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I Have to Ask: A Dozen Lessons Learned from 20 Years in Public Service

Posted on September 23, 2021


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In this series, guest columnists reflect on one of three prompts provided by ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Lydia Rossiter, Senior Utility Consultant at Moonshot Missions, writes about 12 lessons she’s learned in public service. Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn.

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I sit here after wrapping up 20 years in government service at both the state and local level, surrounded by the evidence of my past projects and awards, along with challenges and struggles. While my next step is to go into the consultant and non-profit worlds, I consider my public service career ongoing. And as I look back over the last 20 years, I think about all the valuable lessons I have learned from others in that time.

  1. All politics starts at the local level. My first job was as a field representative for a California state senator. The Honorable Byron Sher is a giant in California politics, particularly in the arena of environmental protection. His expertise and influence were intimidating at first, and I am sure that I did not fully understand the extent of it at the time. I came away from that experience understanding that all politics and government starts with the day-to-day issues and challenges that people are facing as they go about their lives. Thanks, Byron and Mike.
  2. Push for innovation, no matter the circumstance. My time with the San Jose Mayor’s Office taught me to be aggressive in looking for innovation even in mundane circumstances. The momentum of business as usual can perpetuate inefficiencies in government, from fire service to building permits to parks and recreation. Even if innovation cannot be achieved in all instances, using a standard practice to push for it means that it is looked at every time. Thanks, Ron, RD and Joe.

  3. Informational interviews can be hugely beneficial.  I remember reading in one of my career books that informational interviews are helpful, but I did not really understand how much until I joined my regional government association. This was hard, especially since I am an introvert, but I gritted my teeth and asked anyway. Throughout my 20 years, everyone said yes. In my experience, people are always (always!) willing to talk about what they do, and asking folks what they do and do not like about their career is a great way to have a meaningful conversation and market yourself in a low-pressure way. Thanks, MMANC.

  4. Get a coach, be a coach. The venerable Frank Benest was one of my earliest coaching experiences, and it changed me forever. Having a coach provides a much-needed outside perspective and the reassurance that you are not alone. Public service is rewarding but also very frustrating at times. There is no need to go it alone. Being a coach also provides perspective both to the coachee and the coach themselves. Some of my most rewarding successes have been coachees’ Aha! moments and their resulting successes. Thanks, Frank.

  5. Network, network, network. Network both when you need it and when you do not need it… yet. Because you cannot predict the future, you cannot be certain when you will next need to call on that network, plus strengthening it when you are not in need allows you to help others and forge relationships not based solely on what you plan to ask for. I can directly attribute three of my job offers to my networking efforts. My first notable one was the Santa Cruz Police PIO wanting to connect to know more people in the area. I ended up working for him. Thanks, Zach.

  6. Career ladders can be curvy. I know exactly where I was when I first really absorbed this lesson. Jennifer Phillips gave a presentation at a regional government association conference about how various stretch assignments, transfers and new positions, gave her a rich, broad approach to solving problems. She was the director of the animal shelter at one time, folks. That is a hard job. Another Aha! moment which gave me great perspective on how the ladder does not have to go straight up to be both fulfilling and provide meaningful experience for advancement. And that advancement is defined by you as it’s your career! Thanks, Jennifer.

  7. Take care of and work on yourself. Being perceptive about what we need to work on individually can be a blindspot. It was for me, certainly. I have written elsewhere about my struggles to build resilience and find the right tools to combat stress (link to previous ELGL article). My mantra became “You are your own best advocate!” during this time. Thanks, Dr. Joan and George.

  8. Leave if the work environment becomes toxic. This one, I have to confess, I did not learn about before I did it. I did, however, hear from many people who I respected highly that they had done the same after I announced my departure. Years later, it was confirmed by that boss, who spoke up to say “You did the right thing, my friend!” and explain how the work environment continued to go downhill. If you are someone who needs to hear that it is perfectly alright to leave a toxic job in order to save your health, then I am telling you right now. Thanks, me and all the others who spoke up to confirm my decision.

  9. Empower your staff. As a first-time supervisor and admitted perfectionist, it was a little tough to give work and control of that work over to others. Part of learning is making mistakes, and a fantastic boss allows you room to make those mistakes and grow from them. It also avoids fear of recrimination and the urge to hide mistakes as they become bigger. Preferably, this management style also includes lots of laughter and chocolate. Thanks, Beth.

  10. Sometimes an 18-month plan is better than a five-year plan. This lesson and the next one are from prominent authors (see previous comment about introversion). I always felt like I had to have a five-year plan for my career. When I was asked in interviews about where I wanted to be in five years, I alway felt like I was inventing the answer. Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft taught me about focusing on 18 months instead, and I found that very freeing. Thanks, Barbara.

  11. Listen to your callings and take leaps towards them. Tara Mohr’s Playing Big is another of my favorite books. I used to listen to it on my commute and my favorite part is her chapter on callings. She describes them as “dispatches from the universe about what work is yours to do” and I whole-heartedly agree. In fact, that is what I am setting off to do now. Thanks, Tara.

  12. Keep your integrity. If you are asked to do something that your gut tells you is not right, you need to speak up, and if nothing changes, you need to walk out the door. Once your integrity is compromised, it is gone. This applies to unethical, unjust and grossly unfair behavior as a leader. I wish I could say that I have not encountered this in my government career, but I have, and I do not regret walking away. Thanks to all my professional colleagues who understand the importance of holding the line for the benefit of us all.

Lydia is departing government service to join Moonshot Ventures, a B corp that helps water utilities that serve economically stressed and underserved communities identify and customize replicable strategies to deliver better services at lower cost.

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