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The Value of Engaging Your Team

Posted on August 19, 2019


Elf on the Shelf votes in Battle Creek, Michigan

Today’s Buzz is by Jessica VanderKolk. Connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

What I’m ….

… reading: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman.

… watching: Slooowly getting through the first season of House of Cards.

… listening to: A mix of Barenaked Ladies and Lady Gaga… two favorites.


I failed to completely introduce myself in my previous – and first – Buzz, so hello! The short version is that I grew up in northern lower Michigan, earned my journalism bachelor’s from Michigan State – GO GREEN – and worked as a newspaper reporter for about 10 years before jumping ship for local government.

I love my work – I am the communications manager for the City of Battle Creek, and consider myself an internal reporter. I love my family – husband, soon-to-be first grader (gulp), and dog. I love good food, beer and wine, and running – I’ve run 5Ks to full marathons, but the half is my race.

Jessica VanderKolk

Please @ me about any of these topics! Speaking of, I recently replied to a tweet asking to describe your job in five words – “chief city cheerleader and storyteller.” We are public servants, so I do this for our neighbors and the community, but I’ve learned the immense value in engaging our fellow teammates in that cheer and story-telling.

Our city employs just over 500 people. As our main communicator, I know how impossible it is to effectively involve every person in lunchtime walking events, picnics, and other appreciation and team-building activities. We have all shifts, schedules, and lunch hours. But the fun campaigns we use to engage the public, sometimes end up engaging our staff more – and that is more than OK.

This started becoming clear to me back in December. At a 3CMA conference, I heard someone on a panel speak about using the Elf on the Shelf as a fun promotional tool. Now, I will not engage in elf shenanigans at home, but at work? Bring it on! I developed our elf into a December campaign, posting daily Instagram photos of the elf in various city facilities, trying various jobs, or enjoying city landmarks.

Our third year doing this was 2018, and I was thrilled to hear from members of our team directly, giving me their great ideas about how to photograph the elf in their departments. Our City Clerk created an official special ballot and pulled a voting machine up from the basement, then decorated it, just so I could create an image of the elf voting. I have taken the elf to the tippy-top of our airport traffic control tower, watched teammates create clothes for her, and been witness to more enthusiasm than I could have hoped for from a tiny, plush creature.

My feelings about engaging our team solidified after this year’s #CityHallSelfie Day – last Thursday. What a day! I can only being to tell you how much I love this event, and our Team Battle Creek has come to embrace and enjoy it, too. In one of my promotional emails to the team, I asked them to “completely inundate me with photos.” I essentially worked on #CityHallSelfie images and social media posts from 6 a.m. until midnight, and still didn’t use publicly every selfie I received – I was floored by the participation and creativity.

Beyond that, I feel incredible pride. In 2019 Battle Creek earned the recognition of All-America City. BC Vision, a community-driven movement in which the city participates, has purchased finalist and winner T-shirts throughout our All-America journey. I encouraged our team to pick up the T-shirts declaring us winners, and wear them for #CityHallSelfie Day. Our team sure delivered! I received dozens of photos of our teammates proudly wearing their shirts. When a group of us showed up at our Monument Park, home of a wonderful statue of Sojourner Truth, one of our downtown workers was there trimming bushes in his T-shirt. We absolutely pulled him into our selfies!

City Hall Selfie Day in Battle Creek

These two fun campaigns I have discussed do draw positive traffic from our community – people follow along on social media, leave nice comments, and praise our efforts. And, of course, we receive occasional comments questioning the use of taxpayer dollars on these types of projects.

One of my hills to die on is the importance of these types of projects – I believe promoting our teams, our jobs, our facilities, and our services in fun and informal ways educates our communities in ways that stick, and offers a human side of local government. We know that government can appear intimidating – one of my jobs is to make us a welcoming and approachable presence. And, as I’ve tweeted myself, I will absolutely look silly for fun local government activities.

As I promote and plan for these same campaigns year after year, I hope our neighbors will play along, but it bothers me less when they don’t. Our team shows up for the fun – it is excellent for morale, it gets us talking to each other, and we learn more about each other’s work, and our community. Before this year’s #CityHallSelfie Day, we had no idea there is a 472-year-old white oak tree majestically standing in one of our city parks. We have bonded over that tree, and many of the other photos we snapped that day.

More City Hall Selfie Day in Battle Creek

I encourage you to engage your team in these opportunities – and keep engaging. My Battle Creek team has grown in their engagement over time, and I hope my passion has encouraged them, and that our work makes them as proud as it makes me. Brainstorm in small groups! Engage every department! Look silly! It makes us a more cohesive team, and more enthusiastic public servants.

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