The Year(s) of Living Dangerously

New York City, 2017

Working in local government can be inspiring and exhilarating, and occasionally tedious and frustrating. But dangerous? I had not thought to characterize our work that way until I read the thought-provoking book Leadership on the Line by Marty Linksy and Ron Heifetz (L&H). Their thinking is that simply being a leader is to live dangerously.

Leadership is dangerous when we ask people to confront loss.

People naturally resist loss. When we as managers treat all challenges through a technical lens, we neglect the hearts and minds of those we are leading. Loss also applies to our constituents and electeds. When seeking to make a major shift in policy or practice, we need to acknowledge their loss (honestly, even it we think it is immaterial). As L&H note, “Asking them to change practically invites them to get rid of you.” That’s dangerous.

In Needham, in the “before times,” our office would arrange for police officers to deliver hard copy agenda packets to elected officials twice per month. This was a huge effort, and hardly environmentally friendly. Our staff repeatedly suggested moving to a digital platform, and met with strong resistance. Evidently, the regular interaction with police officers at their doors was a source of great connection for our officials, and we had been treating an adaptive change as a technical one. (One benefit of the pandemic, of course, is that we no longer deliver packets.)

Leadership is dangerous when we don’t watch closely.

L&H use a balcony metaphor, suggesting that leaders need to climb up to the balcony – taking themselves out of the action in their minds, even for a moment. Standing in the balcony allows us to see others – and ourselves – with greater clarity.

View from the balcony, Needham Town Hall, 2023

L&H advise us as leaders to carefully read authority figures for clues. This is especially true in local government. Elected officials, stakeholders, and even city and town managers “sit in an ecosystem and are sensitive to disturbances…They often continue to pay lip service to those in the trenches who are tackling tough issues – long after they have begun to succumb to pressure.” Our supporters are behind us, in other words, until they are not.

Many years ago, I worked with an elected official and a group of stakeholders on a year-long study and report. I presented the recommendations to the board, who – to put it kindly – were not supportive. The member who had worked on the project and supported the recommendations remained quiet. I had stopped watching the elected official and stakeholders carefully, and likely didn’t recognize the loss inherent in the recommendations. I did learn, however, that difficult recommendations should be presented by a team and not just the manager. We need to find a way to create breathing room – to take stock of a project and its associated perceived loss, long before we start to implement it. Climbing up to the balcony forces us to evaluate the participants – and ourselves – and take corrective action if necessary.

Simply being in our leadership roles is dangersous.

People see us in our roles more than they see us as people. This is a reflection of their own needs and worries. We need to be careful not to underestimate the challenge (and danger) of distinguishing our role from ourselves. I was talking to a colleague about a particularly difficult interaction, and she reminded me that in that setting, I was The Town Manager, not VeryKate. She rightly pointed that out if Rocket (the Town’s beloved comfort dog) had been sitting in my seat, he would have been treated the same way that I was. I can’t tell you how helpful this reminder is for me. As L&H note, our management of an “attack,” more than the substance of the accusation, determines our fate. In theory, remembering that we are our role when in a difficult conversation will help us remain calm and unperturbed. In theory. But if you hear me muttering “woof woof” under my breath, now you know why.

Rocket, Needham, MA 2020

So how about you? Is your work dangerous? How do you protect yourself ? Have you ever found yourself standing alone, abandoned quietly by stakeholders you thought were with you? Did you see The Year of Living Dangerously in the theater in the early 1980s? Did you, as I did, own the LP?

Let’s practice, moving on and off the balcony. It’s good for clarity of vision, and getting our step goal.

Bonus: Anyone who has worked in government for a minute will appreciate this gem from the book: “True Believers are not known for their sense of strategic patience.” Um, yes.

Mom was at Work

No website. No Area Code. 1990s font.

My younger daughter (“C”) and I were talking a few months ago about Y2K. She had a vague idea what it was about, unaware that I was at work all night in the basement of our old Emergency Operations Center. Indeed, our senior management team spent the night in the EOC, playing cards and watching the lack of emergency unfold around the world. She has no recollection that I was at work. I take that as a win.

But mom was at work – as were all of you in local government – when it felt like the rest of the world was home. We worked on Y2K. We worked late into the night on September 11, 2001. We worked through the worst of the Pandemic. We worked on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day. We worked parades, high school games, rallies, and of course, meetings.

