How to Succeed in Local Government

Posted on January 28, 2014

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By Julie Underwood

When you’re just starting out in your career, it’s natural to want to figure out how best to progress and get ahead. For this article, I reached out to several colleagues, who are city managers, deputy or assistant city managers, working in communities across the country, who shared their strategies for impressing the boss.

The dream team of local government professionals providing advice are: Charlie Bush, John Caulfield, David Donaldson, Bo Ferguson, Magda Gonzalez, Julia Novak, Susan Sherman

With the help of their experiences, I developed the following five rules.

Winston Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Attitude governs how you look at the world. Do you come into the office as Eeyore, the pessimistic and gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh? Or are you Leslie Knope, the dedicated and sunny Deputy Director from the hilarious show Parks and Recreation? Your mindset – glass half full or half empty – shapes how others see you. How others perceive you has a profound impact on your ability to advance within the organization.

Susan Sherman said, A positive and ‘can do’ attitude is always welcome…people generally want to be around positive influences and people.”

A positive attitude is also demonstrated through passion. John Caulfield, said, “I want to see a passion for local government, not an understanding, as much as a true passion.”

Another way to show your boss that you have a positive and enthusiastic attitude is by working hard. For example, when David Donaldson, Assistant City Manager, City of Lake Oswego, OR, started his career at Korn/Ferry International he decided he would put in more hours and work really hard the first six months on the job to show them they made the right choice.

David said, “I asked them how long they thought a task would take and then I tried to get it done a lot faster. I saw a few things like their resume database that was a mess and I voluntarily brought work home and organized it nightly so that after a month it was in good shape. I often came in early and made sure I didn’t leave until my supervisors had left. I would sometimes come in on weekends to get a head start. I documented my work so if there was any question they could see exactly the effort I had made. After two years I was promoted from Associate to Senior Associate. My bonuses increased each year and my responsibilities grew rapidly.”

When you’re starting out in your career, it’s not uncommon to lack technical skills and competence; however, having a good attitude is a must have. Charles M. Schwab said, “A person can succeed at almost anything for which they have unlimited enthusiasm.”

Rule #1: Be positive and passionate, gracious, work hard, and smile.

Albert Einstein said,  By far this is the most common advice given to early career professionals. When we’re mentoring interns or analysts we appreciate seeing someone demonstrate a genuine curiosity – a desire to gain a deeper understanding of our environment.

Bo Ferguson shared this: “One characteristic I really appreciate, especially in interns and young professionals is curiosity. I take notice of people who want to know why and how things work, not just what they are supposed to do. Understanding the systems and dynamics of the organization and the community are the best foundation for doing our jobs to the best of our abilities. Bringing a natural and consistent curiosity to the job will demonstrate commitment and learning.”

The best way to apply this is by asking questions. Susan Sherman states, “Always ask questions, curiosity is a great tool for a young person in the profession.”

Magda Gonzalez gives this advice: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions in understanding the why and how this fits into the context –Get the reasons behind it and understand the big picture. We’re building a cathedral, not just laying brick.”

Curiosity demonstrates a search for answers and an openness to new ideas. Ultimately, expressing curiosity shows your desire to learn.

Rule #2: Ask questions and seek understanding.

In today’s work environment you need to know how to build and sustain relationships. In fact, nearly ever colleague that I spoke with emphasized the need to listen, collaborate, and build relationships with everyone – boss, co-workers, elected officials, community members, etc. This may seem like a no-brainer; however, if you’re just starting off in your career, you have no real power or authority over others. Yet often times you’ll need things from your co-workers such as data, information, or help on a project. You’ll have a better chance of success if you’re able to build and foster relationships.

Susan Sherman said, Those young professionals who have learned to build relationships with all levels of the organization will soon find that they are highly sought after for projects and special assignments.” She advises you to take advantage of opportunities to have lunch or coffee with people in your organization, including department directors, division managers, and city manager’s office staff.

Bo Ferguson suggests that you take a real interest in your co-workers, “I really notice when young professionals take a sincere interest in their coworkers and the organization. Showing your coworkers you are interested in them and their work demonstrates a spirit of selflessness and service, which are particularly valuable in the public sector. This helps to gain trust and credibility.”

