This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado. Read Matt’s writing about understanding privilege, and understanding identity.
If you are reading this blog, chances are you are a local government professional interested in more equitable, diverse, and representative local governments.
For this, I want you to stand out at meetings and conferences, to shine and make an impression on those you meet in order to further your good work. This post will offer some approaches to do just that.
I will use how I met ELGL and ended up being a regular writer for them as my example.
Be okay if you don’t stand out
The first approach to standing out in a positive light is… not standing out. It’s not trying to make that one remark that gets everyone to nod their head or look over impressed by the wisdom or insight you just made.
It’s common to put that pressure on ourselves both personally and professionally, and the added weight of fighting for disadvantaged groups only exacerbates it. However, it’s not realistic to stand out at every meeting, every session, every topic.
Roads, water, land use, capital improvements projects, law enforcement, recreation, technology, these only skim the surface of the sorts of topics we come across as local government professionals. It’s not our destiny to be masters of each, to inspire and embolden every time.
It’s all right many times to say nothing at all, to listen and learn and not undermine our credibility by trying too hard.
I met Kirsten, ELGL’s Executive Director, at the CCCMA (Colorado City and County Manager’s Association) Conference this year. I attended several sessions, most of which I didn’t say anything. Most sessions I was content to be a spectator without any need to prove myself, prove a point, or prove anything at all.
Define and succeed at your “role”
When we step into a meeting, how often do we really ask ourselves “what is my role, what am I really here to do?” Are you a decision-maker? Then decide and decide well. Are you an analyst? Analyze superbly.
If you are part of the audience, then be a good audience member. So often we assume our roles without really thinking on it, whether our roles shift and change depending on what kind of meeting we’re at, who’s attending, our part in the project or program being discussed.
We also tend to romanticize stepping outside the box or ignoring our assigned position to impress. It can work, but it’s risky.
If we didn’t do our own task first whether it was to listen, to inform, to facilitate, to support, it can take away our credibility for what we’re trying to accomplish above and beyond.
During ELGL’s joint presentation, I showed up a little late. I quietly entered, found a seat in the back corner, and didn’t cause a distraction. I listened. I learned. When it was time to ask questions, I asked a question concerning how to initially approach skeptics about equity, what works and what doesn’t. It was a question that was relevant to the presentation, a question I was legitimately curious about, and one that allowed me to listen and learn more as was my role as an attendee.
Help others “win”
What turns people’s heads, what inspires others, and what people remember isn’t when we win, but when we help them win. Of course, whatever winning is will depend on the person.
Rather than focus on how our project was so successful, focus on helping them make their project even better. Rather than see how we can further our own aims, even if those aims are selfless and altruistic, look for ways to assist the people right in front of us.
Sometimes we do need to “win”. Sometimes we have to focus on our own goals. If we want to make that lasting impression though, others need to win as well.
I met Kirsten afterwards, said I appreciated the session she gave. I briefly mentioned a little of my background, a couple things I’m planning on doing, and then I told her to let me know if there’s any way I can help. I didn’t try to wow Kirsten with some sort of project or life experience. I didn’t see if I could get her to help me with any ambitions I have. I offered myself as someone who would help ELGL “win”, to be an asset for the organization. It was then Kirsten who recommended writing for the website.
(And to be fully transparent, go ahead and re-read my opening. I’m very intentionally using this approach in this blog post.)
The Three Questions
On a final note, I’ll leave us with the three questions I try to ask myself before I pipe up during a meeting or other professional gathering.
- Is it a good idea? (I come up with terrible ideas as readily as the next person. So, so many flounders. I try to filter those out.)
- Is it something different? (Sometimes someone else said the same thing, or something similar enough. No need to be repetitive.)
- Will it move the conversation forward? (Even if an idea is good, even if it is different, it still might not move the discussion where it should go.)
This is not an exhaustive list, nor does it capture the different challenges we professionals face based on our position, background, and more. However, I find these particular methods are easier to replicate than most, certainly are more readily attainable than having a brilliant spark of an idea or having our raw magnetism capture others’ attention.
They can help complement what we already do well, or act as a starting point as we discover other effective means to impress and flourish. Best of luck!