What would you tell your early career self?

Summer carnival at Needham High School 2019

When I asked my community what they would tell their early career selves, and what they wished they had known when they started out, the responses ranged from humorous, to practical, to wistful. This month we are grieving the loss of recently retired manager Rocco Longo who served in numerous communities for more than three decades. Rocco was the manager who practically everyone I know would turn to for advice. Since Rocco was one of the very first managers to complete my (rather lengthy) “Somehow I Managed” survey, I wanted to go back and see how he would answer this question, and whether his answers would follow the common themes. They certainly did.

Rocco told me that he was lucky from the start – he always liked what he was doing for work. He wished he had understood the personal nature of attacks on local government officials, and the toll that living in the community where you work can take on your family, especially your kids. He grew to realize that living in the community you serve is not mandatory. He wished he had taken writing courses in his early years. (This is a great idea – I’m going to look into this even for us seasoned managers). He summed up with a sentiment that I have heard from many managers now entering retirement: “I think as a baby boomer, the profession itself was growing, so a lot of what was going on was learning on the job, and that was part of the enjoyment.” In other words, maybe the best advice we can give our early career selves is that there is just no substitute for experience, and make sure you enjoy the ride while you are gaining it.

As with Rocco, “don’t take things so personally” was the universal advice of survey respondents. Others wished they had truly understood and planned for just how unsettling the night meetings are. The impact of the workload on family was also a common theme: “A community never rests, and sometimes those closest to us feel the greatest burden.” And, “Life at the top is lonely. While it is nice to be part of a team, the coach has a distinctly different job to do, and he or she is the only one doing it.”

Many managers remarked that they wished thy had had more confidence in their early career abilities. One colleague noted “Don’t hold back. You can do what you see the senior managers doing. They are not bigger than life.” I can recall watching the “big kids” when I started out, and yet now that I am arguably one of them, I find that I learn the best new approaches from those who are just starting out. Managers also wish they had understood early the power of community: “I would have been less nervous about embarking on this career if I really knew the extent of the support out there for municipal managers.” Another colleague said that he wished he had more confidence, had been willing to take risks and put himself “out there.” On the other hand, other managers noted that the career is a marathon not a sprint, and urged their younger selves not to rush so fast to get to the manager seat. Here is some timeless advice for women just starting out: “As a woman in local government, standing up for yourself is nothing to apologize for.”

The question of colleagues versus confidants is a regular part of our Boot Camp for new and aspiring managers. Managers need to be keenly aware that there are very few, if any, confidants in their organizations once they are in the top job. Confusing colleagues for confidants is a mistake many managers make, often the hard way. Said one manager, “Get to know your staff members but do not get too close. You will never truly be their friend, you will always be the boss.” Another manager offered this practical advice: “As far as having the technical knowledge will allow you to figure out what needs to be done, having the people skills will allow you to actually accomplish something.”

What would you tell your early career self? My favorite advice from the survey: “Don’t panic.” “Dress better.” “You’re an idiot.” Let our community know your best advice by leaving a comment! Let’s practice.

What Are Your Values – and How Do You Know?

Needham Accessible Reservoir Trail (NART)

In 2015, after evaluating the results of an employee satisfaction survey, our Town embarked on a formal employee engagement process. The focus areas of the program have ranged from the lofty: ensuring that every employee’s on-boarding experience is of the highest quality – to the more mundane: improving the dreaded travel reimbursement process. Our engagement strategies have evolved over the years depending on circumstances and the interests of the folks participating. In one recent iteration, we held a series of workshops culminating in a Town-wide vote on the description of our core values: Communication, Integrity, and Community.

Since the early days of the employee survey (memo to me: don’t implement employee surveys during the snowiest one-month period in recorded memory when employees are exhausted), the topic of communication has been the overriding theme. It goes without saying that integrity is the backbone of local government, and community is both what we are, and what we do. Once we identified the words, we began to wrestle with what to do with them.

Enter Bob Glazer, author and CEO of Acceleration Partners who was written up in the Boston Globe Magazine for his innovative approach to connecting with an all-remote workforce through an inspirational weekly email now called “Friday Forward.” I had never meet Bob, but the article said that he lived and worked in our town so I stalked him tracked him down and invited him to speak to our leadership team. He graciously accepted.

