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Looking for Your Lifeboat

As told by Charlene R. Stevens, City Administrator, Cottage Grove, Minnesota

When I was just starting my career, I had the opportunity to relocate across the country to southeastern Pennsylvania with my soon-to-be spouse.  After six months of unsuccessfully looking for a job, an opportunity as an assistant manager in a suburban Philadelphia township opened up.  There were a number of warning signs that this might not be a good move, such as that the township lacked a manager, the board of supervisors took great pride in being sued by developers, and so on.  But, after six months, I needed an income, and I needed to get started somewhere in the region, so I took the job.

The governing body pursued an aggressive anti-development agenda, while simultaneously working to antagonize neighboring jurisdictions, as well as involving themselves in the day-to-day city affairs.  Staff turnover was high and morale was low.  The meeting of the governing body often lasted past midnight, and I would find myself making a 45-minute commute home at 1 a.m.  Stopped at a traffic light during one of these wee-hour commutes, it started to occur to me that this was perhaps not a good organization in which to be employed, and that was even after the governing body had hired a new township manager for whom I really enjoyed working!  She too must have been an optimist who thought, “I can make this better.”

The lightbulb moment for me came two years later when I was shuffling through some photographs and saw a picture of myself when I had first started the job.  I literally thought “I have got to get a new job!”  I was overweight and over stressed, and I looked and felt much older than I was.  According to some friends and my now spouse, I was not a barrel of laughs either.

An opportunity came to make a lateral move to a nearby community. It was a smaller community, the pay was almost equal, and not everyone thought it would be a good move.  But I was unhappy and the organization was not improving.  Plus, the manager in the next community was well regarded, so I made the move.

I remember when the first meeting of the governing body ended at the reasonable hour of 8:30 p.m.  I went to the grocery store—it seemed too early to go home.  I stayed in that community for seven years and had wonderful opportunities for growth and development and still consider the manager a mentor and friend, and the board chairman still serves as a reference for me. I also got back to the gym, lost the weight and stress, and rebalanced my life.

The lessons for me were: First you really can hang in there and make the most of a difficult situation.  I lasted two years in a very dysfunctional organization, but I still managed to act professionally, accomplish some goals—such as developing a budget and a personnel manual, make lasting relationships, and leave on my own terms.

Second, when you need a lifeboat, don’t be too choosy about the color…you can repaint it later, when you are safely ashore.  Not too long after I had left the organization, the manger was fired and ultimately replaced by one of the elected officials.

Finally, take control of your own career…don’t be afraid of lateral moves or any move that you believe will be better for you.  If a job is not a good fit, it’s time to move on, rather than expect the organization to change for you.  I made a lateral move that I still believe was one of the best moves of my career and ultimately led me to where I am today.


This is an excerpt from Mike Conduff and Melissa Byrne Vossmer’s book Democracy at the Doorstep, Too.  Learn more about this book here



Pamela Davis

Thanks for sharing this. It can be hard to know when to stay and when to move on. Taking care of oneself is key, which can take more discipline than might be imagined due to competing priorities of loyalty to employer and commitment to "doing one's best." But ultimately, taking care of oneself, no matter what form that may take or need to take, is essential, because that helps us work better, live better, BE better. Life is far too short to do otherwise.

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