What I’m watching: NFL Football
What I’m reading: Change Management: The People Side of Change by Jeffrey M. Hiatt and Timothy J. Creasey
What I’m listening to: Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis
During our careers, we all experience disappointments and failures. During these times, we often feel isolated and alone. Perhaps if we were to share these experiences with our colleagues, it could remove the sting. Maybe we, as professionals, can do a better job of helping each other through these tough times. Certainly discussing our disappointments makes us vulnerable and takes us out of our comfort zones, but in leaving our comfort zones we can experience personal and professional growth.
A friend and colleague was recently a finalist for a city manager position, and unfortunately for my colleague, the position was offered to another candidate. I sent him an e-mail with words of encouragement in which I shared an experience of my own where I did not get a position that I had my heart set on. It was a huge blow, but the result was that I reflected on my strengths and weaknesses and created a professional development plan to fill in the areas where I lacked knowledge and experience. Two years later, I got a position I could not even have imagined at the time. I remain in that position and can’t imagine myself anywhere else.
Later, my friend commented to me that as professionals we don’t often reach out to each other at times of public disappointments or defeats when that can be one of the most important times for professionals to show we care about each other and are concerned. He relayed his appreciation for my call and for a past call for an ICMA Range Rider (now Senior Advisor). As we live our lives in a fishbowl, it is important for us to be as supportive of each other in times of disappointment as we are when we are celebrating achievements by offering congratulations.
Think about it, we often tout our accomplishments through blogs, articles, conference sessions, and in our mentoring and coaching of other professionals. Rarely do we make a point to focus on those moments in our careers when we have felt crushed, either because a project didn’t work out as planned, the politics in our town had turned against us, or because we have had to face the rejection of not getting a job we were sure was perfect for our skill sets. Yet these are the moments in our careers where we can learn the most meaningful lessons, experience the greatest personal and professional growth, and share the lessons with peers and emerging professionals that will help them feel less alone. Conversely, when our friends and colleagues experience these disappointments, we often tiptoe around the disappointment because we feel ill-equipped to discuss disappointments.
As we all know, city management is one of the few professions where being fired is not a stain on your career. We even have conference sessions for members in transition. But there are many of us who have not gone through the experience of losing our jobs, but who have experienced other career disappointments and failures. Perhaps we need to find forums to encourage sharing these experiences more. Let’s face it when we find out that someone we deeply respect has dealt with the same, it may make us feel less of a failure for not getting that job or being told by an elected official that the town needs to go in a different direction.
In reflecting, I have found that two distinct career disappointments changed the course of my career for the better. About 20 years ago, I was working as a planner in a state agency. I was asked by another division to apply for a planner position in that division. Two members of the interview panel wanted me in that position. I walked into the interview with only one person to convince, the program administrator who I had never met. I bombed the interview. It was quite possibly my worst interview performance ever. My friend, who was one of the interviewers came to me later and said, “What happened?” I asked her to do me a favor. I took her to lunch with the request that she tell me with brutal honesty everything I did wrong. About a year later, the job that would move my career forward came open, and I feigned the confidence I lacked in that prior interview and focused on all those areas where I failed just a year prior. I got that job, and it became my springboard into local government.
Fifteen years later, when I didn’t get that job that I knew was meant for me, I allowed myself a few tears, and then I reflected. Where do I want my career to go, and what do I need to do to get there? I went to my city manager and human resources director, and I told them both that I want to be a city manager. We discussed the areas I needed to focus my training and experience, I joined ICMA’s Mid Career Management Institute, and I prepared myself for the path ahead. Two years later, as the political climate in my municipality became untenable, I applied for a city manager position in a town I had loved for decades. Learning all of those lessons from prior disappointments, I got the job. It turns out that the position has been a great fit, and that my skills and background were the perfect match for the challenges facing this beautiful coastal town. Had I not experienced the challenges and disappointments along the way, I am confident that I would not be where I am today.
I am sure that many of you have similar stories. And think about it. In those moments of disappointment or even failure, you felt alone and isolated. I urge you to pay it forward. Share your failures and disappointments, as well as the lessons learned, with your colleagues. Then perhaps they will not feel so alone when they go through something similar.
Ann Marie Townshend is the City Manager for Lewes, Delaware. A Baltimore native, Ann Marie moved to Delaware in 1994 to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware. After graduating with a Masters of Public Administration in May 1996, Ann Marie began work for the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation as an Outdoor Recreation Planner. In 2002, she went to work for the Delaware Office of State Planning Coordination as a circuit rider planner in Sussex County. In 2006, she became the Director of Planning and Inspections for the City of Dover, where she served until coming to Lewes in 2017. Ann Marie has served as president of the Delaware Chapter of the American Planning Association. As a professional planner, she has been actively involved in issues such as housing, downtown redevelopment, sustainability and climate change, bicycle and pedestrian planning, comprehensive planning, and ordinance development.
Ann Marie is a founding member of Delaware Women Leading Government and is currently serving as president. She is also a founding member and professional mentor for the University of Delaware’s ICMA Student Chapter. Ann Marie is an active member of the American Planning Association and the International City/County Management Association. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2003. She and her husband Michael are blessed with two teenage sons.