This summer I had the opportunity to attend Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government course.  It is a 3-week class designed to help state and local government officials, and those of us who serve them, effectively manage operations and employees; and to hone skills to exercise leadership in an environment where agencies face greater scrutiny from a skeptical public, and where the need for services continues to grow despite the relatively scarce resources available.

Among the approximately 60 participants in the class, there were City Managers, police and fire personnel, lawyers who work with or for public agencies, human resources professionals, elected officials, and others.  In many ways, being in this class felt like being back in college again.  We lived with roommates in the dorms on Harvard’s campus, ate campus cafeteria food paid for with our Crimson Cards, completed homework and group projects, participated in daily study groups, and attended over 30 lectures taught by the accomplished faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School.

When some of my colleagues at my firm suggested I write about my experience this summer, I struggled to try to synthesize what I learned so as to present it in a way to benefit the clients we serve.  In an attempt to impart practical information that can be incorporated into our daily routines, I decided to develop a list of 5 primary lessons I learned:

1. Have a vision.

In class one day, Professor Marty Linsky said: “If you care enough about something, you’ll do something about it.”

As I thought about this comment during the class, and in continuing to think about the statement more since being back in California, it struck me how critical this seemingly straightforward sentiment is in our respective professions.  Without a vision, we risk working without a focus or purpose, and thereby setting ourselves up for feeling aimless or unfulfilled in our positions.

Figuring out what we care enough about to take risks for is the penultimate challenge to establishing a vision.  The ultimate challenge is to devise a plan that helps us execute the vision.  I challenge to think about what your vision is.  What will you leave behind at your agency?  What will you be remembered for?

In addition to establishing a vision, it is important to write a vision statement that you revisit periodically to help you assess your work toward achieving the vision, and to help you periodically consider whether it continues to be the vision you want to pursue.

2. Set priorities like you did in college: major in one, and minor in one or two others. 

It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to do too much.  We find ourselves committing to too many tasks, and some of us puzzle over when we will finally learn to say no.   If you desire to advance your vision, it will be very important not to over-commit or try to do too much.  By setting your own priorities, you will set an agenda for yourself that allows you to determine what tasks help promote your vision, and what tasks serve as a distraction from your vision.  The challenge is to identify what tasks will help you achieve your goals, to stick to those tasks, and to diplomatically turn down the ones that serve as detractors.

3. Take time to think about how to change things to reach your desired result. 

Once you have a vision in mind, it is important to devise a plan to help you accomplish it.  First, identify what goals you want to accomplish.  Then, evaluate what barriers, hurdles or constraints exist that threaten your ability to achieve your goals.  Next, assess what resources you have available to help you reach your goals.  Finally, develop a strategy to help you execute a plan to meet the specified goals.  It sounds like basic advice, but a failure to put the time in on the front end to plan will hinder your ability to recognize internal and external challenges to accomplishing your goals.

4. Whatever your task is, figure out what group dynamic is effective.

Arguably, you are far less likely to be successful in achieving your goals if you are trying to forge ahead on your own.  You need resources, including people, to help you.  Similarly, to be successful in promoting your vision, you typically must work with a collective or group to help you advance your mission.

While working with other people, particularly teams or groups, it is important to pay attention to the dynamics.  Every group has its own set of forces that are informed by the unique personalities of the group members, their positions or jobs, their current and past experiences in professional settings, their personal history, and so on.

Given the diverse nature of groups, it is important to spend time thinking about what the group dynamic is that you are confronted with, and to be flexible in how you work with a particular group.  Your strategy for achieving your goals will be affected by the conditions that exist within a particular group.  If you do not spend the time to evaluate the group dynamics, you may forge ahead with a strategy that suits your needs, but is not conducive to the interests of the group whose support you are trying to solidify.  Think creatively about how to work with your group rather than trying to work around your group.

5. Don’t underestimate the use of humor.

The occasional injection of humor can bring a welcome amount of levity to otherwise difficult situations.  But it is important to be aware of when using humor is and is not appropriate.  Doing work on yourself to hone listening and communication skills will help you understand when humor is appropriate and when it diminishes your ability to be effective.

Although these 5 lessons I have identified for you appear simple on the surface, it takes a good amount of time, reflection, and planning to put the lessons into practice.  The reward for incorporating these lessons into your professional life is a deliberate vision marked by a set of goals whose fulfillment will result in a more satisfying professional experience.