I started calculating how many Select Board meetings I have attended over the last 21 years: more than 600 nights when mom was at work. And that doesn’t count the 11 years that I was a department head and Assistant Manager, or any meetings of the Finance Committee, Personnel Board, Planning Board, Building Committee, etc. And we cannot forget Town Meeting – that accounts for at least 4 or 5 nights per year. I missed one night of Town Meeting in all of those years, when I was about 11 months pregnant. I can recall missing only a handful of Select Board meetings – a few conferences out of State, seeing Flogging Molly on my husband’s birthday, my father’s wake, and watching C play “Old Joe Clark” on the violin at a third grade school concert. Generally speaking, I was at work.

I love my chosen career, and I wish there were fewer night meetings, but I can honestly say I did not worry about my kids. I knew they would be OK. And they were. And they certainly are now. Lara Bazelon, in her book Ambitious Like a Mother, tackles the complex relationship that mothers with leadership roles have about their choices, the myth of “work life balance,” and the visceral reaction mothers have to anything that feels like ambition.

With respect to daughters of working mothers, Bazelon cites a 2018 Harvard Business School Study by Kathleen McGinn. “Employed daughters of employed mothers, when faced with the opportunities and challenges of having children themselves, appear both willing and able to emulate their mothers as they manage employment and caregiving roles simultaneously.”

Bazelon continues, “Empirical studies show that children with working mothers (are) doing fine – even thriving. The daughters of working mothers (are) more likely to be employed, earn higher wages, and have jobs with supervisory responsibilities.”

Interestingly, though, empirical data showing that children are not harmed when their mothers work full-time outside the home has done little to reduce the anxiety and shame their mothers experience. She says “When we became mothers, the standard became even more exacting: never ever could we admit that – even once – we had put our careers first. Doing so would have invited a torrent of judgment. Not only would such a woman be perceived as self-aggrandizing, she would also be branded a Bad Mother.” Does that resonate with anyone?

An Unusual Day at Work – VK detained during the Battle for Needham (Needham 300th)

The truth is that ambition is not toxic. Working long hours in a fulfilling career can actually be good for your kids.

Our Select Board held its meeting on 9/11. After that meeting, I came home and watched television coverage for hours. Because American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 took off from Boston, there were many local stories. I have never forgotten an interview with a woman whose daughter died on one of the flights. In the interview, she was confident. She said that her daughter knew every day of her life how much her mother loved her. What a gift that is. My daughters know that about me, and I know that about my own mother. And isn’t that just as important as being home every Tuesday night?

Let’s Practice, embracing our ambition, and our kids.

How about you? Have you been accused of being “ambitious” as if that were a bad thing? Have you figured out “work life balance?” Do you want to see the video of “Old Joe Clark?” Only kidding C – we’ll see if you read to the end.

What does Jensen’s Alpha* have to do with keeping an emergency reserve, paying off debt, and saving for retirement?

Mother’s Day in Holliston, 2022

Have you ever spent Mother’s Day watching YouTube videos to learn how to calculate the standard deviation of a two-asset portfolio? If you have been wondering why the blog has been quiet, this is the reason. Long time followers will recall a VeryKate post about financial planning. I’ve always been interested in personal finance, and during the Pandemic I found myself listening to daily finance podcasts (Like my favorite Jill on Money). Even when I thought the subject matter didn’t apply to me, I almost always learned something that I could put to practical use. (I’m talking to you, whole life policy I purchased for an infant who now has a child of her own).

Basically, financial planning for most people comes down to three things: make sure you have an emergency reserve fund in a plain old savings account (the Pandemic sure reinforced this); pay off debt (but not your mortgage); and fund your retirement plan as aggressively as you can while still living your life.

So last July I took the plunge and enrolled in the Certified Financial Planning Certificate Program at Boston University. This is a seven course program that I need to finish in 21 months. I’m not sure what I expected the workload to be, but it has been seriously time-consuming. Some of the topics are really interesting, but there is a lot of math. A LOT OF MATH. I barely made it through the math part of graduate school, and I find this even harder because it is all remote learning.


