The Perfect Chinese Proverb for Public Service
Recently, I was at a restaurant and a wall calendar caught my eye. I’m not sure why; perhaps it had a pretty picture on it. What kept my attention, though, was that it quoted a Chinese proverb. That seems too perfect, I thought. Am I reading that right? I got up from my table and walked over to examine the calendar more closely. Sure enough, there it was: “Be not afraid of going slowly. Be afraid only of standing still.” Wow. Mind blown.
That proverb, to me, sums up our work in public service. We work in institutions that are purposely designed to move more slowly than private businesses – for very good reasons. We need to make sure stakeholders are included before decisions are made. We need to make sure we are incorporating multiple perspectives. We need to be confident that we have the backing of our communities. Anyone who has ever tried to be a “change agent” in government will tell you how painfully, achingly, excruciatingly slow our institutions can be to move. Seven years, the experts say. Seven years to make meaningful cultural change.
And yet, that slow progress needs to still be progress. When the percentage of women in top executive roles in local governments has not moved in 30 years, that’s not going slowly. It’s standing still. Bureaucracy… democracy… these cannot be excuses for not moving at all. Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? The tortoise kept moving.
In our daily work, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between slow movement and no movement. We’re doing a lot of stuff, but is it moving us forward or just keeping us too busy to notice the lack of meaningful change? That’s one of the reasons I think it’s important to take time to review our progress as organizations and individuals. When I reached the five-year mark as a CAO, I made a list of all the changes we had made during that time. I didn’t make it to share with the Board during my performance review, or even to beef up my resume. I made it principally to reassure myself that all that “stuff” I’m doing on a daily basis is actually contributing to progress.
I want to point out the pronouns in that last paragraph, because they’re important. Is the stuff I am doing on a daily basis contributing to the progress we have made over the past five years? I think it’s critical not just that one be able to look back and see an organization making progress, but also to have a sense of personal contribution to that progress. No one (especially the person in the executive role) is able to make change without the assistance of others. But anyone can become unfulfilled if they aren’t connected to the organization. It might be fun to ride on a rocket ship for a while, but if you know that you’re just a passenger and not contributing to the ride for others, it loses its novelty pretty quickly.
I know I’m not alone in pondering this personal connection. Recently, I ran across a PowerPoint presentation on “evaluating career decisions” that Frank Benest, Cynthia Seelhammer and Don Maruska had presented at the ICMA annual conference back in 2008. One of the first slides, presented by Dr. Benest, is entitled “dealing with the doldrums” and lists three bullet points as possibilities: do nothing, make a “mini-transition” or undertake a major life transition.
That slide resonates with me because I recently celebrated my tenth anniversary in my current organization. Honestly, I never thought I’d be here this long. I’ve stayed because I’ve been able to see how my actions have contributed to organizational movement. I’ve been discussing with Sam Taylor a major life transition that each of us has made in the past – an interstate move – but I’ve been thinking more and more about making a “mini-transition” in my own life right now. I want to make sure that I’m not standing still, but I’m okay as long as I’m still going. I will not be afraid of going slowly.