Mistakes I Made in My Parks & Recreation Career
Oftentimes, we only hear the highlights of other people’s stories. We hear how accomplished they are, how quickly they got there, and all their future aspirations. Today, I wanted to share the mistakes that I’ve made throughout my career (thus far). Looking back, there were a few things I could have done a little differently. So while I’m happy with where I am today, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so I can help other young professionals out there too.
1. Assuming a career in P&R was a straight line.
In college, you’re told to decide on a major, and it seems like a very defining moment. No longer are you “undecided,” but rather you have chosen a career path. The logical career choice upon deciding on a career in parks and recreation is to become a director. So I set my sights on a ten year goal of becoming just that. It seemed like every decision I made was predicated on asking, “How does this fit into becoming a director?” One thing that I did not realize is that parks and recreation is a rich and varied career. Fresh out of college, one can become a director of a very small community department. But there are many other experiences which are worth having if you decide to go to a larger municipality. It just means that you may not be able to reach your destination as soon as you thought. So I would recommend that you do have a vision for where you want to be – as it can help you make wise decisions – but to keep your options open, and not to miss out on opportunities simply because you set an arbitrary goal so long ago. The truth is, you can make a huge difference in your community in entry level roles just as much as a director role. So trust the process.
2. Moving on too quickly from my positions.
I belong to the Millennial generation, one that differs in many ways to other generations. One of the primary differences is loyalty to an employer. I have a hard time staying loyal to a company, because I’ve seen dedicated employees lose their jobs when the economy declines – and seen well-meaning people become trapped in a position simply for the retirement benefits. That, to me, is no way to live. Couple that with advice that I received from my first mentor – Pam Reidy – who told me that you have to do what is best for you. Everyone, on some level, is replaceable, so if you find a position that will allow you to advance and is more in alignment with what you want to do – then by all means, take the leap. Truthfully, all of that advice has served me well – and has led me to a position that I truly enjoy. However, a word of caution – and I’ll tell it through a story. When I was working for Boulder – I had worked for about a year and a half as a Facility Coordinator – when I started thinking about other opportunities. Like any job, there were pros and cons to the position, but I really felt like something wasn’t aligned anymore – my energy was drained, I was dreaming (and/or having nightmares) about my work, was stressed to the point of being sick (and my face would always break out to prove it), among other things. So I made the decision to leave, with no stable job/income in place. Looking back, and upon finding out additional information, there were many other internal/political factors at play. I was only a couple of weeks away from being able to apply for a promotion that wasn’t previously available. I could have been in a position to become the supervisor of the recreation center, had a pay raise, and moved up in my career. That being said, I will never regret following my intuition, and that’ s exactly what I did.
3. Focusing on the work before the people.
It can be easy to get caught up in the fun stuff – which for me is the work – the technology, the policies, efficiencies, all of it. When you love what you do, you can forget who it is all for. In parks and recreation, it’s all about people – that’s who you serve and why you ultimately do what you do. However, as an introvert, I found it much easier to close the door behind me and focus on my work. What I learned is that most of my jobs has been less about the work itself – and more about the relationships you make. That’s true when you are job searching, and it’s true when you manage a team, and it’s true when you work with the public. The sooner that you realize that you need people and strong relationships to thrive, the sooner you will prioritize the important things. You’ll start prioritizing important things before the urgent things – and you’ll start to have those difficult conversations because you know it will make a difference. So if there is any word of advice here, I’d say make time for the people around you, and treat them like you’d want to be treated. From the director of the department, to the lifeguard staff, to the custodian, to the neighbor, we’re all just people, and we all deserve respect.
4. Not starting my personal brand sooner.
Right as I was quitting my last public parks and recreation job, I created a website where I would blog about my experiences working in parks and recreation. It sat there until a year or two later when I finally created a podcast to share other stories, and started to become known as a national speaker and thought leader in marketing and technology. I urge every single one of you to build your personal brand as early as you can. At a minimum, get on LinkedIn and update your profile. Find ways to get outside your bubble by going to conferences, networking, and challenging yourself. Speak on stage, especially when you’re scared. Ask somebody for coffee if you admire what they do. You just never know what move you make will be the difference maker. I’ve met countless people on LinkedIn and through my website/blog who not only have enriched my life, but have made significant differences in my career.
5. Not learning how to strike a balance between Accepting and Challenging the Status Quo.
The nature of parks and recreation positions requires a firm knowledge and acceptance that this is a government position. It has policies, procedures, and red tape for a reason. Everything takes longer, and if you’re impatient, it can seem impossible to understand the reasons why. But if you want to get things done, sometimes you need to understand and navigate through the system. I know that I wanted to make a difference, so I felt frustrated every time my ideas would get stuck in limbo. That frustration isn’t benign, though – it can affect other parts of your work, and eventually eat away at you. So, sometimes being great at your job means understanding and accepting your restrictions. It means taking risks when appropriate and knowing how to do it with class and tact.
6. Thinking I had to change who I was to become better at my job.
We each have strengths and weaknesses, and we all have room to improve. As a young supervisor, I didn’t always feel qualified to do my job. In fact, when I was promoted to my role – where I would be managing my friends and coworkers – many of them much older than I was – I felt deeply inadequate. Not that I couldn’t do the job, but that my style was completely different than those around me, especially my bosses. It felt strange to do things my own way, as I knew that I would be judged for the results of my team. My boss advised me that I needed to be more assertive. Assertive – in case your wondering – means having or showing a confident and forceful personality. If there’s one thing that I’m not – it’s forceful. I have a quiet confidence, but that doesn’t always show, especially when in a new environment challenging myself to do new things. But with that advice, I felt I had to be someone I wasn’t. It felt unnatural – artificial – forced, and my team could tell. I changed elements of my personality to fit who my boss wanted me to be. That strategy didn’t work well. And when I finally realized that, and started to do what felt right – using my own intuition and judgment – it felt much more natural. This caused tension with my boss, as he felt I wasn’t taking his advice, but at the end of the day – you have to do what feels right to you, and should never have to change who you are at your core to do your job.