There are some practical applications though. This past winter you could find me snuggled up before a fire reading the terms of our homeowner’s insurance policy. I finally understand it! Information on employee benefits, taxation, and retirement planning have actual work application for me. Also, I am armed with just enough data to hound other people to focus on their finances. I have done a lot of research lately on happiness and work satisfaction, and it turns out that having an understanding of the state of your finances (even if the picture isn’t rosy) leads to lower anxiety and increased life satisfaction. So if I have recently hounded you about your Roth 401K, it is for your own good.

In that finance post from 2019, I made a plan to fully fund my 457 plan by September, 2020. I must report that it took me a little over a year longer than I hoped, and I created a lot of work for our Payroll/Treasury staff by increasing my contribution by $100 – $200 every few months. But I got there!

Then I started learning about the power of Roth plans. Many of us are above the limit to contribute to a Roth IRA, but Roth 401K and 457 plans have no income limit, and we can contribute up to the maximum just like with the traditional pre-tax plans.

I have become convinced of the value of the Roth, especially for young investors. I was always told that the benefit of the pre-tax plan is that we will pay the tax due when we retire and are presumably in a lower tax bracket. For many of us, most notably anyone entitled to a pension, this is simply never going to be the case. Our taxable income is not likely to ever be in a significantly lower bracket. Saving in a Roth Plan requires paying taxes today (at historically low rates, by the way) and our investment will then grow and be distributed completely tax free. Ed Slott, retirement planning guru and author of the The New Retirement Savings Time Bomb, likens pre-tax plans to a loan to the government that you will have to pay when you are no longer working and need the money more than ever.

We implemented a Roth 457 in our town this year (all I had to do was ask), and I allocated all of my future contributions to the Roth. The tax hit hurt initially, but like anything else, you get used to it. Also, I’m 59 (for a few more months) and I am convinced the Roth is still valuable at my career stage. (Again, if you are a young investor, it is a no-brainer. Get on it.)

The key advice our ICMA RC (now Mission Square) expert told us in 2019 is to work to maximize retirement planning early in your career. You can always scale back, or stop altogether, but you can never catch up if you don’t start. My daughter (#1) Molly started maximizing her 457 in 2019 and was able to keep it up for two years. She later scaled it back to pay for daycare, and plans to increase it again incrementally as her financial situation changes. Another benefit to having started saving aggressively early is that the recurring revenue was available to her to reallocate to daycare expenses. (Yes, she recently converted entirely to Roth. I can be exhausting).

So how about you? Are you maximizing your retirement plan contributions? Have you bought into the Roth bandwagon or do I need to have coffee with you to talk you into it? Does your employer offer a Roth option? (If not, will they? Can you ask?) Do you have six months of expenses in an emergency fund? Do you have any idea what your monthly expenses even are? Do you have a plan to pay off debt? What is one thing you can do this summer to improve your financial health?

Let’s practice. It’s spelled R-O-T-H.

*”The Jensen’s measure, or Jensen’s alpha, is a risk-adjusted performance measure that represents the average return on a portfolio or investment, above or below that predicted by the capital asset pricing model (CAPM), given the portfolio’s or investment’s beta and the average market return.” (Investopedia)

Note to Readers: A technical glitch required me to repost this blog. If you received it twice, my apologies.

We Long For A City Where We Go Hard On The Issues And Easy On The People

No one mentioned parking in their list of longing…

About a year ago, I got the idea to create a crowdsourced poem about our cities and towns, based on a project highlighted on NPR. My hope was to create an aspirational poem – not one about what we like, or what we wish for, but what we long for. I sent out a call for feedback and received more than 50 responses from all over the country (and Australia)! Special thanks to the amazing Adam Chapdelaine who inspired the title.

We Long For A City Where We Go Hard On The Issues And Easy On The People

We long for civility. 

We long for a city where people focus more on what we have accomplished, with pride and amazement, and focus less on what remains to be done, with frustration and criticism.

Where people come together to meet real challenges with resolve and good humor, and a willingness to work collaboratively.  Where finding a reasonable compromise is considered a win.

Where we can disagree, without being disagreeable, and people are civil, respectful, and supportive, even in the face of disagreement.

Where broad generalities and stereotypes are not raised over differences of opinion.

Where there is an appetite for increased listening to others, and where opinions are allowed to evolve and change.

Where we worry more about the common good then a single agenda.

We long for a city where residents take the time to go past the headlines, learn about the issues, and ask questions.

Where civility and common courtesy prevail, and dialogue builds us up without breaking us down.

