First Friday Interview: City of Seattle

Before I met Sandra Wong and Stefani Thornton, I seldom knew people who worked in government. I’ve always been curious about the differences between working for a for-profit company versus a public sector institution.

When I did my research before the interview, one thing caught my eye. Both Sandra and Stefani have been working for the City of Seattle for several years. I have a typical Gen Y perspective that switching jobs and always seeking new challenges is essential to not only grow professionally — but also to grow our salaries. But if Sandra and Stefani are any indication, people from Gen X seem to have longer relationships with their employers.

With all of my curiosities, I had the honor to speak with Sandra and Stefani  on a beautiful Tuesday. Sandra is Workforce Development Program Coordinator, while Stefani is in the Seattle Department of Human Resources, also specializing in workforce development. They both have years of experience in recruiting and career development, and they are involved in the student employment program in the City. If you’re interested in learning more about jobs at the City of Seattle; or maybe you just want to hear one piece of advice from people with decades of experience in HR; please join me in our conversation below. Current Comm Lead students and alumni can also meet Sandra and Stefani virtually at our upcoming May First Friday event.

Special thanks to Sandra, Stefani, Liyao, Kirsten, and the Communication Leadership program.

What’s it like working for the government administration? Why did you decide to join the City of Seattle?

Sandra: I graduated from the UW myself, with a degree in psychology and sociology. When I graduated, I found myself in a place of not knowing what to do with that degree. Luckily, I just happened to be in the right time and place and a temporary opportunity came up with the City of Seattle right after I graduated. Personally, what appealed to me to work for a large city organization is that it provided a lot of opportunities. There are different types of business functions that I could use to learn more about and to springboard into how I can use my education in this organization as well. I also like the idea of working for what I call the public good – trying to work for the citizens of Seattle and do the right thing for them. I needed to work with an organization that was values-based and not so much profit-based; identify more with how do I work the value system to the benefit of the City of Seattle.

Stefani: My experience is very similar to Sandra’s. I have a background in education, sociology and psychology. I’ve always had an interest in community outreach. When I think about the jobs that I’ve had over the years, they’ve always had a community outreach component to them. When I worked for a non-profit research firm, they were doing research on health issues to improve health outcomes. So I’ve always had that kind of interest, how can I be of service, how can I help others. I had also been trying to work in the public sector for a while because I felt there were more opportunities for me than what I found when I was working in the private sector. I like the community aspect of working for the City because I’m working on programs that support people in their career development, either staff members who are participating in our career development program, or the internship program where we’re helping people who are beginning their career journey or maybe changing careers. It matches my values in terms of wanting to be of service to the community and I’m part of the community that the City is serving, and there are opportunities for my growth here. That’s why I enjoy working for the public sector.

Do you think your background in education and social work helped you land your current role? Do you think people with a diverse background could be helpful if they want to work for the City?

Sandra: I find that communication, education and social work are totally helpful. But as an organization, we highly value diverse populations and we want to build our teams with diverse peers. The more voices and more specifically different voices that we have to build our program, the better outcome that program will have. So, we want diverse teammates along with us to help us with our programs.

Stefani: I would just add that people come into HR from different areas. Of course, having an interest and a passion for working with people and wanting to be a resource and help people is always helpful. My background is in sociology, psychology and education, but people also come from different areas as well because HR is a very large field.

Are you in involved in the hiring and recruiting process and internship program?

Stefani: Sandra is the manager of the internship program and I work with her on the recruitment process. Now is the busy season for recruitment for our summer internships.

Sandra: We do it from nuts to bolts. We take it from the recruiting to the interns’ last day. We are making sure that their internship provides an educational component to the interns (students) as well as value for the hiring managers. Hopefully, they are in alignment with that student’s major or program of study so that there’s the value from all the ways around 360 degrees.

Stefani: We do have internships open right now on our job site. On our internship postings, you’ll also see the educational benefit to students. Students can see if this is something that aligns with what they’re studying.

In general, are you looking for any specific competencies from a candidate when they apply for internships?

Sandra: I’d say there’s a general list of competencies that the City of Seattle is looking for in our student applications. There are typical things like very strong communication skills and the ability to solve problems. You’ll be handed a set of problems along the way in your internship and it’s a matter of how you go about identifying and resolving that problem. We’re looking for team skills. In a large organization, it’s not about the individual work but it’s about building a community and your team together to be able to deliver on product and deliverables. I’d also add to the list of lifelong learning skills. It’s okay to have problems, but you got to learn from that problem to avoid it in the future and learn from what you could have done better. And then on top of that, having a particular skill or competency that you’re really good at and have a passion around something that sustains you in that particular field of business is something that propels you.

Stefani: I’ll echo what Sandra just said. There are core skills that you bring into any position like how you communicate, handle conflict and how do you team with people. These are behavioral skills, but then there’s the expertise side of it, what are you known for, and what do you bring to your team. You can think about how your educational projects inform your core skills.

Do you have any tips for early talents to figure out their passion or try to combine their expertise and passion in the same path?