While affiliate marketing and local government are fairly different “mission-wise,” we do share the commonality that not all of our employees get to connect every day. Or, in some cases, ever. Given the traditional business week followed in many departments, and the 24/7 schedule in others, many employees never interact in person. Bob stressed the importance of connection through shared values. He challenged us to consider our core values, and how they are “operationalized” in our culture. In other words, if the Town’s core values exist only on stationery, how do employees and the public know if the values are being honored?

So challenged, our solutions team stepped right up. We had already identified the values – how hard could the next step be? Pretty hard, as it turns out. Brené Brown, in her latest book Dare to Lead, notes that organizational values are often “gauzy” – assessed in terms of aspirations rather than actual behaviors that can be taught, measured and evaluated. Our team reviewed the process outlined in her handy reference guide and got to work. The basic question for us was how to articulate what the value of communication might look like on a job description or performance review. If communication is our core value, how will we know if we are doing it right?

We organized an operationalizing values workshop with volunteers from our wider leadership team. Using the tools outlined in the guide, we separated into groups and brainstormed statements that all begin with “I” or “We.” The goal was to identify behaviors that support the value of communication. The responses that we received were categorized into the general groupings of teamwork, information sharing, empowerment, respect, and protocol.

Teamwork behaviors include statements like “I ask others with more knowledge to help me” and “I make sure that everyone who should be involved in a conversation is invited.” Information sharing behaviors include statements such as “I think of creative ways to get our message out” and “I provide clear and accurate information. ” For empowerment, participants suggested “I am empowered to ask questions” or “I take responsibility for asking for what I need, ” while the category of Respect led to “I am mindful of other people’s time,” and “I own up to my mistakes.” Finally, protocol statements sounded like “I will not reply all unless absolutely required” (this again!) and “I take the time to proofread email before sending.”

It became clear to us that the simple word “communication” may be too “gauzy” to adequately articulate our core value, and we will be meeting again soon to keep wordsmithing until we get it right. Then, it’s on to integrity and community. We found Bob Glazer just at the right time in our process, and we are forever grateful!

How about you? Has your organization identified its core values? Have you found interesting and creative ways to operationalize them? Please share! Let’s practice.

Why Does Going on Vacation Show up on the Local Government Miseries List?

Long Sands General Store

You know that exercise that seems to come up at every training session? “Close your eyes and imagine yourself in your happy place.” For me, that place is Long Sands Beach in York, Maine. Well, it’s my local happy place (looking at you Amalfi Coast).

When my eyes are closed, I hear the surf. But more importantly, I hear the gentle slam of the old fashioned wooden screen door at the General Store. And I know when I open it Erica will be there with a smile and a welcome back. Heaven.

Long Sands Beach, York Maine

In April, I made a presentation to the department managers in a very small community near mine. These managers were the first to provide me with feedback on my list of 21 (and growing) local government miseries. I was quite surprised that they overwhelmingly resonated with the vacation misery.

You know the one. It takes 40 hours extra effort before and after a vacation just to get ahead/stay caught up. Many note that sometimes it’s just not worth it to get away. We have to do something about this.

I asked my colleagues for their advice. The most common response was to plan a vacation of more than two weeks – many feel that one week is simply too short to unplug. Vacationing in remote parts of the world with no cell service was a close second. One colleague described his strategy of “gently touching” email every day. Perhaps early in the morning, when no one else is awake, or late afternoon when most offices are closed. I keep picturing him hovering over his keyboard and oh so very gently opening an email. Just the thought of it makes me smile, and maybe the image will put me in the best frame of mind to check email on my vacation – keeping the important things moving along, and ignoring the rest.

Enough books for a week’s beach vacation

How about you? Do you have a tip to prevent the vacation dread response? Does anyone believe your out of office reply that you have “limited access to email while away?!”

Emily P. Freeman says that “rest is sitting down on the inside.” So let’s practice, lobster roll in hand.

Don’t Throw That Phone Across the Room: Dread Prevention 101

It’s finally spring in New England, so thoughts naturally turn to dread. That is how to limit or even eliminate it.

You know the kind I mean.  A text message flashes up on your phone.  You open your inbox.  Someone sends you a calendar invitation on Outlook.  Immediately your stomach sinks.  Your face flushes, your heart speeds up.  You groan.   You think about but (usually) do not throw your phone across the room. 

In some seasons of the year and of life, this reaction happens with greater frequency.  Last year, when I succumbed to dread with alarming regularity, I set out to discover why I was feeling that way, and whether there was anything I could do about it. 

