In late 2013, I accepted the Director position here in East Goshen Township and met Mr. Frank Vattilano. He had been the Director here for twenty-five years and had what lovingly could be called a cult-like following. I shadowed him for two weeks and everywhere we went, it was nothing but bear hugs and tears. He had a verbose, story telling air about him, he would meander between topics with the community just as all our grandfathers do at holiday time. My first reaction…this is awesome. This community obviously loves parks and recreation and cares about the professional staff that administers it. That said, I cannot tell you how many people gave me a smile and said “you have big shoes to fill”…
Here are some of my recommendations for “filling their big shoes”…
1) Embrace their awesomeness – they were probably really good for the community! Don’t feel intimidated by your community’s affection for an outgoing Director…that same affection can come your way!
2) Be confident in your abilities – you were chosen to be the legend’s replacement for a reason…the selection committee chose YOU over plenty of other qualified people. Celebrate the legend for what he or she was, but know that you are going to kick butt over the next twenty-five years.
3) Know your park and rec talking points – whenever someone said the “shoes” thing to me…I acknowledged Frank was awesome, then immediately told them 2-3 things they could look forward to under the “Jason” regime. Control the conversation…
4) Tell people you aren’t blowing things up (even if you are). Over the prior 25 years, East Goshen Parks and Rec had motored along and the community loved it. When I started however, I had my “objective” glasses on and could see we needed some work. Individuals, groups and communities don’t like being overtly told they’ve been doing things the wrong way for years…be tactful and nuanced when discussing wholesale changes.
5) Take a deep breath – replacing a legend takes time. Find ways to engender confidence in your leadership through small easy victories, you will get there!
I am a very positive person… a “3/4” full kind of guy, believing that what I do matters. That working weird hours away from my family is worth it, that I make a lasting difference in my community. However, just about every single day, I sit at my desk, and need some sort of pep talk…and I usually go back to this story.
A couple of years ago, East Goshen Parks and Rec hosted an event called “Next Up”, a night of female only speakers for a teenage female audience…a night of empowerment. It was well attended, the teenage participants were awesome, engaged and loved hearing stories from our State Representative Carolyn Comitta and U.S. Gold Medalist Heather Mitts (soccer).
Our opening speaker was Montana Leaks, an Allentown native (like myself), who was a senior at West Chester University, and its Student Body President. I met her in May before the event, signed her up, and then didn’t give it another thought until the event approached.
She emailed me about two weeks before the Next Up event, and asked if her mother could come. “Of course!” was my response…but I couldn’t help notice further down in the email stream a subject line of “Momma I Made It!”…
Immediately following our meeting in May, she emailed her family with “Momma I Made It!” in the subject line. Her email then went on to speak of sharing a stage with a State Representative and U.S. Olympian…you could almost see her chest swell with pride in the email, it was awesome!
I take encouragement in knowing that my department played a significant role in her realizing her efforts towards excellence had paid off. She was no longer working towards being accomplished, she knew that she was accomplished. Montana now believed in her own personal efficacy…powerful stuff! She is now in graduate school, and I am sure doing splendidly well. I hope all of us as people have had that moment, that wonderful moment of personal clarity where we instantaneously know that we belong, that its our moment, that we made it!
If I stood in front of one hundred random people and flashed a picture of the boxer to the left, and said, “Who is this?”, everyone would say, “It’s obviously Muhammad Ali.” If I pressed a little further and asked for an Ali quote, I am sure someone would tell the group that he famously said, “I am the greatest!.”
If I asked the audience the same question about the boxer to the right, how many would know his name? That gentleman is Mr. Sugar Ray Robinson, owner of a professional boxing record of 173 wins and 19 losses. Notwithstanding Ali’s boasts, Robinson is considered the greatest boxer of all time, but most of us have never heard of him.
You are probably wondering, where’s the analogy here? It’s all about perception. Ali was a master of public perception, while Robinson was just a master with the gloves. When it comes to park and recreation professionals, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has some of the best and brightest minds in the business. But at the end of the day, we all go back to our Boroughs, Townships, and Cities and our performance is evaluated almost exclusively by our residents and elected officials.
Therein lies your opportunity. Your community’s perception of your department, your programs and parks and ultimately, your value, can be steered by unleashing your inner Muhammad Ali! He wasn’t the greatest, but he said he was…and now the general public believes it.
