Learning How to Thrive and Survive in a Challenging Environment

Paul Brake, city manager, Morgantown, WV, shares his experience at the HKS Senior Executives in Local Government program.

ARTICLE | Aug 13, 2019

by Paul Brake, city manager, Morgantown, West Virginia

Local government managers and administrators face great challenges and our jobs certainly aren’t getting any easier. Advances in technology that were once thought to simplify our jobs have created accountability and accessibility at all hours of the day. With this increased work pressure, work-life balance becomes even harder to achieve and, as the top official (especially in my case working in a small community), we are continually under the microscope. Despite lamenting about the setbacks, I am still passionate about public service and the role I have in my organization. I continually look for ways to sharpen my skills and keep pace with the ever-changing profession. At some point in our careers, we, as city and county managers, need to look for opportunities to reflect and recharge, find new solutions to vexing problems, and learn new skills to survive, as well as to thrive. 

In my quest for just such an opportunity, I was humbled and honored to be a scholarship recipient for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. This incredible three-week program gave me a new perspective to challenge my assumptions and offered me the framework for improved decision-making and, more importantly, to be a better person. The thought-provoking interactive format encouraged team-building and idea exchange among participants. It was as valuable to learn from each other as it was to gain knowledge from the materials presented. During the program, we were put in situations where we raised difficult issues, encouraged discussion of differences and, hopefully, formulated solutions to bring about positive change. The classroom environment served as a laboratory for ideas that can be put into immediate use upon returning to work.

The program covered a considerable number of topics, including leadership, negotiations, decision making, technology, policy making, religion and politics, finance, technology, and gender bias, just to name a few. The case studies presented during the program were taken from very recent high-profile controversies or crises that have occurred across the county and could occur in our workplace.

The faculty and guest lecturers were an incredible group of thought leaders. Harvard assembled the most inspiring, dedicated, and spirited professionals. We were encouraged to get to know our fellow classmates, and share our inspirations, ambitions, and difficult experiences. I truly felt that I left the program knowing each classmate personally. For me, the laughter, story telling, and friendships made during this program were simply priceless. 

I am grateful to the ICMA’s Strategic Partners eCivis and The Ferguson Group for providing me with this scholarship opportunity, and the ICMA Scholarship Committee for choosing my application. I encourage ICMA members to apply to be considered for future scholarship sessions.

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