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Climbing the career ladder as a young professional can be challenging in any profession. This is especially true in local government, a public-facing profession with less room for mistakes and where decisions can have long-lasting impacts on communities. But mentorship can make this transition easier.

In Whitewater, Wisconsin, USA, Taylor Zeinert is transitioning from the role of chief of staff to economic development director. She has already reached the rare status of a woman in local government leadership, but she got her foot in the door with help from her mentors. “When I finished grad school, [I realized] I had spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get this master’s in public administration, [but kept] getting rejection after rejection. It was heartbreaking,” she said. “It almost made me question the things that I was doing.”

Zeinert persevered with guidance from other women in local government. She had an internship with Clintonville, Wisconsin, and connected with the city administrator, Sharon Eveland, and assistant city administrator, Caz Muske. “I called Caz and asked, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ She made time to chat with me via Zoom about what I could do better and what positions make sense. That has been exceptional,” Zeinert said.

A recent analysis of the National Employee Survey (NES), a workplace climate assessment for local governments, identified opportunities for promotion and career development as top drivers of employee retention. (The NES is conducted by Polco, a civic analytics and community engagement technology company serving the information needs of the public sector.)

According to this research, about seven in 10 local government employees approve of the coaching and mentorship they receive from their organizations. Mentorship helps younger employees feel more integrated and connected. It also serves as a form of career development and is the best way to transfer knowledge.

Mentorship can also help younger people navigate the unique challenges of working in the public sector, such as the pressure of public visibility. However, as Zeinert points out, finding a mentor takes work. She says most of her younger peers in local government do not have mentors in the public sector but rather in academia, like professors. She says it’s even more challenging to find women mentors because there are far fewer in leadership roles.

“As someone who is an aspiring city manager, the majority of managers are men, so it’s hard to find a woman in general that has that role, and then it’s even harder to find someone who you click with,” she says. Polco research, in partnership with ICMA, shows that less than 40% of elected officials and local government senior managers are women. Moreover, only about three in 10 city managers in the United States are women.

Mentorship is essential to leadership development and bridging gender gaps at the highest levels. Zeinert acknowledges that a female mentor in leadership, who has already navigated life transitions like balancing motherhood and work, could offer first-hand guidance on how to manage those challenges. Even so, it’s wise to seek mentors regardless of shared gender. Mentorship, whether with men or women, is a valuable asset to anyone at any point in their career.

Zeinert herself already has a mentee just a few years younger than her. He was an intern who worked for her during a political campaign season. “We had similar life goals. He also wanted to stay local and do the city management route…. When it came to him filling out his applications or securing internships, he has always called me and asked me questions,” she says.

For Zeinert and many others, mentorship is key to moving their careers forward. It drives job satisfaction and staff retention by building trust and making newer employees feel welcome. Mentors help develop skills and prepare the next generation of leaders. And, as the workforce grows more diverse, mentorship even helps to bridge representation gaps in leadership positions overall.

Polco brings people and data together to help build stronger, healthier communities. We offer access to clear insights from industry-leading surveys, government performance data and AI, interactive simulations, and more — all within a single award-winning engagement and civic analytics platform. Thousands of government leaders trust Polco to better align community decisions around the most important priorities and to strengthen public trust. Learn more at

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JESSIE O’BRIEN serves as the lead copywriter for Polco.

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