For David Donaldson here’s how relationship building paid off for him early in his career: When I did my internship with the City of Dallas, OR I tried to stick out by connecting to all the departments.  I ran with the cops in a competition with a neighboring city’s police department; I played basketball with the volunteer firemen and analyzed their ambulance call volume; and I wrote my thesis on a topic that was important to the City. I applied for a scholarship to League of Oregon Cities Conference and worked for them at various sessions. I attended the council meetings and the after meeting drinks at the local watering hole. When my three-month internship was up unemployment in Oregon was at 12%. The City Manager kept me on three more months until I could find a job.”

Charlie Bush advises, “Serve others – what you put out comes back to you. If you are supportive and helpful to others, they will speak highly of you and follow you in leadership situations.”

Having the ability to establish effective working relationships is fundamental. You will be working on team projects and will be judged on how well you work with others.

Rule #3: Create meaningful professional relationships.

Henry Ford said, “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” Sometimes it may feel as if no one is really paying attention. However, I was coached early in my career that everything I produced mattered. For example, as the assistant to the city manager and assistant city manager, I would “ghost” write for my boss, so I was always cognizant of how my writing reflected on him/her.

My personal mentor, Julia Novak shares this advice: “Nothing stands out like quality work – meeting expectations in terms of timely and thorough staff work is sure to get you noticed, and more assignments!”

Charlie Bush said, “Do excellent work – the quality of your work will help you to get noticed.  Putting in a few extra minutes or hours on a project can be the difference between fitting in with the crowd or really getting noticed.”

Don’t misinterpret this advice to mean you should strive for perfection at the cost of everything else. The key is do what you do well, and not to make work your entire life. Susan Sherman advises, “Work life balance is also important and the most successful young professionals have found a way to have more in their life than just work.”

Rule #4: Produce exceptional work products.

Inc. magazine reported a recent poll of executives who were asked, “What do you feel is the single best way for employees to earn a promotion and/or raise?” The top response by 82% of the respondents was “Ask for more work and responsibility.” While this poll pertains to private sector executives, I can assure you that it also applies to city managers. Someone who shows initiative and acts on opportunities will have a greater chance of recognition, learning, and advancement potential.

Charlie Bush said, Volunteer for projects and teams inside and outside of your department. Seek out new opportunities to grow and learn, particularly those that will expose you to the entire organization. Early in my career, I found experiences like running blood drives and giving campaigns, serving in our emergency operations center, serving as our department’s budget liaison, and volunteering for various other citywide teams to be extremely beneficial in developing new skills and in gaining exposure.”

Susan Sherman said, Anticipate projects, research or needs and if something sounds interesting—show initiative and ask for parts of the project. The young professionals that stand out to me are those who engage themselves in their work. They seek out opportunities to be useful and contribute to the organization. They go beyond just attending meetings because they have a passion for learning and growing. They want to understand the context and the ramifications of important decisions.” 

John Caulfield said, When you come on board, push yourself to take on complicated, brain-food oriented projects, especially projects that cut across multiple departments; don’t settle – ask for challenging projects.”

Julia Novak said, “I always noticed when people volunteered to participate in a work team, or lead a work effort, even if it wasn’t directly related to their job – the display of interest and initiative in the work of an organization is always something I want to see in a staff member.”

Bo Ferguson shares, “Local governments are constantly engaged in discussions about how to improve services, solve problems or capitalize on new opportunities. Prior experience is not required to dive into these challenges, and interns and early professionals don’t come with the baggage and blinders that other workers may have acquired in their experience. They are ideally suited to contribute to brainstorming sessions. Young professionals who volunteer for assignments and make a strong effort to contribute get on the radar screen of managers who are looking for solutions.” 

It’s clear that a proactive person adds value to the organization and is able to see many opportunities for making a positive difference.

Rule #5: Take initiative, contribute, and be engaged.

Make these five rules part of your life and you’ll surely be noticed. It’s worth noting that neither my colleagues nor I came out of college or graduate school as city managers. We all worked hard at it and followed these rules.

Extra Credit: Additional Tips to Advance Your Career

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to the city manager – ask to meet or job shadow, be willing to offer yourself as an unpaid intern – find a way to get your foot in the door and learn
  • Be willing to go back to school for your masters
  • Find a mentor that you can confide in and also use as a sounding board
  • “Do good” – keep your ethical compass aligned, even through the difficult situations you’re likely to face
  • Contribute to the conversation, find your voice – this doesn’t mean dominate – this means be engaged
  • Learn about yourself – know who you are, know your strengths, and how you can contribute to a group or organization – seek out co-workers who will help you see your blind spots

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