The Making Of A Good Parks And Recreation Administrator

Everything I needed to know about being a successful parks and recreation administrator I learned in kindergarten? Hmm? I’m not sure. I really need to sit down and first think about whether or not I am a successful parks and recreation administrator. I mean really, who decides?

My performance evaluations have always been pretty good. I get my three percent raises every year, except when I don’t -- because of budget cuts! I think most of our staff respects me, most of the time. I don’t know exactly how I will be judged but I do know I am welcome in my former organizations and most telling, to me at least, is one of my former mayors from Burlington, Vermont took the time to look me and my family up on a recent visit to Colorado. I haven’t worked in Burlington since 1993. So, as Bill Murray says in Caddyshack, “ I got dat goin for me, which is nice, I tink!”

I only bring this up because I can relate it to my own life, my own way of measuring important people in my life. You know what I mean, when you travel there are certain people you will seek out in order to stay connected. Even better is when they return the favor as they slide through your hometown.

Well for me, there are definitely a few of these people -- folks who may or may not be close friends, but who have had an important influence on what I think are the positives in my professional life. I wouldn’t want to lose touch with them. Let me tell you about three of them and why I think they’re such great leaders.

Mark Grosinger , Lumberyard Manager, Powell, Wyoming – 1974 -1980

When I was in high school and college I always had a part- time or seasonal job at the local lumber yard. Powell Valley Cash and Carry, “Everything to Build Anything” was our motto. As part of a staff of smart-ass kids we added, “If we don’t got it, you don’t need it!” It was part of a small eight-store chain owned by a family from Billings, Montana.

The manager had kids around my age in school -- this was a small town with only one high school, so it was natural I became close friends with his kids and became attached to the family. Mark the lumberyard manager was my first professional inspiration. Mark was a devoted employee, always connecting the work we did to the bigger company -- even in high school he helped us get it. He showed me you could take the job seriously, but not take yourself too seriously. He would regularly work side by side with us youngsters doing the hard work. He taught me leaders have to call people on their bad behavior, even though it is uncomfortable. I want to come back to this point a little later.

As students we would have a lot of fun on Friday night, and sometimes that meant we might accidentally come in a few minutes late on a Saturday morning. Mark had a saying, “Well, you came in late so you might as well leave early, to make up for it!”

This was before written evaluations and performance partnerships became big. So, this was his way of letting us know our tardiness was unacceptable. While we found some humor in his comment, it really stuck with us.

Over the years, I have worked with some great supervisors, and quite a few marginal ones – the one thing the marginal ones all had in common was, they did not consistently call the people they were being paid to supervise on their bad behavior. Skillfully giving both complimentary and critical performance feedback is a crucial responsibility and talent all leaders must posses.

Eventually I went on to my current career in the glorious, glamorous and highly acclaimed profession we all enjoy, but Mark’s lessons have always stuck with me. Mark died in 2004 and I attended his funeral, along with many other former employees spanning about 25 years of Mark’s leadership. Other than family, there were more employees in the church than general community members as Mark was a beloved member of this small town. It was a real joy to hear people share stories during the eulogy, many of them lessons learned from the mostly young men Mark helped put through school. He was definitely one of those people who cared about his employees and helped to make them leaders.

Kevin Skates, Superintendent of Recreation, Rawlins, Wyoming 1982 -1988

When I was the director in Rawlins, Wyoming we had the good fortune to recruit an individual who had a degree in parks and recreation but who had not been practicing. Instead, he had been managing Jack’s Sports and OK Hardware in Cody, Wyoming, home of the world’s largest Winchester rifle, “BOOM!” (This thing was seriously, like 54 feet long and an icon in Wyoming folklore.)

Kevin became our superintendent of recreation and later became the director of parks, recreation & golf. He also had an impact on my professional development. Kevin had a great sense of humor, pretty good charm and was a very hands-on manager. He had a wonderful way of making sure the staff in the field, the ones doing the real work, did not feel isolated. When he did this, he often took the time to drag me along too; whether it was setting irrigation pipe on the soccer field, refereeing youth basketball or participating in our programs, he had me more involved than I would have been otherwise.

In all honesty, it was the most pure fun I have ever had doing any of my parks and recreation jobs. Because of Kevin, I have always reminded myself work has to be fun and managers and leaders have to ensure we make it that way as much as possible. Nobody is more productive than a group of happy employees who feel like members of a team. As well, the positive culture this breeds is both contagious and synergistic. The creativity comes out, the risk taking is heightened, and the commitment is cemented.

Kevin also taught me to trust your heart when making important decisions. For example, when hiring staff, it usually comes down to your head or your heart. Go with your heart. If you have a good one, you’ll be right 95 percent of the time. And the 5 percent you’re wrong, it will be for the right reasons and who can’t live with that. Also, take a chance on some very important things -- they call them long shots. Don’t be afraid! Long shots pay off big when they hit!