Sandra: My suggestion is that you work closely with your supervisor and identify the internship goal. Then you can step back and take a look at how you can incorporate your passion, your particular skill that you are great at into that particular goal. Identifying your passion and skill level goes together.

Stefani: If you’re trying to figure that out, start doing informational interviews. I wish I had learned that earlier in my career. You can reach out to your connections on LinkedIn. Have a conversation about what they do and how they prepared themselves; what is their day like, what suggestions do they have to help you prepare. When you are developing your career, these are the people that you go to and ask questions. Find people who will invest in your career at this stage in your life because some of those people will follow you through your career.

Stefani has worked in both the public sector and private sector. What would be the biggest difference between working in the private versus public sector?

Stefani: For me, the public sector is more service-driven and community-facing. For instance, we provide essential services to the community through our different departments like the Departments of Transportation and Public Utilities. We also partner with the community on education, employment, and economic opportunities through other city departments like the Department of Education and Early Learning or Office of Economic Development. It’s a broader scope of what we can do to help and support the community.

I’ve worked in the private sector, but in an aspect of the private sector, the consulting world. They’re focused on their expertise and sell those services to clients. Whereas for the city, it’s a lot broader, multiple departments have different missions and given that I’ve found there are more opportunities for me to grow here than when I was in the private sector.

Sandra has been working at the City of Seattle for over 40 years. How do you continue finding passion in your role with the same organization and how do you see people nowadays trying to switch their jobs for promotion and growth?

Sandra: When I opened up my little plaque in the mail the other day, it’s like it’s been 40 years! I can’t believe it because I still remember the first day I walked in for my first job in the City. What has kept me at the City of Seattle organization for that long are a few things. Maybe about every 10 years, I would switch my job or switch the projects and things that I was doing. So that I was constantly in a learning organization. I would as a strategy get into a job and learn it really well inside and out. Then I would get a great competency level around it and I’d start asking my boss for some more challenges or stretch projects where I could try a new skill and learn something new along the way. Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of great mentors and supervisors in my career journey that were very supportive and allowed me to do that. For example, when I first started in the City, I worked in information technology. Eventually, I went from IT into human resources to training employment and workforce development.

I understand because my son is one of those where if he’s been with a company for longer than three years, it’s time for him to move on. I understand his motivation. However, for me personally, my motivation is not my paycheck; it is my work of value to the organization and the community.

I think the average tenure of a City employee is 20 years or something like that. I think it has a good record of retaining employees in general.

It’s been a year of working remotely. How have you and your team handled the past year? How do you think the communication style or your day-to-day work and life will change after the pandemic?

Stefani: For me, teleworking has become the norm because I’ve been doing this, and our team has been doing this, for a year now. Our meetings are more frequent. It’s been really important that we find a way to communicate when we’re not in the office passing each other in the hallway and dropping into each other’s cubicle. So, we’ll have video chats, virtual coffee breaks, and virtual lunches in addition to our regular meetings. I think we’re more intentional with our check-in meetings.

Sandra: At the beginning of last year, it was a tough thing for our group since we are very people-oriented. I’d say in 2021, we’re all more accustomed to being on online calls and meetings. So now this year has been the challenge of getting all that we didn’t get done last year crammed into this year as well, and do it online since we all have that competency a little bit better under our belts. I’m looking forward to our new normal as potentially we are called back into the office and what would that look like and how does that restructure our work as a result of that. But looking forward to the in-person again.

Stefani: It took a little bit to get comfortable with the teleworking. To be on camera as much as possible does make a big difference. When you just have this disassociated voice talking out of your computer, you don’t know who it is. There’s another small thing but it can be a big thing is setting up yourself ergonomically at home.

What would be one piece of advice you would share with your younger self when you were fresh out of school?

Stefani:  Like I’ve mentioned before, developing professional relationships early in your career and finding people, like career coaches, mentors to help guide you is very important. It’s important to have people who will invest in your career development. Informational interviews are a way for you to gather information. Do your homework and research companies. Check out their annual reports, this information tells you what they’ve done in the past, and what they are trying to do in the future. You can see if you want to pursue opportunities with them, do their goals align with your goals and your mission?

A growth mindset is also important like Sandra’s experience. If you find yourself in a place where that’s not happening or you’re not getting feedback that you need to help your career growth, you need to ask yourself what’s going on. You should have conversations with your manager, reset expectations, ask again what can you do to be successful? What other skills would help your team? If you still can’t get what we call constructive feedback, you should probably think about next steps and it may be moving to another department, supervisor or company. You’re investing your time and energy when you join a company. I would also say be agile and be flexible. For advice to myself, I would have written myself a letter, “Dear Stefani, this is what you should avoid and what you need to look for…” which I’ve mentioned earlier and surround yourself with people you can learn from. Hindsight is always 20/20, it provides a clear rearview perspective. But we do the best we can at the moment.

Sandra: For my letter, I would say something like slow down, listen deeply, be present for others and just experience things for the experience. Looking back at my youth, I think I was just always in a hurry for some reason and getting to the next step and the next task. I should have stayed present in those moments and stuck with it a bit more and not just always been in a hurry.