Where we can leave the past behind us, and grasp the opportunities that await us.

Where we no longer assume the worst in others, that secret agendas disappear, and that honesty and civility are not considered slanderous and outdated.

We long for that city.

We long for welcoming. 

We long for a city where everyone feels respected and safe.

Where we are as happy to greet our neighbors as we are to cheer for the home team.

Where cancel culture is discredited.

Where working toward a vision of an equitable future and shaping economic development are not construed a conflict of interest.

Where we make space in our thinking to accept different points of view, not just the fashionable ones, and where we live is in line with our values.

Where neighbors from all parts of our city can prosper.

Where our city is a place welcome to all who enter, and compassion rules the day.

Where the only class that matters is the life-long learning one.

This is the city that we long to see.

We long for a sense of place.

We long for a city where people stop looking at all the bad, and start looking at what an amazing city we live in.

Where our cities keep building beautiful spaces, and nature and sustainability are at the forefront of our lives.

Where people smile when they wave to you, and the roads are in such good shape that you can look beyond them while driving.

Where the city brings out the best in us, and our dreams can become reality. 

Where animals roam free, and we take the time to slow down and enjoy the view.

We long for that city.

We long for local government to be valued. 

Where public service is appreciated and respect for public employees is the norm.

Where local government creates as much customer satisfaction as the most successful private business.

Where residents who have questions about their community reach out for answers before turning to social media.

Where city management is an honorable profession, and elected officials are respected for their commitment.

Where the way we always did it is not is the standard.

We long for that city.

We long for Collaboration.

We long for a city where problems are seen as opportunities, where success and failure are shared, and credit and blame are of less consequence.

Where people are inspired by empathy, coming together to meet challenges with resolve and good humor and a willingness to work collaboratively.

Where residents are resilient, positive, and display a wicked sense of humor. 

Where people take their responsibilities seriously, without taking themselves too seriously.

Where people focus on what unites us and use our commonalities to achieve shared goals.

Where we achieve our goals because everyone recognizes we are on the same team, whether or not we all agree on the same game plan, and where our leaders foster and encourage this environment, rising above discord.

Where residents understand the impact of local government on their daily lives and are willing to collaborate to make their community exceptional.

Where people take satisfaction and pride in all that we have accomplished together as a community, extending the benefit of the doubt that what remains to be done will get done by the good people, both elected and professionals, to whom we entrust the task.

We long to build that city.  Where we go hard on the issues, and easy on the people.    

How about you? Are you ready to build that city? What is your first step?

Grateful thanks to the following contributors (if I have left anyone off, I apologize).

Katherine Warden, Heather Harper, Jamie Hellen, John Mangiaratti, Christopher Coleman, Andrea Llamas, Christopher Ketchen, Denise Baker, Tim Higgins, Colin F. Loiselle, William G. Keegan, Jr., Bob LeLacheur, Mark Lauzier, Richard Downey, John Mulder, Sam Gaston, Daniel Blumberg, John Rufo, Jay Hedges, Daniel Blumberg, Jay Feyler, Pat Scheidel, Henry L. Hayes, Jr., Opal Mauldin-Jones, Ed Broussard, Richard Brown, Gerald Young, James Fisher, Mike Land, Alan Ours, Chris Senior, Eileen Stein, Maurice Handel, Bob Jarvis, Kevin Tackett, Paul Buckley, Denise Casey, Weston Davis, Abby Serino, Adam Chapdelaine, Donna VanderClock, Alissa Farrell, Libby Gibson, Kim Donovan, Anne Nydam, Julie Traub, Andy Sheehan

The Rear View and the Long View

Church Street, Holliston MA

I often think about the optimism required to build this house. Families building a future in a new nation – one war ending and another looming. They were certainly thinking long-term when they laid this massive stone foundation. I think of all the generations who have shored it up since. If they were around to look in the rear view mirror, they would know that their efforts produced something lasting. (Lasting yes, requiring constant attention and upkeep, also yes). In our work in local government, I remind anyone who will listen about the important role that the rear view and the long view play in our work, in our sense of achievement, and in bolstering our resiliency.