There are a few ways you can cultivate public perception. Tell people about your successes. It sounds simple enough, but your community needs to know their investment in parks and recreation is worthwhile. It may be a pain in the butt, but every department should complete an end of year report with facts, figures, pictures and a clearly framed progression towards goals. Boast about your programs, your staff, your parks. Quantification is also useful, numbers mean something. I’ve started to use the iSOPARC (System for the Observing Play and Recreation in Communities) to leverage park user totals into data findings that are impactful. In 2017, I was able to report to my Board of Supervisors, that our parks had over 225,000 visitors that translated into a health care savings of $7.3M! Did I mention iSOPARC is completely free to use, all you need is an iPad!
Just as boxers (and WWE wrestlers) seek the championship belt, park and recreation professionals should also submit their best programs for awards. Our communities and elected officials have limited knowledge of the truly positive impact the parks and recreation field has on quality of life. But do you know what they do understand…awards. Elected officials love to come to ceremonies, shake hands, stand for photos and that is a good thing. That is part of their role, and part of your role should be delivering them those opportunities. Practically speaking, our residents have so many recreational pursuits they can take part in, its a competitive field. Pasting a big flashy gold sticker on your program flyer that says “award winner” instantly gives you credibility before you’ve even said, “want to sign up” or “25% sibling discount.”
You might be saying right now, I hate to boast, I hate to brag. The field of parks and recreation is an amazing profession. We teach kids to swim, ride bikes, feed families, combat obesity, breakdown barriers, reintroduce retirees to social networks, and so much more. That isn’t an “I am the greatest” speech, that is straight fact; we make people’s lives better. Tell your community you are awesome because you are.
In my humble opinion, summer camp is the most quintessential parks and recreation program. Think about…field trips, sunscreen, silly games, and friendships all embody the memory-filled park and recreation experience. This summer, as a part of Park and Recreation Month, NRPA is offering an awesome summer camp initiative every PA municipality should take part in…the National Summer Camp Dance!
NRPA’s National Summer Camp Dance is a completely turn-key activity meant to gather up summer camp programs across the nation in a collective effort. Program goals are simple: give the kids something fun to do, prepare staff to deliver the dance, and, very sneakily, promote youth health and wellness as the campers get up and shake their tail feathers! The Dance reaches a raucous crescendo on Friday, July 27th, where all camps are encouraged to dance at 10am – as we “dance across the nation!”
So how do you go about signing up for NRPA’s National Summer Camp Dance?
2) You’ll be sent the official song, “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves along with the sweet dance moves via Youtube by May 15th.
3) Practice the dance with your staff at training – then make it an element of your camp program! Have fun with it – let the kids be creative with their moves!
4) Videotape your final performance on July 27th and send to NRPA!
5) The end of summer National Summer Camp Dance video will feature campers from across the nation!
Now for the REAL reason, your camp should join NRPA’s National Summer Camp Dance…it started right here in Pennsylvania! In 2015, East Goshen and Upper Dublin Township’s piloted this dance alongside two other departments in Virginia and Maryland, just to see if something like this was possible. The result – it was a smash hit! The kids loved it, the staff loved it, and camp administrators used it as a way to encourage that mysterious beast known as “camp staff camaraderie” during training! We pitched the idea to NRPA last year and here we are!
The goal for 2018 is 200 camp programs and 20,000 campers all shaking their tail feathers together on July 27th. We already have programs from Texas, California and of course, Pennsylvania jumping on board! This summer, get up and get moving – join NRPA’s National Summer Camp Dance!
In 2017, East and West Goshen Townships celebrated two-hundred years of blissful divorce with a Bicentennial Celebration on June 3rd. The event included a three-scene play based on historical documents, two stages of music, Ben Franklin (this is Pennsylvania after all…), an amazing fireworks display – even a pistol duel! That’s right, Ken Lehr and I faced off to finally see, after two hundred years, which was the better Township! In the end, we both stayed on our feet, but the crowd of 3,500 loved every minute!
While perusing the NRPA website last March, I came across their Park Champion initiative. Park Champion events highlight the positive impacts of park and recreation events within a community and specifically advocate to federally elected officials. I immediately emailed Jayni Rasmussen, NRPA’s Advocacy and Outreach Manager, to get the scoop! The initiative is very turnkey and user-friendly. Park Champion logos are available, template letters you can mail to federal officials are easily downloadable, and NRPA is more than willing to knock on your official’s doors down in Washington.
The benefits to local Pennsylvania Parks and Recreation Departments are enumerable. In my opinion, one thing that Pennsylvania Park & Recreation Departments struggle with, because we are Township and not County driven, is “playing with the big boys” across the country. By attaching the Park Champion logo to our Bicentennial Celebration – our event was seen in a higher esteem by our local Township Board of Supervisors and community. We received additional local publicity and fundraising support as well.
