What I’m Reading: My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mary Hartnett, and Wendy W. Williams
A little over a year ago, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to serve in my current role as the Assistant City Administrator for a community in the Kansas City metro area. This municipality is very well respected, and I am fortunate to be able to learn from an esteemed city administrator.
When I saw this position posted on a local listserv, I remember thinking — how is this position even open? After a bit of cyber-sleuthing, I learned that the previous Assistant City Administrator had been stricken with illness and took an early medical retirement. During the recruitment process, I was told about the duties of the position and how it had been vacant for some time due to a prolonged illness.
I will be honest, I didn’t realize the full ramifications of backfilling a dynamic civic servant until about my third day in my new role. I wrestled with the idea of not mentioning his name in this article, but I feel I need to honor my predecessor – his name was Mike Smith and I have come to learn that he was a dedicated and passionate civic servant.
The position had been vacant for almost a year before my first day – another fact that seemed to slow-dawn on me. On my third day, someone came by my office and told me how nice it was to see the lights on in my office. I hadn’t really thought about this change for them – or how I fit into that change. After a few days, I dove into the folders and files to learn more about the projects I would helping to implement. Many of my projects are large, long-term redevelopment projects that have spanned years of careful planning and mindful reinvestment.
Mike was a very organized person and kept great notes throughout his many years of service. This being said, as a newbie, I had a lot to learn and that required scrubbing files, public records and assembling a timeline of the projects I was charged with implementing. Many of the bits of information I was looking for were not written down as they were in Mike’s vast knowledge banks. I had to put the puzzle together using handwritten notes, public records and reviewing legal agreements.
This process took me weeks to complete, but thanks to Mike’s notes, I learned more about the projects and I also got to know him. I know this is going to sound a bit bizarre, but his notes were a connection point for me to understand Mike and his thought processes. I learned WHY he made the decisions he made during a few particularly tricky points in these projects. Mike used these notes to himself not only as a way to document what was said in a meeting but also to capture what questions were not answered in the session. He wrote notes to himself with dozens of questions — many of them were process and/or technical questions he wanted to learn more about before taking the next step in the project.
As technology began being implemented, his handwritten notes transitioned into Microsoft Word notes in project files. These have become invaluable resources for me as they not only document what was said in the meeting but gave me a glimpse into the type of person Mike was and how he thought. He used these notes as a bit of a diary of the project and what his concerns and considerations were throughout his many years of service.
Mike’s questions and concerns ranged from capturing the next steps in a project to asking himself if these actions were meeting the project’s intended goal. He questioned himself privately in these notes as he wrestled with sticky and tough decisions throughout the years.
I have found that we often talk about the success of projects, but we rarely talk about the points in a project where we really struggle. We don’t share the moments we are unsure of ourselves or our path forward. These notes have been a tremendous learning opportunity for me and I have used the questions Mike posed to himself as I move forward with implementing these projects and new projects that have recently come onboard.
I have recently begun writing notes to my future successor, so they have the same background information to guide them on projects I am currently working on implementing. I have the honor of completing the projects that Mike began, but I have also learned that unforeseen circumstances may not allow me to finish the projects I have begun. I have learned first-hand the importance of leaving notes from the past behind to help guide those that come after me.