Peter Clavelle, Mayor, Burlington, Vermont 1988 - 1993

In 1987 I was the parks and recreation director in Rawlins, Wyoming population 10,000. Let’s not forget Wyoming is the home state of Dick Cheney and well known for its bountiful lakes and harbors, NOT. By 1988 I was the director and harbormaster of Burlington, Vermont, arguably the “Most Liberal City in America!”

I know it probably sounds like I’m calling out our colleagues from Boulder but seriously Boulder is like Holyoke, Colorado in comparison and contrast to Burlington, Vermont. Burlington is a strong mayor-form of government, no city manager or administrator. In order to run for one of the 13 seats on the Board of Alderman you have to affiliate with a political party, Democrat, Republican or Progressive/Socialist. The mayor at that time was Bernie Sanders, elected leader of the Progressive Coalition and currently the only independent to be elected to Congress. His understudy Peter Clavelle

a self- avowed “Socialist and Progressive” succeeded him so I also had the privilege to serve under Peter for about five years.

My experiences in Wyoming did not prepare me for my first week on the job as I came to find out I was in charge of the world’s largest free Reggae Festival. All kidding aside, I had never heard of Reggae in little old Wyoming. This was just the beginning of my social and professional transformation. During my tenure in Burlington not only was I given free reign but I was encouraged to take risks, create and explore so far outside the box you couldn’t see the box! New ways of thinking. New ways of getting things done. I learned about the whole social side of what we parks and recreation pros do -- things that are now commonplace such as licensed childcare, hot lunch programs, community gardening, sustainable decision making, risk and reward, union negotiations, gay rights and domestic partner healthcare benefits and the list goes on.

Peter was a man with vision. He would take any risk if he thought it would benefit our community and especially if it improved the lives of the disenfranchised and the have-nots. Peter led the way for the landmark U.S Supreme Court Case involving our waterfront bike path – a case that set the legal benchmark for what became the national “Rails to Trails Program”. He helped Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company get into Russia and he brought Ben & Jerry to city hall, not the ice cream, the moguls, to share their vision of corporate responsibility. During tough times he laid off police and firefighters before cutting our parks and recreation programs. Nobody does this, nobody. It doesn’t happen. He could do this because he believed parks and recreation was an essential service and that our programs and facilities leveled the socio-economic playing field. A place where all participants were equal! He taught me the importance of creating a vision and having the courage to be able to articulate it. To see the biggest of pictures and not worry too much about the details, (I still believe the beauty is in the details) but don’t ever lose site of the little guy.

I know my value to Longmont has been exponentially improved by the breadth and depth of issues I was exposed to in New England. So what am I saying?

Get out of your comfort zone, in a big way. Consider the possibilities, a few of them anyway and then step beyond the safe move. It could be a critical step in your professional growth. Some people can do this within a single organization and for some it takes us moving a few time zones away to learn the difference between Heehaw and Rasta!

Others To Thank

I have shared a few of the learning’s I’ve gotten from three specific people in the workplace, but I can assure you there are many, many more. Maybe one day, I’ll write them a letter and tell them -- people like Tom Hoby, Gene Kraning, Mary Murphy, Dan Barks, Larry Mills, John Darrington, Kathy Hodgson, Gil, Matt, Terry, Dan, Don, Paula, Robbie, Lore and a couple of Jeff’s. Frankly, I am pretty lucky most of the people I have closely worked with would fall into this category. People that were and are organizationally above me, beside me or below me, I believe help me find awareness about things, all the time.

And let me say one more final thing; there are also these people in your private life…that do the same thing; touch you and teach you something. They light your passions, they warm your heart and they make you feel like you do make a difference, at least for them. I’m not talking about “Coaching for Success or Going from Good to Great Performance, Total Quality Management or even trying to figure out Who Moved My Cheese” but rather, things like lessons in integrity, ethical dilemmas, defining moments, why loyalty is a two-way street, how to be kind to people, or simply how to check off

your receivers!

Sometimes it comes from a parent, a friend, or the world’s greatest father in law (which would make sense if you were married to the world’s greatest spouse, which I have both of by the way), maybe a teacher, or a relative and in my most hopeful moments, a child.

Case in point, my teenage daughter, Hannah made me re-think something just the other day; for Mother’s Day she gave her mom a refrigerator magnet that said ”you spend the first two years of your child’s life trying to teach them to stand up and speak – and the next 16 years telling them to sit down and shut up!” Startling insight! As well, my nine-year-old Sawyer started a sno-cone stand and sets it up every other night or so in front of our house. He averages about $20 in the hour he is open. When he turns 16 minimum wage ought to be around $6.50. How am I going to convince him to take the minimum wage job then?

So, did I learn everything I needed to know to be a successful parks and recreation administrator in kindergarten? I don’t think so. While it’s true early childhood is a formative period in our development, these few examples are a clear indication to me that people really can change and grow throughout their lives.

Don Bessler is the director of Longmont Parks, Open Space & Public Facilities in Longmont, Colorado. He can be reached via email