I was sitting across from a panel of four interviewers as they took turns to ask me questions about why I should be hired as a management auditor at the King County Auditor’s Office. When it was the turn of county auditor Kymber Waltmunson to ask me a question, she took the time to explain to me that people in her office were talented, energetic and fun-loving individuals who could be rowdy at times but always well-meaning.
“So, how will you fit in?” she asked.
I said the only thing I could think of saying in that moment, “I will be myself.”
As I said that, my eyes met with hers and I saw her nod with a delighted smile. I knew then that I would take the job if they’d hire me.
A few weeks later, I got a card in the mail. It had welcome messages written all over the inside from everyone at the King County Auditor’s Office. I was deeply touched and felt truly welcome. The neat part was that this card arrived before I received my official offer letter!
I shared this story for the first time at Guru Dorje’s “Value-Based Leadership 101” training offered by the King County Training Institute in spring 2015. The training was deceptively simple – we spent the entire time discussing and reflecting on one idea: “welcome.” Yet it was a most powerful learning experience that transformed my understanding about the importance of making people feel welcome no matter what their role is in an organization. Guru’s logic was simple and compelling – people cannot give their best if they do not feel welcome.
In telling my own story of welcome, I came to appreciate more than ever the deeply motivating fact that our office culture is welcoming in numerous large and small ways. For example, we have a “Shout-outs” board prominently placed at the office center where people voluntarily write acknowledgements for one another’s achievements and contributions. We also actively adopt and practice new and better ways to make everyone’s voice heard (e.g. use of a web app called TinyPulse) and facilitate healthy team dynamics (e.g. use of a feedback method called I Like, I Wish, What If). Kymber even sent us a survey to ask all the ways we’d like to be recognized so that she can honor our individual preferences.
A few months later, I shared my story again at Guru’s “Value-Based Leadership 201” training. This time it was with a smaller group of participants but our conversations went one level deeper to the meanings and manifestations of “belonging”. The result of our group discussion was an insight that I shall always treasure in my life and career – Belonging is the courage to be authentic and the openness to whatever comes. In other words, we experience belonging when we muster the courage to express who we truly are and when we are open to all the ways in which others express who they truly are.
Working in government – as in any large and complex organizations – I see that there are many structural constraints that compel us as public servants to act in accordance to policies, standards, and rules that may or may not reflect our personal values and preferences. While legitimate, this reality often generates tensions in our day-to-day work and chips away our sense of purpose. If it is true that feeling welcome and belonging is essential for motivating us to do our best work, then it seems imperative that we align our organizations and the “systems” they embody with the most important values that make us who are we as individuals and as a society.
In Guru’s words, value-based leadership is about doing “foundational work” that improves our awareness and expressions of our best human values, as opposed to “systemic work” that makes structures and processes run better. Both are critical for making government good, better, and ultimately the best possible human organizations.
All of this probably sounds too philosophical to be actionable. What I took away though was that small and intentional efforts, even just by a few individuals, go a long way in making our government better as a welcoming place to work, grow and belong to. I know this because I have seen it and felt it here at King County.
Chelsea Lei is a writer, designer and team builder. She writes about people who dedicate themselves to improving government and making the world a better place. She also practices human centered design to help individuals and teams unleash their transformative potential.
She is currently Senior Consultant at The Athena Group and co-creator of the Government Performance Consortium initiative. She recently worked as a performance auditor at King County. The Association of Local Government Auditors recognized Chelsea for her article, “Why Become a Performance Auditor: Recruitment from the Perspective of a First-year Auditor,” for outstanding contribution to the field of auditing.
Prior to moving to the Pacific Northwest, Chelsea was a researcher and case writer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She authored five case studies for teaching graduate students about public policy making in China. During her student years, Chelsea worked in organizations across public and private sectors, including the Stanford d.school, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Apple Inc., American Express, and The New York Times.