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Polco News & Knowledge

How Local Government Mentorship Advances Careers and Bridges Leadership Gaps

local government mentors

How one young leader got started in local government with help from her mentors.

Climbing the career ladder is challenging in any profession. Mentorship can make this transition easier. This is especially true in local government, a public-facing job with less room for mistakes and where decisions can have long-lasting impacts on communities.

Taylor Zeinert, 25, is transitioning from the City of Whitewater, Wisconsin's Chief of Staff to Economic Development Director. She has already reached the rare status of a woman in local government leadership, but she got her foot in the door with help from her mentors. 

taylor zeinert local government mentorship"When I finished grad school, I had spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get this master's in public administration, and then just to keep getting rejection after rejection. It was heartbreaking," she said. "It almost made me question the things that I was doing."

Zeinert persevered with guidance from other women in local government. She had an internship at the City of Clintonville, Wisconsin, and connected with the city administrator, Sharon Eveland, and assistant city administrator, Caz Muske. 

"I called Caz and asked, 'What am I doing wrong?' She made time to sit and video Zoom chat with me to talk about what I could do better and what positions make sense. That has been exceptional," Zeinert said.  

A recent analysis of The National Employee Survey (The NES) by Polco, a workplace climate assessment for local governments, identified opportunities for promotion and career development as top drivers of employee retention. 

According to this research, about seven in 10 local government employees approve of the coaching and mentorship they receive from their organizations. Mentorship helps younger employees feel more integrated and connected. It also serves as a form of career development and is the best way to transfer knowledge. 

Mentorship can also help younger people navigate the unique challenges of working in the public sector, such as the pressure of public visibility. 

However, as Zeinert points out, finding a mentor takes work. She says most of her younger peers in local government do not have mentors in the public sector but rather in academia, like professors. She says it's even more challenging to find women mentors because there are far fewer in leadership roles. 

"As someone who is an aspiring city manager, the majority of managers are men, so it's hard to find a woman in general that has that role, and then it's even harder to find someone who you click with," she says. 

Polco research, in partnership with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), shows that less than 40% of elected officials and local government senior managers are women. Moreover, only about three in 10 city managers nationwide are women. 

Mentorship is essential to leadership development and bridging gender gaps at the highest levels. 

Zeinert acknowledges that a female mentor in leadership, who has already navigated life transitions like balancing motherhood and work, could offer first-hand guidance on how to manage those challenges. 

Even so, it’s wise to seek mentors regardless of shared gender. Mentorship, whether with men or women, is a valuable asset to anyone at any point in their career. 

Zeinert herself already has a mentee just a few years younger than her. He was an intern who worked for her during a political campaign season. 

"We had similar life goals. He also wanted to stay local and do the city management route … So when it came to him filling out his applications or securing internships, he has always called me and asked me questions," she says.

For Zeinert and many others, mentorship is key to moving their careers forward. It drives job satisfaction and staff retention by building trust and making newer employees feel welcome. Mentors help develop skills and prepare the next generation of leaders. And, as the workforce grows more diverse, mentorship even helps to bridge representation gaps in leadership positions overall.

What Does Your Organization's Staff Think About Mentorship? 

Find out with The National Employee Survey (The NES) by Polco. The NES gives local governments private and secure employee input data on organizational performance, including mentorship opportunities. Put the data to use to ensure job satisfaction, enhance staff engagement, and make your local government a great place to work. 

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