By: Frank Benest
Who or what inspired you to work in public service?
I was inspired by my single mom Rosy who was an immigrant from Lebanon. Rosy was a life-long teacher, always engaged in civic affairs, taught English-as-a-second-language, and joined VISTA to teach migrant farmworkers. Rosy was courageous in all her endeavors.
Was there a transformational experience in your life that relates to public service?
Yes. I took a year off from college and secured a job as a community organizer for the Social Secretariat of the Archdioceses of Mexico City. I worked with a team of organizers to help a marginalized community form cooperatives (coop grocery store, credit union, medical dispensary). That experience was transformational and led to my career focused on building community.
What is something you are excited about right now?
After 36 years in the trenches of local government, serving as a Human Services Director and City Manager, I am now enjoying my “encore” career. I am a founder of four leadership academies in the San Francisco Bay Area helping develop emerging leaders in local governments. I also help lead the Coaching Program for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) which also energizes me.
What inspires you during these challenging times?
I write a monthly Career Compass advice column for ICMA. The columns chronicle the efforts of local government leaders at all levels of the organization to adapt and innovate amidst uncertainty and turbulence. I am inspired by local government practitioners who want to make a continuing contribution and positive difference in these challenging times.
What advice can you give to folks beginning careers in public service?
My advice is to just “figure it out.” It is very difficult to plan amidst uncertainty. Given the adaptive challenges that we face (e.g., climate change, homelessness, social injustice), there are no right or wrong answers. Government leaders must engage a lot of different stakeholders in conversation, identify a few steps forward, take a step or two, pivot, and learn as they go. “FIO” is the key leadership competency of 21st century leaders.
If you could witness any historical event, what would you want to see?
I would like to revisit the late sixties and early seventies during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War era. I was a young university student during this era and participated in some of the marches and protests but I did not realize the significance of this historical turning point. If I could revisit my participation, I would do it with more awareness and engagement.
For you, what were the challenges of the pandemic? Were there any silver linings of the pandemic?
Like most people, it was very difficult to be isolated at home and disconnected from my family, friends and colleagues. There were several silver linings. One, I was more grateful than ever for the companionship of two my adult children. Two, I cut back on work and learned to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life such as eating my breakfast on the patio, reading the newspaper, and watching the birds flying around.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
As a young professional in a city community services department, my boss told me that I needed to take some “smart risks.” He said that there is no big pay-off in career or life if one does not take risks. Great advice.