One of the most significant responsibilities we have as an organization and as individual members is to shine a light on the tremendous impact a career in local government management can have in our cities, counties, and towns.
It’s especially important because the work of planning and running a well-functioning municipal operation often goes unnoticed. Less than 20 percent of MPA students say they are planning a career in local government. In fact, that was the case for me. I was planning to go to law school, but before completing my graduate studies, I needed to do an internship—and that’s when everything changed for me.
A Meaningful Internship and Mentor
I had the good fortune of serving my internship in the city administrator’s office in Southfield, Michigan, and he assigned me real work. I was researching and responding on his behalf to resident complaints and inquiries, attending meetings, and interacting with a variety of experts in public works, transportation, police, fire, the entire gamut. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was doing what I was meant to be doing. But most importantly, I could see how the work affected the everyday lives of people. At the end of the internship, I put aside law school and went all in with local government management.
It was also at that time that I learned the value of great mentors. As I have spoken with many of you about the early stages of your careers, I am struck by two things. First, by how many of us have had mentors, outstanding city leaders who were willing to spend time with us early and even in the later stages of our careers. Second, by the similarity of how we define a great mentor. Mentors not only teach the nuts and bolts of city management, but they convey the values that anchor this profession. They not only guide you on your career journey, but walk with you as you face life’s challenges. They provide a compelling example of how to live life according to this strong set of core values. These are the lessons that stay with you—wherever you go in life.
I have been fortunate to have several mentors over the course of my career—that first internship manager, Del Borgsdorf, and others who have inspired me, like Robert Bob and Sy Murray. Engaging with Sy and other Black leaders at state conferences, the National Forum of Black Public Administrators (NFBPA), and ICMA meant so much to me and others of my generation.
The January 2021 issue of PM features two outstanding mentors who have helped scores of students even as young as high school get started in local government. From the city of Auburndale, Florida, alone, 10 employees went on to become local government managers because of the mentorship of Bobby Green. And his is just one story.
An ICMA member survey indicates that 90 percent of managers say they are willing to become mentors yet only 15 percent of local governments say they have an intern or fellow. ICMA has a number of resources that can help you get an internship program off the ground and our Local Government Management Fellowship program has placed over 370 fellows with local governments. Or better yet, reach out for advice from one of our past Career Development Award Winners. Sam Gaston, ICMA-CM, is the 2021 honoree.
The Privilege of Being a Mentor
Serving as a mentor to students entering the profession, as well as mid-career professionals, has been one of the most profound privileges of my life. I am certain I have learned as much from those I have mentored as they have learned from me. They have strengthened my own commitment to leading collaboratively and with integrity, authenticity, and courage. The contribution of your time and talent to mentoring others has an exponential impact on this profession as your mentees go out into the world and touch the lives of so many others. I can think of no better way to honor and sustain the profession than to reach out and empower someone who may become our next extraordinary local government leader.
MARC OTT is CEO/executive director of ICMA, Washington, D.C.