By Gloria Hurtado
On October 8, 2017, in the middle of the night, when I was working in Santa Rosa, California, I received a call from the city’s fire chief requesting the activation of the city’s emergency operations center. What was then the largest wildfire in California history was rapidly advancing toward the city, and several areas were being evacuated.
This not only meant the immediate deployment of police and fire; employees from all departments became first responders. Public transit assisted with the evacuation of seniors, driving through the fires as flames encircled their assisted living facilities.
Public works ensured evacuation routes were clear. Recreation and parks staff set up an emergency shelter to house evacuees. Communications staff coordinated with Sonoma County to provide updates to the community. For more than a week, every city worker’s job was responding to the immediate disaster, providing for public safety and communicating to the public.
While experiencing a disaster is not the normal course of business, this experience highlights the diversity of disciplines and experiences in public service.
My career has included working in a community organization, the private sector, and more than 25 years in local government in three different cities and states. I have found my career in public service the most rewarding because my contributions have made a difference for many.
I, like others, however, had to prepare for the responsibilities that came my way. Here is my guidance for a career in public service:
1. Invest in Preparation.
Preparing for a career in local government begins with ensuring you have the educational background to succeed. If your goal is to advance into a leadership position, a graduate degree is essential.
Research is a key component of your preparation. Learn about the local government organization, how government works, and who the people are in leadership positions. Attend a council meeting or locally sponsored meeting. Know who is serving in elected positions.
2. Be Open to Opportunities.
Local government provides opportunities for many career tracks, so take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Don’t be afraid to work in a different department or an area that is new to you.
Approach every experience as a learning opportunity. Even if you decide it is not the area for you, it is a learning experience.
3. Make Volunteer Commitments.
Volunteer both inside and outside the organization. There will be opportunities to work on projects, teams, planning retreats, and more. Don’t be afraid to ask for those opportunities and participate fully.
Volunteer in the community in an area you feel passionate about, whether it is working with young people, the elderly, the homeless, or animals. Be committed and genuine when you volunteer, and you will get more than you give.
As an added benefit, through volunteering you will make many connections, gain experience, and acquire leadership skills.
4. Seek Mentoring and Be a Mentor.
Participate in formal mentoring programs, if available, or ask someone you respect to serve as your mentor—then follow up. Any effective mentoring relationship requires regular and ongoing communication.
Some mentoring relationships occur naturally; for example, a supervisor who provides opportunities and guidance is serving in a mentoring role. It’s not unusual to have many mentors throughout your career.
One of the best ways to develop leadership skills is to mentor others, whether it’s within your organization or in a different arena. You will grow from your mentoring experience and be able to apply those skills in your career.
5. Challenge Yourself.
Continually challenge yourself to grow. Become the expert in the position you hold. Prepare and compete for new positions. Even when you’re not successful, you are letting others know you are motivated.
Take advantage of training and educational opportunities both inside and outside the organization.
6. Engage in Teamwork.
You will have the opportunity to be a part of many teams so be a good team member! Understand the goals, contribute positively, communicate, and be supportive of your team members.
High-performing teams move towards the same goal, are highly productive, and complement and support each other.
7. Prepare for the Curves.
Career success is not always a straight line. We each travel our own path to professional success and fulfillment. Sometimes you take a lateral position or a step down for new opportunities.
Sometimes you move to a different organization which requires re-establishing your credibility. You may experience setbacks in your career.
Don’t be discouraged! Regroup and consider what you learned from the experience and whether you would do anything differently in the future. Focus on your strengths, seek guidance from a mentor, and move forward.
I encourage anyone considering a career in local government to take the plunge. You will never be bored. Local government offers many different challenges, experiences, disciplines, and opportunities to grow and give back. I know, because it has for me.