To celebrate International Women’s Week, we are showcasing brilliant women who are driving high performance in their local government organizations and positive change in their communities. We hope to not only celebrate the accomplishments of some of the amazing women we are lucky enough to work with, but to inspire and educate by sharing their wisdom.
Today, we are talking with someone who has not only worked in local government herself but now champions greater diversity, inclusion, high performance and joy in local government organizations across the continent (and beyond!). It is, of course, ELGL Executive Director, Kirsten Wyatt. (You can connect with Kirsten here.)
Kirsten, what are you reading right now?
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
Tell us about your role and how you got here.
I’m the executive director of ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. My husband Kent and I founded ELGL in 2012 because we wanted a local government professional association that welcomed everyone, regardless of job title or position. We viewed (and still do!) the work of modern local government as cross functional and many of the legacy local government organizations were siloed. And, we thought that learning and connections shouldn’t be limited to once a year at a conference on a golf course.
So we started small and began organizing lunches for local government employees in the Portland Metro area, and then built out social media channels and a website to share what people were working on, job posts, interesting articles, and connection opportunities. Over time, word spread and we started to attract members from around the country.
Today we have 5,000 members in every state in the US, as well as members in Canada, the UK, Israel, and Australia. Our vision of a “big tent” organization continues and our members work in all aspects of local government.
Time to boast a little… What project or initiative are you most proud of at ELGL and how is it influencing positive change in communities across the country?
One of our strategic initiatives is diversity and inclusion, and we manage the Diversity Dashboard data collection to share demographic information about local government leaders. We prioritize this data collection and sharing because “what gets measured, gets improved” and local government has a long way to go to see more women and people of color in leadership positions. By collecting this data and then sharing it freely and easily, our hope is that more local government groups can put in motion initiatives and programs to build the bench so local government leadership reflects the communities they serve.
Another strategic initiative is joy and so our work celebrating and showcasing local government provides that extra boost that we all need from time to time to continue our work in public service. Whether it’s snapping a City Hall Selfie to celebrate where we work, or participating in our awards programs to lift up and celebrate local government accomplishments, we know that finding and sharing joy is a key role that ELGL can play in attracting and keeping talent in local government. A great example of this is our Knope Award that celebrates local government facilities. It’s wonderful to see communities celebrate and recognize employees who provide critical local services. This year we’re showcasing water, sewer, and stormwater facilities and the excitement is infectious (and that’s not a bad sewer joke – it’s really amazing to see the different ways that local governments tell their stories about these essential services).
What are the top places you recommend for women working in local government to go for support, education or mentorship?
I’m a huge fan of groups like the Northwest Women’s Leadership Academy in Washington State, and the 16/50 Project in Michigan. And the work of the League of Women in Government is exceptional as they support and encourage every state in the nation to develop women’s training programs and connections.
How do you personally handle imposter syndrome?
When I’m worried that my work or experience isn’t cutting the mustard, I try to remind myself that everyone’s doing the best they can and not allow myself to imagine or assume what someone else’s qualifications are or are not. I also try to always assume good intent and so I enter into new opportunities thinking (and hoping!) that others are not automatically judging me. And reciprocally, I give people the benefit of the doubt and refrain from passing early judgement. If imposter syndrome continues to nag at me, I think about the writer Sarah Hagi and her tweet “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man,” then I take a deep breath and just dive in.
What advice would you give to other women in local government looking to grow their careers?
Form authentic connections. Don’t network only when you need something. It’s always a good time to make and be a good friend. In sales they say “Always Be Closing” but in ELGL we say “Always Be Connecting.” And remember that the strongest and best connections you make aren’t always going to be with people who have identical job titles or career paths as you. I’ve connected with some of my favorite and most dependable friends in ELGL based on purely random things like using too many exclamation points, or wanting pockets in ALL women’s clothing, or how much we enjoy shrimp buffets.
What can we ALL be doing to bring about greater gender equity in local government leadership?
There’s a great article about shine theory – or the idea that “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” I think that we can all do a better job of hiring, promoting, and advancing people who don’t look or act just like us. It’s comfortable to hire someone who has the same career path, or went to the same graduate school, or likes the same sports team. It’s less comfortable to let someone shine who has a completely different path. I think about shine theory a lot and want to see all of us give others a chance to shine, and break out of that comfort zone of who is perceived to be the right fit.
It’s also important to remember that mentoring or coaching needs to have an actionable element to it. It’s not about telling stories about your time in local government to someone younger than you. It’s about pounding the table, pushing for opportunities, and using your social capital to help someone who is earlier in their career, get the experiences they need to advance and be successful.
Lastly, we need to all be implementing flexible and remote work schedules, and paid family leave.
Are there other amazing women you know in public service that deserve a shout-out?
Celebrate them here!
I’m in an enviable situation right now – five of my seven Board of Directors members are women, and all five of our staff are women. So I want to give a shout out to my board: Cathy Bailey, Samantha Harkins, Amie Hendrix, Jordan Hillman and Maggie Jones. And I also want to celebrate my coworkers: Allie Breyer, Hallee Haygood, Cherise Mead, and Chanté Mitchell!