Many of our projects are unpopular with at least one group of individuals. The effort it takes to fund even a minor project takes several years. We need to convince, cajole, and even grovel to get the project over the finish line. So the frustration is typically what we remember. I cannot count the number of times I speak to staff about a recently completed Town Meeting, and the focus is on that one item we couldn’t get funded. Or, if we got it funded, it was an exhausting battle. It is much more useful to look back and see what actually got accomplished. In most years, if we have done our homework and used our relentless practice techniques, everything that we really needed actually passed. It may sound obvious, but sometimes it isn’t. Looking back, I can see that we achieved most of our objectives, and if something remains undone, it means that we have to change our strategy and try again.

Ubiquitous Rail Trail Photo, Holliston MA

Which brings me to the Long View. Local government in our part of the country is a slow process, And I mean SLOOOOW. A construction project we are completing today took 36 months to design and construct – that is the straightforward part. The 36 months before that spent developing financing plans and convincing boards, committees, and voters that it was necessary was the complicated part. Keeping the long-term plan an explicit part of the daily conversation makes short-term setbacks easier to bear. The best way to increase resiliency is to reduce frustration.

Let’s say you think it would make sense to consolidate two departments. If the management positions in the departments are vacant, and there are no natural constituencies for the work of the departments – smooth sailing. Let’s be honest, how likely is that to happen? Instead, you may have boards and committees who are supported by the departments who will believe that there is a loss involved in the consolidation. Moreover, managers of “equal status” in an organization are unlikely to view the consolidation as a positive. Here is where the long view comes into play. Every new position, every funding decision, every vacancy should be evaluated with the long-term plan in mind. Soon enough, we are looking in the rear view mirror at a consolidated department that probably took at least three years and a lot of effort. By the time we achieve it, we often forget to congratulate ourselves and our team for making it happen.

I recently had the good fortune to attend a training session facilitated by Ron Holifield, CEO of Strategic Government Resources and a former city manager. “It’s not about me, and it’s not about now” was his mantra. How true. If we approach our long-term planning with this view in mind, we can more easily withstand the frustration that accompanies our work.

What about you? Have the rear view or long view techniques helped bolster your own resiliency or that of your staff?

Let’s practice, looking back in satisfaction and looking ahead. Way ahead. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

“And Through the Joy & Pain That Our Lives Bring, We Can Do Hard Things”*

Ted Lasso as self care

Does anyone else feel like Fall is LOOMING over us in a MENACING way? Or is that just me?

I love fall, I just hate the end of summer. In fact, fall is my temporal landmark – it’s when I am best at resetting, committing, and setting goals that are actually achievable. I even bought myself a new planner to round out the year (they are pretty cheap by this point!). So why is fall looming? Even though I feel crazy busy and stressed all year, I feel like the fall moves at warp speed. We plan and hold our special town meeting. We begin to develop our operating and capital budgets, holding hearings and making difficult choices. All of the performance reviews for my direct reports are due. The Select Board adopted a robust list of goals I need to keep moving. I am facilitating two workshops and participating in a third at the International City/County Management Association conference in October, for which I am a tiny bit under-prepared. Add to this the end of summer return of our residents from the Cape and points north, on-boarding new staff, and all of those projects that we put off until “after Labor Day.” Are you hyperventilating now too?

But you know what? We can do hard things. For goodness sake, the last 18 months told us that, if nothing else. We can do this, we have been doing this, and we are still here, still doing this. Let’s give ourselves (our sometimes stressed, out of shape, and a bit heavier selves) a pat on the back.

Nubble Light and Long Sands at sunrise, York Beach Maine

So how do we tackle the hard things, the dread and the overwhelm? With a little bit of self care. According to Glennon Doyle, self-care itself is a hard thing. “Real self-care is being the Joan of Arc of your life. It’s like, looking at the battle that you need to fight…going straight towards it.” Self care involves listing all the ways that your needs are not getting met, and then tackling them one at a time. She recommends finding a moment or two every day where you connect with your soul and not your role. This could be walking, listening to a song, texting a friend, or just going outside. For the really, really busy people (city managers with little children, for instance) just taking a moment to remember that you have a soul would be a good first step.

To combat the dread associated with the menacing fall, I am determined to add some self-care. I had been pondering going back to the gym and to yoga. I hadn’t been back since March, 2020 and couldn’t conceive of putting anything else on my calendar. And then a magic thing happened. Orange Theory Fitness called and offered me a free class. So I went, and re-joined, and have managed to fit the 8 classes a month into my calendar along with a few yoga classes. It dawned on me that if I didn’t do either I would be a stress ball. So why not be a stronger, more Zen stress ball? (Well, Zen-ish, it’s me we are talking about.)

