March is Women’s History Month, which provides an opportunity to highlight women who impact the profession. Courtney Christensen, city administrator, Mission Hills, Kansas, and a 2019 ICMA Local Government Excellence Award recipient, is known for her ability to attract and develop individuals new to the profession.
Courtney has spent the last 32 years working for two cities, Kansas City, Missouri, and Mission Hills, Kansas, and has a wide range of experience in the areas of budget/finance, resource management, and emergency services coordination. In 2000, she became city administrator in Mission Hills, where one of the hallmarks of her tenure has been a focus on resident satisfaction and community engagement.
We had the chance to connect with Courtney as she reflected on those who inspired her throughout her career and the importance of mentorship in the profession.
ICMA: Can you recall a female mentor that has inspired you during your career?
CC: I have been inspired by so many women in my career that I find the question a bit overwhelming. During my career I have met and been mentored by so many strong, intelligent, dedicated public servants from my social work supervisor, Beth Denney, who said don’t get your MSW get an MPA; Wanda Champion Gunther and Anita Maltbia who took me under their wing in Kansas City, Missouri; to Mayor Betty Keim, who hired me for my current position as the first female administrator of Mission Hills.
These were women who wanted women to do better, that weren’t threatened by another woman succeeding, and had enough self confidence that they did not feel the need to slam closed the hatchway through the glass ceiling that they managed to slip through, to keep other women down.
But of even greater influence has been the women who were pursuing their career starts at the same time as me. In the mid-1990s when I was promoted into the city manager’s office, I attended the Missouri City Managers’ Association meeting where I found there were no women managers in the state but there were four of us in assistant roles. We formed a tight group who supported each other and found a place where we could talk through the sexual harassment, the disrespect, and the glass ceiling that we struggled with through the years. We also delighted in and celebrated the increasing number of women joining the MPA programs and working in local government. We vowed to hold that hatchway open for all who followed us and I believe we have done so.
ICMA: Can you tell us about any young women that you mentored or influenced at some point in your career?
CC: I have had the privilege to mentor so many wonderful young women. In the last 20 years in Mission Hills, I have had 19 interns, eight of those women. The three that stand out are also the three that I have continued mentoring and also developed a deep friendship with through the years following their internship. Mentoring young people, whether male or female, has been the greater privilege for me than benefit to them. They have helped me to stay current with societal trends and they helped me to understand the environment that we must develop to attract young people to our community to live, work, and play.
The best piece of advice I have given is
Identify what your values and priorities are when being hired. Make sure that they know who you are and what takes priority in your life. In addition, what do you need to be satisfied with this job: is it salary, flexible work hours, support to seek another degree or more vacation time, etc. Know what is important to you. Share that information. If they don’t know what you want, they won’t know to offer it.
ICMA: ICMA also identifies March as ethics month. Can you provide an example of how you witnessed or demonstrated ethical leadership in a challenging situation?
CC: I wanted to work in local government because there were ethical people dedicated to serving the public who were willing to lose their job to do the right thing. I have been asked during my career to do unethical things, such as accept a bribe to look the other way, sign contracts that were not approved by the council, or hide information from other council members. I have been threatened with the loss of my job if I did not acquiesce to the council members’ or mayors’ request. I have always replied that I will not violate my oath of office and that they should take whatever steps they thought were best in regard to my job.
Learn more about the ICMA Local Government Excellence Award Program and see the wonderful work that is being done in communities across the globe.