I quickly realized that the situation called for an old fashioned “naming and framing” exercise.  In order to reduce the level of dread, I needed to have a better handle on what was really causing it.  I thought it was possible that information would allow me to re-frame some of the dread-inducing situations, or even better, stop them altogether by planning more intentionally.

I’d like to tell you I created spreadsheets, charts, graphs, and Venn diagrams but those who know me would quickly cry foul.  What I did do was grab a yellow pad of paper and a pen and started a list.  I labeled the columns with the mode of communication, the reason for the communication, the sender, and a response options.

I decided to focus on email and texts – tackling dread inducing meetings will have to be a second step.  I determined that most of the dread came from the following situations:

It’s not clear why I received this email.  The sender did not follow our protocol of carefully arranging recipients by “to” and “cc” so that those copied would know that they are just being kept in the loop, and need not take any action.  This email creates extra work for me, since I must email the sender back to ascertain what he or she needs me to do.  In the way of all things email, this usually requires two or three emails back and forth and even more annoyance.  A quick way to lower the level of frustration in this case is to actually pick up the phone (I know).  A 30 second call will establish roles and responsibilities, and you can use the opportunity to beg the person to follow the agreed upon email protocol. 

There is something I should have done and did not do.  We’ve all been there.  You have to send a complicated and nuanced email but keep putting it off until it is too late.  You didn’t write the material that you promised to finish weeks ago.  You didn’t get the buy-in you needed for a project to succeed because the stakeholders were just too needy.  And now you are being called out on it.  Without question, the best strategy for preventing such failures is to ensure that they don’t happen in the first place.  We use a method we call Step Zero to help us act in a more thoughtful way.  Most importantly, when I catch myself procrastinating, I remember the pain of the last failure and try to act accordingly.

There is something the sender should have done and did not do.  You have been asking for data for weeks.  All you wanted was for that person to follow-up with a resident to let her know when her tree limb would be cut down.  Someone is letting you down. Again.  I do a lot of coaching on this issue – trying to encourage managers to delegate to staff in the office who can easily call residents to keep them updated about schedules.  More recently, though, I’ve been working on coaching myself.  Is the manager overloaded?  How much have I contributed to the overload?  Is there a way we can agree on how to triage the sheer volume of inquiries that the local government manager receives, but must rely on staff to answer?  A little soul searching is in order for this one. 

I know you’re busy, but can you review this 30-page grant today because it is due at 5:00?  The easy answer to this one, of course, would be to say no, my time is valuable, and “A lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.”  But we all know that as the head of our organizations, everyone’s emergency is actually our emergency.  It the grant doesn’t go in, and a segment of our community is negatively impacted, blaming someone who works for us isn’t really an option.  I am working on setting up what we used to call a “tickler file” (does anyone still say that?)  listing due dates that I know about.  It may help me work with managers to prioritize the requests that I send them if I can clearly see the deadlines on their schedules.    

I can’t fix your problem.  I know that you are absolutely correct and frustrated.  I know that you pay a lot of money in taxes (really, I do).  And there is no way for me to quickly or legally help you.  So what can I do?  I remember that many people just want to be heard.  I try to take the time to hear them out and explain why what they are asking for is not possible.  Perhaps it may be possible in the future with more study or process.  Perhaps there is an alternative that might work.  I tell myself to try to say yes to something. 

Some people just push our buttons.  I find it useful to have a small cache of mantras to drag out when these emails come through – even before I read them.  The VeryKate version is something along the lines of “Remember that all she wants is to be safe, happy and healthy just like you do.”  A more common mantra might be “I will do everything in my power to outlast you in this organization” or something even less charitable.  We all have work to do.

Reply All.  Enough said.

When the dread wave starts, this naming and framing exercise has helped lower my dread quotient.  A little. Sort of.  But I’ll take it. 

I’d love to hear what triggers your dread reaction.  What steps have you taken to try to lessen the reaction?  Let’s practice!

Somehow I Managed


Chatham Bars Inn

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to work with Bob O’Neill (former executive director of the ICMA), presenting a workshop for the Massachusetts Municipal Managers Association on Cape Cod. My role was to share findings from my research on life as a local government manager. We spent time as a group learning and brainstorming about how to stay motivated in this profession.

The managers I surveyed in my research had a wide variety of suggestions for maintaining motivation at work – making sure to look at the big picture, using humor, changing communities, embarking on passion projects that do not need any outside approval, making routine things better or more innovative, and spending time mentoring staff.