Very Kate and her husband Paul, Long Sands Beach, York Beach Maine. Go Richmond!

My other recent self-care discovery is Ted Lasso. I know I am late to this party, but I am so glad I found it at just the right time. I’ve turned into the kind of Ted Lasso ambassador that you expect from that friend who just joined cross fit. So my husband got me a jersey from the fictional AFC Richmond team and I am in heaven. And then the meditation app that I think about using use created a five-day, Ted Lasso radical happiness meditation challenge. Maybe this is a way to jump start my meditation practice?.

Friends, I leave you with the words of Glennon Doyle’s daughter Tish Melton: “I’m not the problem, sometimes things fall apart.” Things have been falling apart for a while, and we’ve been handling it. So let’s practice some real self care, because we can do hard things. What will you try this month? “Biscuits with the Boss” anyone?

* We can do hard things is a concept explored by Glennon Doyle in her book Untamed and her podcast “We Can do Hard Things.” Her daughter Tish Melton recorded a song with Brandi Carlile of the same name. Right now, this song is my daily glimpse of soul. You’re welcome.

Fun with Very Kate & Mary Poppins

This picture is seriously unflattering but it was raining and yes it wasn’t that long ago.

Immediately before the pandemic, we held a party for a colleague who was retiring. She and I had worked together for 30 years. I created a list of the funny things that had brought us together, separated into decades. Yes, hiding a lobster magnet around Town Hall (once sending it to Florida in a co-worker’s golf bag) seemed hysterical at the time. And what about when I accidentally videotaped (yes on a VCR, look it up on Wikipedia) an episode of “Designing Women” over the daring rescue of a deer in a river by the Town’s Animal Control Officer?

One time the Park & Recreation Department got a huge shipment of coloring books and we sat around a table on our lunch hour coloring for weeks. I repeat, we took an hour off during the day for what used to be called a “lunch hour.” When was the last time you did that?

Most of these antics were only understood by the two of us, yet the assembled well-wishers all laughed along. A more recent colleague turned to me and said “Wow, you used to have fun here.” It does feel like the Pandemic has stolen all the fun and left only the heavy, soul crushing work. But I think fun was on the decline before that. I’m not sure why this is, although I know in years when there was a “fun champion” in our building, there was more opportunity to gather and enjoy each other’s company. We used “wellness” funds for cookouts, we held Super Bowl and World Series parties, we created a Town employee golf tournament.

When did this business get so serious that many employees are carrying some form of depression or anxiety?

Play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith pioneered the notion that the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression. Many researchers and authors are now promoting play in the workplace. Stuart Brown, Author of the Book Play, notes that “taking time off to play does not mean you shirk your responsibilities, or that you aren’t a good parent or a good productive citizen. In fact, it’s just the opposite: your level of agitation drops when you get playful, which tends to increase perseverance and mastery. Play has a real payoff.”

Which brings us to my beloved Mary Poppins, who famously sang:

“In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.

And every task you undertake
Becomes a piece of cake
A lark! A spree!”

I am on a mission to inject some play into our work this summer. We need to start small. My younger daughter’s workplace has a “magic table” where staff put left over cake, small appliances, and other miscellany. Everything on the magic table is fair game. I recently switched up my laundry routine and couldn’t bear to throw away mostly full bottles of detergent. Thinking of the magic table, I put them on a counter in our lunch room and someone was able to use them. We are planning an official launch of the “Magic Counter,” and will track the most unusual items that get transferred.

Another small effort is to recognize the fatigue that sets in when Town Hall is open one late night in the summer to allow staff to leave early on Friday. We recently started a “Tasty Tuesday” program, and our office will provide ice cream treats at 5:15. We challenged all of the offices to sign up for a Tuesday. It’s not exactly Town employee night at the pool, but it’s a start!

Very Kate and daughters with M.P. (OK and Burt too). You can’t see the three circa 2003 Fanny packs thanks to the miracle of technology (although I am told they are fashionable again…)

What about you? What is the most fun thing you have done at work this year? Have you incorporated play into your office? Do you have any ideas to share with the rest of us?!

Let’s Practice, spoonful of sugar in hand.

