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Thread: Government work vs. entrepreneurship

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Government work vs. entrepreneurship

    I recently interviewed for a job that is in the technical assistance/non-profit world, client-oriented and one of the questions was along the lines of, "In this job, the environment in entrepreneurial and fast-paced and would be different that what you have encountered in municipal government. How do you think you would handle that?" I thought it was a loaded question and answered as best I could, highlighting in particular program management where I felt I was particularly effective (it was a grant funded program, allowing me much ability to move forward without intense internal politics, and was also one of my roles that was the most enjoyable).

    I've been in government for six years now, and in a couple of situations have felt that we emphasize keeping our political masters and upper managers happy over ding challenging, new initiatives. Long term this is not where I want to be and have started to think about the non-profit world, green business, maybe consulting if it ever picks up. I am interested in pursuing the same goals that brought me to planning (sustainability and a love of vibrant urban environments, promoting community health, etc.) I just feel I don't fit into a culture that is primarily regulatory.

    In college on the East Coast I was warned not to stay in government for more than 3-5 years, or I would face the kind of question I encountered in this interview.

    I would love to be more entrepreneurial but my organization is very cautious, and operates in a highly politicized environment; avoiding controversy is priority one, and besides at least half my time is spent in regulating. In my previous job in a a smaller city, community staff was actually told be be quiet and not offer our expertise at meetings, resulting in some pretty poor choices, or rather endless talk, among elected and appointed officials while pretty much maintaining the status quo.

    Any advice on:
    1.) will I continue to face the feeling that a government worker cannot be "entrepreneurial," and will it only get worse over time? Is it time to bail now, go get a 'green' MBA, or do something else?
    2.) opportunities to develop 'entrepreneurial' skills in the public sector - what I mean by this is implementing new and innovative programs, policies that make a difference the community's future.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    This is something I'd also like the answer to before I get trapped in a rut from which there is no escape. I've been in government for three years after working in the nonprofit world straight out of school, and feel like I've had a lot of the initiative beaten out of me.

    IMO the nature of the local planning beast does not allow one to be entrepreneurial and that this is a question to deflect in whatever way you can. There are, however, other skill sets that planning cultivates that could be incredibly useful in greener pastures - think of all the hats you must wear in local government in order to get the job done, or the precision in which you must craft language in various memos and reports to "satisfice" the various powers that be. You have expertise that cuts across multiple fields that people complete years of schooling in order to work in - and you must amass much of this knowledge on the job quickly to have any hope of being effective. There is much to be said for this kind of dexterity and flexibility and it is certainly something to emphasize to a potential employer.

  3. #3
    Machete is right. Planning itself doesn't allow one to be entrepreneurial. The planning industry is more like a customer service profession for politicians, higher-level bureaucrats and other decision-makers. Things rarely originate with us, and we rarely see the end result of something. And while it is in our court, it is also rare to affect the thing in a substantial way. Ninety percent of the work is communicative in nature, wrangling a twisted, deformed "consensus," not because it is ideal, but because that is the only means of project management in our political system. The final outcome is an accident.

    Your interviewer is an idiot.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I'm not sure exactly what the interviewers meant by "entrepreneurial," but, as one who has worked in a non-profit setting for the last 10 years, I suspect they are referring to the dynamic, ever-changing scenarios people often have to deal with and the skill set one has to have to thrive in that kind of environment (which is not for everyone, bu its certainly not boring). An expected grant does not come through, the organization has to raise private funds in a short period of time or develop and implement a long term fundraising strategy or a strategic plan or engage in board development or engage in a branding and marketing campaign to expand clientele and expand awareness, etc.. Staff is often too little and trying to take on too much, one has to be a productive, collaborative member of a larger group (ie, plays well with others). And so on. All of this require a set of creative thinking skills that allows one to shift gears on the fly to figure out how to keep focused on the target outcome when circumstances change.

    I am guessing that is the kind of "entrepreneurial" thinking they may be referring to, though maybe I am wrong. If it is, I would say, in response to similar questions at other interviews, that you might highlight circumstances that show how you tapped into this skill set. I think pointing out experience with grants as you did (applying, reporting and managing contracts/funds/people are all important aspects of grant-funded projects) is a good one. Anything else that shows how you can deal with unexpected circumstances I think would be an asset in this environment.

    Hope that is helpful. I love the kind of work I do, including the process of working with a small staff to figure out challenging problems and do something we are all proud of. Though I would also say that there are plenty of days I wish I worked in an office where I showed up and someone simply gave me a list of tasks to complete. As it is, I have to invent my job every day. Overall, though, I prefer the kind of setting I am in and even if I changed jobs, it would likely be for a similar setting.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Thanks, all.

    Yes, I suspect the interviewer was referring to the ever-changing dynamics of taking on new projects and accomplishing change in a world of uncertainty (funding, future clients, etc.) The questioner was not an idiot, just an architect. Anyway, you've given me some good ideas to address this question in the future.

    I may have the chance soon to move into a more technical assistance position creating a new program, a temporary job that might be a good stepping stone out of local government.

    Yes, I feel like I've had the initiative beaten out of me. I think it's a combination of highly politicized city + fairly conservative staff happy to be bureaucrats and who have little experience outside of said city (when people at the water cooler start talking about how many years they have 'til retirement ....) + cautious manager. I see some departments actually using their expertise to come up with new initiatives, but overall I guess maybe local government is just not the right fit for me.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    Thanks, all.

    overall I guess maybe local government is just not the right fit for me.
    Perhaps you are just in the wrong community.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    The questioner was not an idiot, just an architect.
    hahahaha Its funny how different we (planners) see the development world compared to architects.

    I would say that its where you work, not that you are not innovative or have good ideas. In my situation, I work in a very conservative leaning town, but staff tends to lean more to the liberal side of things, which can be very frustrating at times. I just mention my ideas to boss in passing enough to get her thinking about it and eventually when a good opportunity comes I can make a case.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

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