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Welcome to Your Public Service Career!

Posted on October 12, 2019


Career Ladder

Today’s Buzz is by Ann Marie Townshend, City Manager of Lewes, Delaware. Connect with her on Linkedin or Twitter.

What I’m Watching: Prohibition (Ken Burns documentary)

What I’m Listening To: NPR

What I’m Doing: Camping on the Chesapeake Bay this weekend


Welcome to your public service career…. You may feel overwhelmed, but take a deep breath and don’t panic. Following a recent meeting of our city management association, two recent MPA graduates compared notes. They couldn’t believe we were experts in so many areas. How could they ever get so much expertise? I assured one of them we are not experts in all of these areas, but we have a depth of knowledge in a lot of things. Most of us have a deeper expertise in a specific area. The great thing about our association is we have expertise in different areas, so we can lean on each other where our experience and knowledge isn’t as strong. Also, your knowledge of the broad areas of municipal operations evolves over many years of experience. Don’t worry you’ll get there. This conversation with my younger colleague got me thinking, what advice can I offer to someone at the beginning of their career?

1. Never stop learning. You will learn from those around you, and your colleagues will learn from you. Each challenge you encounter provides life lessons and skills for your toolbox. Each person you meet, young or old, will have perspectives that help you build your knowledge and understanding.

2. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. You will surprise yourself. People laugh when I say it, but I used to be painfully shy. I lacked confidence. I was deathly afraid to speak in public, to the point that my palms got sweaty when I introduced myself in meetings. I pushed myself into uncomfortable situations, presenting at conferences, speaking to large groups. I am not sure how or when it happened, but now I love public speaking. It energizes me. If I stayed in my comfort zone, I would have missed out on one of the aspects of my career I enjoy the most.

3. Know your professional limitations, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. While to some degree you may feel you are faking it, that doesn’t mean you should make things up, misrepresent facts, or pass yourself off as more knowledgeable than you are. There will be times when you need to ask for help. This could be asking your supervisor for guidance on how to move forward on a project, calling on a colleague with more knowledge in a certain area, or doing research of professional literature to give you a stronger background. There may be times you just need to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” and get back when you can gather more information.

4. Be humble. The great things you accomplish will always be the result of a team effort. Be proud of your accomplishments, but give credit and thanks to those who made it happen. When you recognize those who have contributed to successful outcomes it will lead to more success.

5. Take pride in your accomplishments. While humility and sharing credit are important, don’t downplay your contributions. You can credit your team and still promote your contribution to the team.

6. Embrace criticism. It is hard to hear criticism. It shows our vulnerabilities. Some criticism is delivered with tact, some is just brutal or even hurtful. No matter how hard it is to hear, spend time reflecting on how that criticism can help you improve. If you worked on a project that didn’t hit the mark, use the feedback to make the next project better.

7. Be respectful. Treat everyone you meet with respect, even if they don’t treat you with respect. This doesn’t mean that you should be a door mat or that you shouldn’t be tough and stand your ground at times, yet do it with respect. The more respect you give, the more you will receive in return.

8. “Lift as you climb.” This is a phrase a colleague of mine uses, and it really resonates. Over the course of your career, you will be offered opportunities in the form of special projects, promotions, and more. Surely there will be mentors and others who help you along the way. As you climb the career ladder, bring others along with you. As you gain knowledge and experience, share it with others who may use it to move their careers forward.

9. Know and stay true to your values. Allow your ethics to guide your choices. If doesn’t feel right, maybe you shouldn’t do it. If you commit to something, follow through. Listen to that inner voice that reminds you how to behave, both personally and professionally, and you will develop a reputation for integrity, gain the trust of your colleagues, and rest your head on your pillow each night knowing that you did your best to serve the public with integrity.

10. Take care of yourself. There will be times when you will live and breathe your work. Make sure you take time for yourself, your family, and your personal relationships. This is important for your physical and mental health. If you keep a balanced life and take care of yourself, your contributions at work will be stronger, and you will avoid burnout.

These are just a few simple pieces of advice as you enter a career that will be full of challenges. Don’t be afraid to face the challenges. You will figure your way through and come out stronger and more knowledgeable. And then in 20 years, you will look back and feel surprised at your evolution. Young professionals will look to you as a mentor, and the cycle will continue.

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