I Long for a City Where…

Daily Life in Needham, Massachusetts

I am often inspired by stories on NPR. It’s a family joke, as I start virtually every conversation with the phrase “I heard on NPR today…” Earlier this year, Morning Edition resident poet Kwame Alexander and host Rachel Martin proposed writing their way out of the unprecedented events of the past year, to imagine a better future. Their crowdsourced poem This is Our Dream was created from 2,500 listener responses. My favorite line from the poem goes like this: “I dream a world where a bridge is arching over troubled waters, built on a foundation of truth. Where children grow up learning only one kind of division, the long kind.” A poem about hope and promise, and yet also a joke about math. Perfect.

In discussions with my Athenian cohort, I got the idea to create a crowdsourced poem about our cities and towns. Heaven knows we could use some hope for the future. My goal is to create an aspirational poem – not one about what we like, or what we wish for, but what we long for.

The choice of the word long is intentional. The verb “long” is defined as feeling “a strong desire or craving, especially for something not likely to be attained” (Merriam Webster). Not likely, but still possible. A sense of longing conjures a more aspirational lens.

In my mind’s eye I can travel the streets of my Town. I know intuitively where the DPW crews are working today, what time the school buses roll in any given neighborhood, and when the “walk” phase will cycle around at every traffic signal. I know a lot more (to be completely honest) about the Town where I work than the one where I live. I have a lot of hopes and dreams for this Town.

Our friend Peter Kageyama writes extensively about love for our cities. As he states in For the Love of Cities, “When we love something, we cherish it, we protect it, we do extraordinary things for it.” So what about you? What do you long for in your city or town? The one where you live, work, or manage? The one you cherish? The one that you would do extraordinary things for?

I long for a Town where people focus more on what we have accomplished, with pride and amazement, and focus less on what remains to be done, with frustration and criticism. I long for a city where people come together to meet real challenges with resolve and good humor, and a willingness to work collaboratively.

Iconic Hardware store in Needham Center, MA – Often Cited as Emblematic of Community Spirit

I have started asking people what they long for in their cities. Early submissions, not surprisingly, reflect the national mood. If I had to predict, I would say the poem will include a lot of longing for public civility. I challenge you, Relentless Practice readers, to send me your one sentence dream for your city – what you long for. With your help, one day we will open our inboxes to find the joy and inspiration that is our shared dream for our cities – in poem form. And then we can turn to making those dreams happen. Once we can take off these masks.

Let’s practice, longingly.

Resiliency, Space Shields, and the Unstoppable Squad

The Starship Enterprise (as if this needed a caption)

I have been thinking and talking to many of you lately about how it is increasingly hard to handle difficult people – the angry resident, the frustrated or volatile board member, the toxic employee, what have you. Perhaps this is due to the Pandemic, in which all of the fun parts of our jobs are out the window. Perhaps our immunity to hostility simply weakens over time. (Seriously, is any one of you able to go five minutes without talking about immunity?) When I was considering taking the job I have now, almost twenty years ago, I asked my husband for his thoughts. He told me he would support any choice I made, but that I was not going to grow thicker skin. So true. In fact, the opposite seems to be happening.

I turned to my friend and resiliency guru Jon Wortmann for his sage advice. His wisdom included maintaining the best attitude, being exceptionally prepared, using every encounter as a growth opportunity, and worst of all, considering compassion. You will have to ask him for details, but suffice it to say my initial reaction was “Um, no. I don’t want to learn and grow, I want to complain.”

So, for fun, I started creating my own coping mechanisms. Because we are all on digital meeting platforms all day, every day – usually alone at home or in our offices – we have the luxury of beginning any meeting with the words “Shields Up!’ As virtually everyone must know, these shields provide limited protection for ships against damage and enemy attack. I’ll take some limited protection. I can start any meeting picturing Captain Kirk, Ms. Uhura, and Mr. Sulu readying my laptop for battle. Also, apparently you can get a Zoom background displaying the bridge of the Enterprise. You’re welcome.

Picturing my friend in a room filling up with beach balls inexplicably reminds me of Bobby Brady and the washing machine…

A colleague of mine in Texas once shared her strategy. Everything is bigger than life in Texas, right? Are the difficult people even more difficult? In any event, she imagines her detractors throwing beachballs at her. Rather than throwing them back, she catches them and gently puts them down. I can picture her in a meeting that slowly begins to fill up with beach balls. However, this may be too closely related to the loving kindness method Jon recommended. Moving on.

