Comments Delivered by Noel Rasor, Emerging Leaders Academy Director
On January 11th, 2017
Good Afternoon. My name is Noel Rasor. I’m the Assistant Director of the University of Kansas Public Management Center and the program manager of the Emerging Leaders Academy. On behalf of the Public Management Center staff, I want to extend a warm welcome to our guests, the families, friends and supervisors of the ELA graduates—we truly appreciate your setting aside the time to be able to be here with us this afternoon to celebrate the work these individuals have put into this program over the past 5 months.
Beyond this, we truly appreciate the efforts on the part of all of our guests this afternoon that made it possible for the individuals here in the front to complete this program. You’ve taken the phone calls and handled the urgent matters while these folks were away for class. Families, we know that many of you added a few more items to your own never-ending to-do lists at home to cover things while they spent some time in the evenings preparing, and I suspect many of you helped them track down old copies of certificates and reports that they wanted to add to their portfolios. So, ELA class, please stand and turn around and join me in thanking your supporters for making your participation possible. I know I speak not only for the PMC but also for the graduates when I say we have deep gratitude for the investments all of you have made in your emerging leaders and in your trust of the Public Management Center to offer something of value to these individuals.
As a program that is meant to support the need for succession planning in public sector organizations, ELA targets promising non-managerial staff in government and other public service agencies to help them identify and hone the skills that are necessary for success in higher level roles. But by design this time spent in reflection and skills building also has immediate benefits for the participants and their departments. This is nearly always the case: when we remember to list our eyes from the road and look to the horizon, it offers us insight that we can bring to the here and now. Today’s program recognizes and celebrates the efforts of this group of public servants to elevate what’s important—thinking about goals, values, skills-building, their own strengths and those of the others, and the future– to co-exist with what all that is urgent in the everyday.
Looking to the horizon in ELA involves a lot of opportunities to engage with peers around topics and issues that show up in and shape all of our workplaces. While Public Management Center instructors bring important expertise and great content around topics like communication, ethics, leadership, and managing up, those of you who have been through a PMC class know twe believe that a good class is one in which participants learn as much from one another as they do from any of us as instructors. We structure our classes around opportunities for participants to engage and connect with one another as they leverage the many experiences they bring to class with them. I take tremendous pride in our ability at the PMC to create this environment from the first hour on the first day. Humans may be competitive, but we are also profoundly social creatures with big, active brains. We want to learn and we want to connect. When those of us “in charge” at any given moment create environments that allow for connection to happen, people step into that opportunity with eagerness, and everyone is better off because of it.
So thank you for being here today to help us recognize the efforts and accomplishments of this group of public servants in the Emerging Leaders Academy. I’m so glad to have you with us to celebrate the achievements of these leaders who, we trust, will be a driving force in your organizations in the future.
I want to bring us to a close this afternoon with some thoughts about how what these individuals achieve in the context of this program shows us about finding our way forward in these tumultuous times of rapid change and competing world views.
One of the things that I most love about the opportunity to teach in our programs like ELA and CPM is that they bring together such a huge mix of people who hold such a variety of public service roles. Sitting together at a table in this group we might have a sheriff’s deputy, a lawyer, a DMV specialist, an accountant, and a fleet mechanic. At the next table you’ll find an executive assistant, a firefighter, an epidemiologist, an IT tech, and a building inspector. And the next table has yet another mix…all this to say nothing of the personalities of these individuals, or the many skills and passions they have outside of work. They bring backgrounds in theater, cheer squad, acoustic music, and tae kwan do. They serve as volleyball coaches, Boy Scout leaders, election poll workers, nonprofit board members, and Sunday school teachers. They organize BBQs to raise money for friends with cancer, and coordinate community groups to paint murals. We have a pilot, an Elvis impersonator, and a member of Box of Crickets (as the English translation is what I can pronounce), voted the #1 Latin band in Kansas City. All this is on top of the work they do managing the stuff that comes with family obligations, and I’m sure this list only scratches the surface.
As impressive as all this is—and let me assure you, this group is pretty impressive—I think they are simply a representative sample of all the talent and skills and passion that surrounds us every single day in our organizations. So that’s the first point that we should all find to be a hopeful and encouraging reminder: our government agencies are staffed by dedicated, passionate people with amazing abilities to address the challenges we face.
But there’s something more noteworthy at this particular moment in time: the extent to which these individuals found common ground and developed real friendships that reach across the divides in their experiences and perspectives. They discovered that they have common experiences in dealing with difficult colleagues, using clunky technology that sometimes makes their jobs harder instead of easier, in being proud of providing good service, in keeping mental lists of all the things they want to and are slowly tweaking to make government work better for its employees and its citizens, in their cynicism because of what they’ve seen and experienced, and in their inextinguishable optimism because of what they’ve seen and experienced. When we create settings for people to come together and connect, they find common ground.
It feels important to call all our attention to this at this very fraught moment in our culture when our attention is so often drawn to what divides us. And I’m quite certain there are some profound disagreements among this group in political perspectives, policy orientations, and beliefs about what is needed to create a strong future for our communities and our country. But quite frankly, mostly this didn’t come up. We were busy thinking about the circumstances in which we and others thrive in the workplace and how we go about creating that. And with that focus, we achieved what I think is a sure sign that something is going right in the class: some self-admitted softening around the edges among a few of our most cynical, road-weary professionals.
All this, I believe, shows us a way forward in these difficult times: be open to finding the goodness in others, and throw kindness around like confetti while you look for it. When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose to be kind. This smooths over the differences, highlights the common ground, and ultimately moves us toward a more perfect union.
Thank you so much for being here today. I hope you’ll stay and join us for refreshments, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross in the future.