Lessons in Local Government Leadership: Taking Risks to Learn and Grow

Lessons from a mid-career manager on figuring out what is truly an “oops” and what is an interesting learning experience.

BLOG POST | Jul 11, 2017

Wrriten by Jessica Kinser, City Administrator, Marshalltown, IA

A fear of failure can cause any city administrator to play it safe and avoid risk, which is generally what we do in government. It is how I would have described myself before taking on some challenging projects and positions. However, taking risk is how we learn and grow. It is how I have learned what really is an “oops” or something to try to avoid in the future and what really is an interesting new approach and reaction. These are three lessons from one mid-career manager to other local government professionals who might need that final push to get over the fear of taking risks in their career.

Lesson 1: Everything is your mistake

This is tough territory, especially as you come into a new organization.  We are part of the organization we belong to, including the past.  No citizen wants to hear you cast blame; they want to know you are listening now. 

Your employees want to know you are listening too, and how you react to the mistakes of your staff sets the tone for whether your organization is one that is willing to put forth some big, bold ideas and if you remain risk averse.

And if you make a mistake, which is hard for any of us imagining we could do, own it and own it quickly. If you let it sit out there without you taking responsibility, it leaves a void for elected officials, employees, citizens and anyone else to exaggerate what the mistake is. Honesty and accountability go very far in this effort.

Now let’s take this lesson to a personal level. The best advice I have received from a fellow (now retired) city administrator was to look in the mirror when things are not going well.  What we see is ourselves as part of the problem.  I personally have named this lesson “check yourself before you wreck yourself”.  We cannot control the actions of others but we can control our own actions and reactions. 

Lesson 2: Have a plan and stick to it

This seems like a simple lesson, but it can be very difficult when dissension exists.  A plan is not meant to sit on a shelf or be so inflexible that it is paralyzing, but it should at least give some basic guidelines or principles, which a majority have agreed to.  As I have had to have arguments over the value of the capital improvement plan in difficult financial times, I have gone to the trusty line of “doing nothing is still a plan”

Lesson 3: Consider all options

One of my favorite quotes comes from the hit show “Parks and Recreation” and a memorable episode around animal control.  Chris Traeger, City Manager played by Rob Lowe, profoundly states, “I think you’ve got several options.  They are all terrible, but you have them.”  It’s a great reminder to be thankful when things do not seem that great.

Our role as professional managers requires us to provide options and information and recommendations to our governing bodies (see Tenet 5).  There tends to be one option that I never quite remember, but it is quite handy.  That is the option of doing nothing.  This will not fit every situation but is one that has gotten me out of some politically sticky situations where there was not a right or wrong solution or a demand. 

My lessons learned so far as a mid-career manager have helped me to figure out what is truly an “oops” and what is an interesting learning experience.  We each develop our own lessons as we continue to grow in our careers and communities, and our shared experiences will hopefully help early career managers avoid some of the growing pains of our pasts.

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