What is actually working, however, is visualization. I took up a 21 day meditation challenge in January, actually completing most of the days. I found it so valuable I took advantage of the offer to reactivate my app for the year. Of course I haven’t been back, but it is on my to-do list every single day, which sort of counts. In one amazing guided meditation, the teacher asked us to picture ourselves in a difficult encounter. And then to imagine someone we greatly admire standing next to us. And then to picture another, and another, and so on. This is incredibly powerful. I have a large group of fellow managers in Massachusetts and around the country who I can conjure at a moment’s notice. When I am in a tough spot I can picture them behind me. I know I can do anything, meet any challenge, and stand up for those who need me with my Unstoppable Squad behind me.

Some members of the Unstoppable Squad at a Conference! On the Cape!

So back to Jon Wortmann’s advice – I really am taking it, because I do believe there are ways to keep growing through adversity. I’ll share one more thought he gave me. If you have been in your career, or even in the same position for a long time, you do hold some cards. You can push back, even if just a little, if circumstances require. When will you use your cards? They will be useless when you retire. For me the answer is clear – when needed to support the team. Every time.

How about you? Do you have a tried and true coping mechanism? Do you create Zoom backgrounds that are secret jokes? Is your immunity to difficult people weakening? Do you remember the washing machine episode on the Brady Bunch?

Let’s practice. Phasers on Stun.

Using an Anti-Bucket List to Clear Space in Your Head

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, 2016

I am recalling a flight to DC a few years ago. (Remember when we complained about the airlines? I even miss the airport.) So on this flight to DC, my older daughter and I got the idea from somewhere to write an “anti-bucket list.” This is the opposite of the ever popular bucket list, in which we are supposed to catalog all of the things we want to do in the this life and then not do any of them.

So we thought, what if we write down all of the things that we are sure we will never do, to get them out of the way? I fear we made a bit of a scene when we got laughing too hard. Here are a few things that we added to the list:

  • Take up smoking
  • Buy a motorcycle
  • Learn how to ski
  • Get a law degree
  • Climb a mountain
  • Walk across a suspension bridge made of rope (this one is just mine)
  • Jump out of an airplane (daughter #1 has reserved her options on this one but as she is soon to be a mother I am fairly confident on this)
  • Scuba dive through underwater caves
  • Anything to do with caves, really.
Fitzpatrick/Kean family members on the Bridge without VeryKate and & daughter #2 who were watching sheep

I’ve been thinking lately about all of the planning that needs to be done to keep our local governments on track, rebuilt, and thriving again after the pandemic. Like many of you, I am overwhelmed by the effort to simply get through the day given the financial crisis impacting our budgets, the difficult and meaningful work of examining our structures through an equity lens, and meeting constantly about COVID testing and vaccinations (rinse, repeat). We need more head space to think clearly.

I often turn to one of my favorite authors and motivational speakers, Mel Robbins, for simple and practical ways to confront problems. In her YouTube video “How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed Right Now” Robbins asserts that being overwhelmed is nothing more than having a full brain. Her solution for clearing space is a “brain dump.” She suggests that we write down our to-do lists, worries, plans, ideas, etc. Doing this every morning can help us prioritize tasks and plan our days. More importantly for me, I find that if a task or idea is written down in a place where I know I can find it (fellow notebook lovers, you know who you are), then I can let it go for a while and concentrate on what needs to be done immediately.

I wonder if creating an anti-bucket list for local government will help? Even if it just makes me laugh it is worth it. Here is a sample of things I have committed not to do:

  • Embezzle
  • Yell
  • Click on a link in an email from a foreign country
  • Approve only the highest bidder
  • Fall asleep during a cable TV license hearing
  • Go back to wearing stockings
  • Run for political office
  • “Fight City Hall”
  • Pull a fire alarm.

Practicing the daily brain dump and laughing about a work-related anti-bucket list got me thinking about the sheer magnitude of what we are trying to accomplish. I now resolve to do nothing new until FY22. That’s catchy enough to be our mantra for the winter and spring! Are you with me?

Here is the aforementioned sheep. You’re welcome.

How about you? What would be the first thing you put on your anti-bucket list? Do you have any strategies for clearing space for thoughtful work? Let’s practice – notebook(s) in hand.