Several managers noted that when they felt that they were losing their motivation, they switched communities to make a fresh start. One manager said that he stayed motivated by learning new ways to present the budget, or setting a new goal such as applying for the GFOA distinguished budget award. Another manager noted that “It is helpful to look at every recurring project with an eye for how to make it better.”

Having passion projects is a common strategy. “Undertaking a pet project helps break the monotony in the municipal cycle” said one manager. Another agreed: “I try to have a signature project each year that isn’t Town Meeting dependent to revitalize my primary purpose for doing this work – making life better for the citizens I serve.” Another manager took the “CSI” approach: “Take on a ‘cold case’ issue and try it again if enough time has passed,” he suggested. Continuing on the “cold” theme, a colleague knew where to look for his next passion project: “There are many projects in the freezer – that’s when you don’t have enough room to put them on the back of the stove.”

When you have been in the same position or career for a long time, it can be tricky to find ways to learn and grow. Attending professional development workshops is an obvious way to stay motivated. Another is to become a subject matter expert. One colleague who moved to a coastal community prone to flooding decided early on (I think on day two when the first winter storm hit) that becoming an expert in emergency management would be a necessity as well as an opportunity for her. Taking on new departments to supervise, and changing reporting relationships in your organization can be a way to learn new skills. One manager agreed to take over supervision of the IT department with no first-hand knowledge of the subject matter as a way to keep work interesting.

Scanning the landscape to identify signature issues on the horizon that need to be reckoned with was the strategy of one local manager. In that vein, I recently listened to a podcast (Gov Love of course) about the future of parking garages when autonomous vehicles are common (sorry behemoth concrete structures, you will need to be re-purposed). I keep thinking how the landscape in our town will change as a result, and that we better start planning.

Connecting with peers and fostering long-term relationships is an exceptional way to stay motivated and resilient. Participation in the ICMA and state associations is a common way to do this. One colleague noted that “I feel like the camaraderie of the membership along with the professional resources that are provided make both organizations (MMMA and ICMA) exceptionally valuable.” (Is it me, or is camaraderie the hardest word to remember how to spell?)

I’m sure many local government professionals will identify with this manager, who says “My involvement with MMMA has been a highlight of my life. The things I learned helped me to do a better job. The friends I made supported me through some dark times when I needed it most. I tried to return that in kind.” Many said that their colleagues were some of the closest friends they had, and that attendance at association meetings is critical to nurturing those relationships. Finally, any number of colleagues have created kitchen cabinets, with whom then learn, grow, commiserate, celebrate and grieve. Said one manager: ” I have a small group of colleagues, all of us entered the profession at about the same time. I consider them to be my personal board of directors.”

This “Somehow I Managed” research, and this blog, are my passion projects. The work keeps me engaged and connected with peers – a big source of motivation for me. I urge you to explore new strategies to boost your resilience and stay motivated at work. If all else fails, plan a great vacation for a time when you reach a big milestone – the end of Town Meeting or the adoption of the city budget for example. Having something to look forward to is a great way to endure the seemingly endless number of meetings about stormwater!

If you would like to fill out the survey send me a note! I would love to hear your stories and keep the project moving. And Bob, how about we take our show on the road?!

Let’s practice.

A Local Government Legacy is…

Public Services Administration Building circa 2010

One of the greatest joys for me as a local government manager is that my legacy lives right here with me every day. Anyone who has managed a city or town has had a hand in the construction or reconstruction of capital facilities, and nothing compares to the feeling of satisfaction when you get to see them every day. Over the last ten years, I have been part of many such projects, and I count them as my proudest accomplishments.

About a decade ago, our town was planning for the historic renovation of its 1902 Town Hall. It had been retrofit in the 1950’s with terrible dropped ceilings and partitions. Some wanted to maximize its use for municipal offices, and others wanted the great hall (the entire second floor) restored as a meeting and performance venue. Although I admit I was skeptical about the latter approach, it was a clear community desire. So we used that opportunity to pitch a second municipal building – one that would house Public Works administration (then located above a garage) as well as permanently displaced Town Hall departments. The new building also served as swing space for our renovated Town Hall – saving millions in relocation costs. I will never forget the moment we stopped saying if we could build the Public Services Administration Building, but how we would pay for it.

