. Based on my interest in his class on municipal administration, as it then was called, he recommended that I apply for a summer internship with the City of Charlotte. It became the beginning of my career in local government management.

Would you encourage a student to work in local government?

I thought that President John F. Kennedy was speaking directly to me when he said in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” His words were my original motivation to work in government service.

I believe that any student who feels similarly motivated can find a place to make their contribution somewhere in a federal or state agency, a city or county government, a service authority, or a non-profit organization that provides community services. Every combination of talent and enthusiasm is needed. Every set of skills, training and education can be put to good use. The needs are great.

The primary reward of service in local government is the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a better life for other people. In most places, the compensation is decent and the work is respected. And, you meet and make friends with other good people who share your interests. It makes for a good life.

What is your advice for an early career professional when they experience challenges?

Find a quiet place and spend some time developing a written description of the challenges you believe you are facing. Be explicit and precise. Defining challenges helps reduce anxiety and makes it easier to focus on developing appropriate responsive behaviors.

Make an assessment of how your personal values, principles, and ethics should guide your behavior and the development of options. Consider, also, the norms of the organization in which you work and the interests of others
who may be affected.

Discuss your thinking with a mentor or trusted colleague and solicit feedback. After reflection, write a list of key actions that you will take to begin addressing the challenges. Begin work, making adjustments based on results and changing conditions.

If you could go back in time and do anything differently, what would it be and why? 

I have been asked this question before and always give the same answer: I would spend less time at work and more
time with my family; I would spend less time in the office and more time in the woods.

What project/accomplishment of your career are you most proud of? Why?

 I have answered this question in multiple forums and usually mention several things rather than one. My answer changes from time to time. I may finally have figured out what really is most important to me and offer a new answer.

Interns. During my time in Chapel Hill I was able to provide full-time, part-time, summer, paid, or unpaid internships to 55 undergraduate and graduate students. About half of them were women. Some of the students likely never worked in local government again, but they understand it better because of their experience. Some of them have made their careers in public service. A few have become city or county managers. I believe that all of them are better off because of their internship experience. I also believe that my most lasting contribution likely is helping many of these young people find their way to the ineffable joy derived from public service.

Anything else to share?

I will share advice from Don Hayman, who was my teacher, mentor, and friend from 1966 until his death at the age of 91 in 2010. He was famous for admonishing his students to be careful about their writing. When he retired, he gave several of us small postal scales. On each was affixed the message: “As you weigh your words, may they be clear, concise and free of ambiguity – caring, giving hope, and fostering peace and love.”


Have you learned something new as part of your career in local government? Or do you know someone who has had an outstanding career in local government? We want to hear about it! Contact Jacob Johnson to nominate someone for the #InstitutionalKnowledge series: Twitter | LinkedIn email