Another chief benefit of hosting a Park Champion event is something for the greater good. State officials in Harrisburg had a difficult time with the 2017 budget – and in most budgetary conversations monies we typically rely on came up on the chopping block. I know my community is desperately trying to renovate and rehabilitate our park spaces, but need those state monies to move forward. At our Bicentennial Celebration, we had our U.S. Representative, both State Senators and our State Representative – all of whom came simply because we were a Park Champion. They each joined me on stage and made wonderful remarks about the impact of parks here in West Chester. I had an opportunity to talk with each one, and subtly made my case that folks at the event, 3,500 (20% of my residents), truly valued parks and needed them to be updated. Politically speaking, my goal was to show elected officials that they needed me, Ken and our Parks and Recreation Departments as assets. Partnering with NRPA as a Park Champion helped us deliver on this goal.
Park Champion events can be small or large, ongoing events or something brand new. Logistically speaking, it’s best to align a Park Champion event with the congressional calendar, giving your federal officials no reason not to come!
For those that couldn’t make the PRPS Fall Membership meeting, Jayni Rasmussen was our guest speaker. It was clearly evident she is passionate about helping municipal departments advocate and highlight what makes them awesome! I spoke with her afterwards, and she summed up the Park Champion initiative best, “As park and recreation professionals, you already know that your work is essential in making your community healthier, happier, and more economically vibrant. But with so much public funding on the chopping block, it’s critical that you demonstrate to your members of Congress the importance of investing in local parks and recreation. Emails and phone calls are great, but there’s really nothing like experiencing a local park or recreation facility in person. That’s the idea behind NRPA’s Park Champion initiative – empowering park and recreation professionals and community advocates to show elected officials the importance of parks and recreation first-hand by inviting them to events, project openings, groundbreakings, program kick-offs, and more. You’re already equipped with unbeatable advocacy assets: your parks, recreation centers, and community-focused programs. Now, it’s time to join the hundreds of Park Champions across the country and in Pennsylvania, and take advantage of the tools, resources, and network of support that NRPA offers to members and non-members alike through this initiative. Together as Park Champions, we can fight for the future of parks and recreation by bringing Capitol Hill to a park near you.”
While the snow is still on the ground and you are busy planning a wonderful 2018 – I encourage everyone to visit the Park Champion website and get going!
Applying military leadership in a parks and recreation setting
I had a fairly circuitous route to becoming a Park and Recreation professional. I finished college with a degree in Political Science, had a few internship experiences along the way, but wasn’t passionate about anything. This was six months after 9/11, and so, out of patriotic pride, I decided to join the U.S. Army.
Military life, as everyone knows, is unique. One of the most unique aspects from my perspective was the lengthy and formal training process for its leaders. In most careers, one becomes a productive leader through “feet in the fire” experiences or by latching onto a mentor. Before deploying overseas, I had the good fortune to attend Primary Leadership Development School in Anchorage, Alaska, a month-long program that leads to a promotion to Sergeant. It was at this school that I learned the very simple military leadership concept of Be, Know, Do.
To excel as a leader, one can boil it all down into principles using these three simple words: Be, Know, Do.
Be courageous and through strength of character embody the values of your organization, community and most importantly, yourself. Serve your public with a selfless nature and lead your staff members by being honest, respectful and loyal. Always remember that parks and recreation is an essential municipal service and fight to keep it so.
Know your job. Continue to educate yourself about recreation trends and cultivate your technical, interpersonal and conceptual skills to provide strategic vision, clearly defined goals for subordinates and motivation through a myriad of communication styles. Understand your employees, their roles and what challenges they may face. An old Army saying is “one up, two down”, which means you should know all aspects of positions one level above and two levels beneath your current role. Staff members want leaders who know what they are talking about, who understand the difficulties of getting summer camp kids to form a straight line at the end of the day or how gross it is to empty garbage during a festival.
The best leaders act, they DO things. They create a professional culture that works towards a goal and achieves the goal by providing subordinates with a defined purpose, clear direction and motivation.
The three dimensions are all interrelated and dependent upon one another. If you are consistent of character, but can’t communicate a vision to your team, you may not hit your goals. If you have years of experience across a myriad of recreation positions, but aren’t seen as trustworthy or loyal, you may always be posting on the PRPS website for your next Program Coordinator.
Be, Know, Do. A simple leadership phrase I learned quite a few years ago while running around the woods of Alaska. It has served me well and focused the energy I bring to my parks and recreation team. Hopefully it can become a tool in your leadership tool box as well.