Maria Blanco, Alliance Ambassador at the City of Ontario, CA
Learn how a people-centric culture reinvented government and transformed people's lives.
1 March 2017
Live first, work second. The words “this sucks” no longer ricocheting in my head. Hello. My name is Maria, and I am a MADonian. No, this is not some kind of 12-step program. Becoming a MADonian changed my life and is something I am incredibly proud of. What is a MADonian, you ask? In its simplest form, it is somebody who lives to make a difference. If you want to dig a little deeper, you are going to have to open up your heart and your mind and read on.
Before going MAD (Making A Difference), I was probably a lot like many of you. I graduated from college during the onset of the Great Recession and considered myself very lucky to have landed a permanent, full-time government job in the Finance department at the City of Ontario after 3 long years of part-time work. A government job with all the great features people usually look for: security, stability, regular hours and great benefits. I was ready to arrive on time, behave professionally, learn my job and do it well to become a great employee. I didn’t hate it and I didn’t love it, and I thought that was normal. In fact, I thought not hating my job was a good thing, failing to recognize that not loving it was a bad thing. However, it didn’t take long for the job to become perfunctory to a fault. And as the novelty of the new job wore off, I became totally disengaged and I couldn’t wait for the next 5:30 pm, the next weekend, the next vacation. Was this what full-time work was all about? I didn’t want to believe it. You hear so many great things about employment in the private sector with their modern work cultures and happy employees, great work settings, ping pong tables, happy hours, etc. We know government has many advantages in the long term, but if this is what the short term feels like, then is it really worth it? What can government do to make the day-to-day more bearable? And beyond that, enjoyable. I knew my feelings were not exclusive to me. The sad thing was that I didn’t think it was even possible to change an age-old institution like municipal government, and I was going to have to either surrender my life to this humdrum reality or look for opportunities elsewhere.
Having identified that there was a serious problem, and not just for me, but also for others around the office, our agency head, Grant Yee, set out to solve this workplace crisis. Grant began by asking all of us what our needs at the office were. OUR needs. A wish list of sorts of what an ideal employer would look like to us. I thought this was genius. In a world of increasing responsibilities, it is not uncommon to ignore our own basic human needs in order to satisfy the realities of external demands, like the need to make a living. But here we all were contributing to the “ideal employer” list. Surprisingly, things like a game room were not on it (although Bob’s desk is turning into a mini arcade these days.) Instead, we wanted things like flexible work schedules, exercise equipment, fun, more meaningful work, and most importantly, a family environment. Grant emphasized that the requests alone were not important without knowing why we desired these changes to begin with. We eventually established that our why was to make a positive difference in our lives and the community, and, maybe ambitiously, the world. But it starts with one change at a time, and, as his name suggests, Grant began granting the things on the list. Over time, the list evolved into the establishment of our 5 core values: 1) A fun and enjoyable working environment, 2) Friends and connections, 3) Leading a healthy lifestyle (mind, body, and soul), 4) Personal growth and learning, and 5) Doing meaningful work. Coincidentally, it turned out that our core values corresponded very closely with Abraham Maslow’s well known “Hierarchy of Needs.”
I think by their nature our values seemed to influence the way we started to think about our jobs. Everything revolved around making a difference and we started to call ourselves the MADonians. We changed the definition of our work to extend beyond the purview of our desk work; leaving behind the fixed government policies and procedures mindset to allow for a more meaningful growth mindset. None of this happened overnight, of course. And as one can imagine, the fun part of our core values was the easiest to execute. But in sharing fun moments with each other came the friends and connections, and we began to care more about each other and ourselves. We started an exercise group, hosted healthier snack bars and meditation sessions, engaged in more out-of-the-office activities and attended more conferences together, created vision boards, and recognized our true significance as public servants. Our culture became more people-centric instead of task oriented. And isn’t that what government is supposed to be all about? That is the beauty of our value system; while making work fulfilling and engaging for all of us, it simultaneously aligns with the City’s goal of caring for its people. When the job brings no satisfaction, it is easy for government employees to lose sight of the bigger picture. Luckily for us, our vision was only getting clearer. Instead of merely processing invoices and cutting checks every week, I was thinking of creative ways to connect with my customers, aiming for 5-star/Wow service every time. I was no longer being managed, but instead was being given guidance to discover and develop my own leadership potential. We were soon incorporating what we called “MAD” time, a concept similar to Google’s “Think Tank”, where we would focus on ideas unrelated to our task oriented roles. We were happy to volunteer in the community, from reading to kindergarteners and back-to-school drives, to crafting and caroling at the senior center. And our personalities were really starting to come out in our workspaces, not unlike the workspaces at Zappos and Google.
When people started to notice our MADness, they thought it synonymous with crazy. And maybe so, because we were disrupting the conventional way of conducting business. But there was a method to our madness. Our emphasis was to take the hearts we already had and put them back into government. The trust that was extended by management to all team members has engendered a strong sense of team loyalty. We were working better together, and by thinking with this new mindset we became more engaged as employees. The engagement led to authentic public interactions as opposed to transactions, which led to happy patrons who submitted compliments instead of complaints, coming back to us like a beautiful circle of life. Other departments realized the positive working environment that we had created was more than just the fun and games it looked like on the surface and that there was real value to the City, its employees, and its citizens in the changes we were making.
I have now been on this MAD journey for 5 years and through 2 promotions, and I’ve learned so much about life, leadership, and myself. My focus is no longer on being the ideal employee, but on being my ideal self, knowing that the rest will take care of itself. I am blessed to be surrounded by coworkers who are leaders in their own right, and I’ve acknowledged and nurtured my own abilities to lead. As a mostly private person, it has been truly exciting and life changing for me to see myself come out of my shell and slowly, but surely, become more comfortable with myself and with the work place. So, I was very lucky to find this government job, but it turns out not to have been for the reasons I initially thought.
But my journey is far from over. Travel has always been something I’ve relished, and the flexible work schedule has been very accommodating for that. And now, instead of dreading the inevitable return to work, I can’t wait to share my experiences with my colleagues when I return. Because our culture lends itself to search for growth and new opportunities, I have been exploring my personal desires to work and live abroad in an effort to continue expanding my comfort zone and let go of my fears and insecurities. Desires I am able to share with my boss and coworkers because I know they are encouraging and supportive. On the other hand, the environment we have cultivated here is so special and unique, I also have to question why I would ever want to leave such a great workplace. In any event, you can take the girl out of the MAD house, but you can’t take the MADness out of the girl.
Because the good news is that you don’t have to work at the City of Ontario to be a MADonian. You can make a difference wherever you are. As I’ve discovered here, for emotionally driven humans, it is vital that we find meaning in what we do. And what people ultimately want is not a better job, but a better life. Work does not have to get in the way of living, and your life shouldn’t have to suffer because your job is unfulfilling. If you have a higher purpose, genuinely care about others, are willing to take risks, exercise leadership, open yourself up to criticism and ridicule, and lead with your heart, you too can embark on the journey from bad to MAD, and your life will never be the same.
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