The 36 year hiatus after the first women’s conference has almost been forgiven as the second “Inspiring Women in Public Administration Conference” in two years displayed real potential for the conference to become a nationally-recognized and attended annual event. Over 150 women and a handful of men attended the one day event hosted by the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration and KU Public Management Center on the K-State Olathe campus. Dynamic speakers, such as Treasurer of the United States Rosie Rios, inspired us to take every opportunity to empower the women around us. International attendees from Middle Eastern countries, at KU for a month taking classes with the KU Women’s Leadership Institute, helped us view our environment through a new lens. Their awestruck reaction to seeing a woman in a police uniform [Ellen Hanson, Chief of Police for the City of Lenexa, KS] illustrates how far we have come, but the fact that there was only one woman in uniform in attendance also shows how far we still have to go. As we participated in thought-provoking roundtable discussions and good conversation, common themes began to emerge as issues important to women in public administration.
One of the recurring themes throughout the day was the need for civility as professionals in public service. The topic was addressed in the morning panel and in both the morning and afternoon breakout groups. Julia Novak, President of The Novak Consulting Group, gave some great advice on the topic of how to handle incivility. She pointed out the need for more deliberation and less debate. Deliberation is a skill that we can all learn and practice, and it includes using negotiation and compromise. As a leader, you set the tone—so don’t allow incivility, don’t do it, and practice respect. This advice was echoed by Beth Linn, City Administrator with the City of Edgerton, who stated that we should lead by example and treat others with respect. Karen Davis, Senior Management Advisor with Management Partners Inc. and conference Chair, also noted the importance of diffusing incivility up front—do not assume it will get better as time goes by. Incivility is an unpleasant reality faced by many public service professionals, but with this advice it can be dealt with proactively and professionally.
The importance of honing the skill of good communication was referenced repeatedly throughout the day. In a morning breakout session, Sheryl Sculley, City Manager of Antonio, TX, described communication as a necessary skill to acquire in order to make the leap to the top. Women especially need a confident presence and the ability to speak assertively, while remaining willing to learn and be coached. Women have a tendency to wait for projects and promotions to be offered but we must become more comfortable with asking for what we want professionally. Mary Birch, Government Relations Coordinator at Lathrop & Gage LLP, took the necessity of good communication skills a step further. Collaboration and leadership are both achieved through communication. The best way to solve a complex issue is by taking the time to discuss it face-to-face but be sure to arm yourself with the objective facts, research, and data to achieve the best solution. In addition, the ability to convey a clear, concise, and compelling plan results in leadership that inspires and instills hope.
It is a good reminder to all of us to continue our professional development and education. For many of us, we have the great resources available through KU for continuing education and lifelong learning, but wherever you work, don’t be afraid to ask your employer to attend conferences and take classes. Moreover, encouraging education for your employees is critical. As Susan Stanton, Principal at SMS Consulting, points out, the public sector needs to act more like the private sector in recognizing that human capital is the most valuable asset. Sheryl Sculley also suggests doing a lot of different types of work early in your career to get a variety of experience and learn new skills. Jewell Scott, Executive Director of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, also suggests “going into orbit” every day—pick up a magazine, newspaper, watch the news, learn about something new—rather than “ossify” in our own narrow part of the world. Opening up to new experiences and paying attention to the world around us not only allows continual growth both personally and professionally, but it allows us to be more creative and innovative.
Every business in every sector must find a way to innovate or eventually perish. Much of the success in the private sector is a result of fearless innovation. These businesses plan ahead for every scenario so that an unsuccessful innovative gamble will rarely bankrupt them but rather provide information to ensure the following variation is a success. The act of receiving tax payer money has turned the public sector into followers and late adopters of efficiency increasing trends. In the afternoon keynote, Susan Stanton challenged public sector administrators to get out of the comfort zone of following and start taking risks by becoming true innovators. Public administrators are notorious for automating the same old process and calling it innovation. The real innovation needed in government is a total shake-up of organizational design to function across jurisdictions and allow the government to act proactively instead of always reactively. Unfortunately, with true innovation comes failure, which is not accepted in the public sector. As citizens and in our professional capacity, we must be willing to accept some amount of failure as it is an important aspect of success and progress.
Importance of Mentors
It is impossible to attend a conference today where the importance of mentors is not touted. While “mentor” may be a current conference buzzword, there is no disputing the validity of this advice. Karen Davis described mentors as a foundation for support and a person to approach for honest feedback. Mary Birch reminded mentors that they can get as much or more out of the relationship since it is only a matter of time before the mentor becomes the mentee. Treasurer Rios viewed the mentor relationship more broadly. She encouraged the women in the conference to establish informal foundation that supports women because it is our job is to inspire the next generation and create the conditions where women can succeed. It is important to view past and current challenges as women in public administration as an investment for future generations rather than a sacrifice. All forms of mentorship can result in profound and unexpected benefits for those on either side of the relationship.
As professionals, wives, mothers, friends, daughters, and the countless other roles that woman play, how do we stay balanced and live up to our own expectations and the expectations of others? Treasurer Rios suggests using a “pie of life” to describe what “having it all” means to a woman. Quite simply, you define what kind of pie you have and what goes in it. She advises us to let go of guilt and individually define what “having it all” means and also to remember that the pie will change. Susan Stanton suggested a similar approach—finding balance in your life by aiming for a balance in the totality of life. It may not be perfectly balanced at this moment, but it will be balanced overall.
Throughout the day of the conference a variety of topics were discussed, but one common theme to all of them is the importance and impact of women in public service today and into the future. The conference allowed us to take a moment in our busy lives to come to together to realize how far we, as women, have come, and how much further we have to go. Relationships with mentors and forming our own networks are critical to empowering each other, as well as utilizing effective communication and creativity. This conference is a great first step toward enacting these themes in our daily lives to improve our professional performance and personal wellness, and we encourage everyone to attend in the future.