Center At the Heights

Our Town’s senior center was located in the basement (truly) of an old school building re-purposed as senior housing. For more than a decade, citizen committees explored options for creating new and appropriate space to provide services to our growing senior population. As a fully-developed and land-locked community, the options were scarce and unappealing. After several missteps, we came up with a wild idea – to pitch the Commonwealth to let us build the center in a poorly utilized commuter parking lot. We were able to trade a town parking lot already used for commuter parking to the transit authority to increase its parking revenue, and the deal was made. Turning this improbable idea into reality is an example of why we do this work. The Center at the Heights runs at capacity every day.

Owens Poultry Farm 2015

One of our elected officials called me out of the blue and told me that our town’s iconic poultry farm was to be offered for sale. At the same time, we were wrestling with a series of options for reconstructing an elementary school and none was satisfactory. So we said “Let’s build the school on the poultry farm! We can also buy a handful of houses around it!” It sounds unbelievable but that’s just what happened. The new Sunita L. Williams school will open this fall. Every time I drive by the school I am proud of having been part of the behind the scenes planning.

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Rendering of the Sunita Williams School

There are always lessons learned. Since we built the Center at the Heights, commuter rail use is way up, so we are on the hunt again for more space for parking. The Sunita Williams School is the only project I have been involved with that included hazmat remediation of chicken fat. And, of course, there were a lot of “buying the farm” jokes to put up with. With respect to Town Hall, though, the preservationists had it right. The hall is in great demand for concerts, fundraisers, and meetings. And, since 2011 when it reopened, we have held our Town Meeting in the great hall. Using the hall for Town Meeting is more convenient, and much more intimate than the former venue – an elementary school auditorium.

Needham Town Hall 1902/2011

“Old buildings are like old friends. They reassure people in times of rapid change. They encourage people to dream about their cities – to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down.” – Nancy Harris

What’s your legacy building? I’d love to hear about it. Let’s practice!

Why Very Kate, and What They Don’t Tell You About Blarney Castle

I’m not very good at heights.  Or enclosed spaces.  Or the dark. When people tell me stories about vacations hiking in caves or scuba diving into enclosed underwater rooms, I usually plug my ears and hum. 

Here’s what the guidebook doesn’t tell you about the treasured landmark Blarney Castle: it’s not for the faint of heart.  I never planned to do the whole “lean over the abyss on my back to kiss a stone” thing, but I never expected the ascension to the top of the castle to be so dark.  And enclosed.  The higher you climb, the darker and more enclosed it gets.  And, since you are in line behind people taking turns doing the aforementioned awkward kissing maneuver, the line moves slowly.  Very slowly.  It’s like something out of a horror movie for people like me.

When my family and I climbed the stairs to the top of Blarney Castle a few years ago, a man in full cold-weather motorcycle gear and carrying a helmet was climbing the (did I mention winding) staircase with his young son just above us.  As it got darker and more narrow, an older woman (an obvious kindred spirit) became quite distressed.  This man, a total stranger, talked to her the whole time in a calm and practical way, pointing out the crack of light to be seen at the top.  He never stopped until she (and thankfully I ) got to the top.  I am in awe of the kindness and generosity displayed by this man. He was exhibiting his best self and helping others in the process.

Very Kate appeared on the stairs to Blarney Castle. I named this site after her – the best version of myself. Very Kate is not an alter ego, but an enhanced ego.  Kate 2.0.  I yank on her mantle when I have to make a presentation before a large crowd, answer questions at Town Meeting, drive on the highway, begin difficult conversations, present to large crowds, conduct on-air interviews, and the like. Very Kate is my superpower. Just saying her name out loud makes me feel more confident.

I am guessing that fellow local government professionals could use a superpower to help them meet the demands and challenges of our digital age. How about you? Have you drawn strength from an enhanced version of you? What is your superpower?

Very Kate was here last week when I recorded a podcast with Brian Ondrako for Dude Solutions/Gov Gab. Being on a podcast is on my bucket list, so when I was asked to participate, I couldn’t say no. It was amazing to have the opportunity to share my story and celebrate my community with Brian. He was a great host. I will have to drag Very Kate out, though, to have the courage to actually listen to my own voice!

If you want to check it out, the podcast is at Dude Solutions’ Operate Intelligently/Gov Gab on ITunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find it here:   https://shows.pippa.io/operate-intelligently-podcast/episodes/gov-gab-town-of-needham-ma-ep-6.

Let’s Practice.