Meet Today’s 2019 Leadership Trailblazer Finalist:
Jerene Watson, City Manager, Douglas, AZ
The League caught up with Top 10 Finalist Jerene Watson to talk about being named a Leadership Trailblazer and having a career in public service:
Q: Congratulations on being named a finalist for the Leadership Trailblazer Award. What does it mean to you to be nominated?
JERENE: Working in the public arena we don’t seek or anticipate attention or reward, simply putting time into our passion or doing what we feel called to do. Sensing the name of this award was by design in an effort to punctuate the work of women who have been seen by others as a catalyst or known as a torch bearer for the success of women, makes for sobering reflection. I am most honored because the women leading the League of Women in Government presenting this award represent the depth of understanding, not only of the contributions, but the journey of women.
Q: What led you to a career in public service?
JERENE: When I moved from the private sector to the public sector three decades ago, I knew I wanted to do something that helped connect people. At the time I had no idea what part of government I would touch and certainly not what running a city was like or what a city manager did, but I knew how engaging the work was at a much more entry level, and that I wanted to serve people. Once I left work at the federal level and worked in local government, it was so energizing that I knew I didn’t want to ever work in any thing else. This was my calling!
Q: Who were your mentor(s) or advocate(s) in your career?
JERENE: In my case, most all have been men. The first individual I felt unofficially mentored me was my supervisor in my first municipal job in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a retired military colonel who became the chief of staff to the City Council and he spurred my love for the public sector. His advocacy was mixed between direction and support from more of a side by side approach, often assigning me projects that led me to step up into a new arena and spread my wings. My second true mentor was my Department Chair in my graduate program at Old Dominion who I worked for as a research fellow, taking a personal interest in not only the success of my studies but my young family at the time. His family included us in holidays and special occasions while my husband was away serving in Desert Storm. When I started entering leadership roles, I sought out a female city manager in a small city across the metro area who is still a good friend and advocate for my career. She spent time at conferences and over dinners to talk about my career goals, share her own stories and encouraged me to always keep reaching for what I was driven to seek. Finally, I found my city manage- to-city manager mentor in a man who was a seasoned city manager in a neighboring city. During my time as a Department Director, he would sit with me at our state conferences and talk about my aspirations and career, and give me verbal support and ideas. He made himself accessible if I needed to call about anything relating to my career, and on my first interview to become an Assistant City Manager, he gave me advice as I prepared that I still chuckle when thinking of it yet cherish for its practicality. Today, although he is now retired, he continues to be interested and responds to help me and the City I serve today.
Q: What is the most important lesson you learned while coming up in your career?
JERENE: First, to the public we serve, I came to realize the value of educating my fellow citizens on how we work for them and are part of them, working to generate trust and keep the bureaucracy minimal. This comes from listening and guiding toward a “getting to yes” solution approach, just getting things done. I have used a quote from Michael Abrashoff for many years that summarizes well my philosophy of working in the public milieu: “the art of leadership lies in simple things – commonsense actions that ensure high morale and increase the odds of winning.” Intertwined are the values of integrity and straight talk with diplomacy, which works at all levels within an organization, with the community and elected officials. Back away when you need to, apologize when it is called for and smile because you should never take yourself too seriously that you put a wall up between you and others.
Q: What advice do you have for women just beginning their careers who would like to be an executive in local government some day?
JERENE: Know yourself, seek that which gets your juices flowing, and then seek a variety of positions which will help you know how to laser focus one day on exactly where you want to land. The pathways are many to finding your place at an executive level. Most everything is beneficial in growing your knowledge base and your experience, but especially those that take you out of your comfort level and challenge you where you may not want a challenge. Find good mentors of both genders as they will give you a balanced perspective from their experiences and understandings. Service to others without self-awareness and care will take its toll, so don’t ever make it all about work. Play and developing a spiritual walk that includes prayer, medication and reflection are equally important.
Q: What do you hope to leave as your legacy in local government when your career comes to an end?
JERENE: That I am known as someone who cared for and served others above any work-related accomplishment or personal interest, putting others first.