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Spotlighting Careers in the Public Sector: Kate Fitzpatrick
Meet the public sector talent that makes it all work
Public sector careers tend to take a backseat to their Private Sector counterparts, but not in this series. We’re aiming the spotlight on our public sector partners and the incredible impact they have on our communities and society. From emergency service and healthcare to education and finance, the span of careers in the public sector is diverse.
This week we’re excited to turn the spotlight on Kate Fitzpatrick, Town Manager for the Town of Needham, MA.
A Little Bit About Kate
Kate has worked for the Town of Needham for 33 years, the last 18 of those years as the Town Manager. She got her Bachelor’s of History at the College of the Holy Cross in 1984 and went on to receive her MBA in Non-Profit/Public/Organizational Management at Boston University in 1993. She also runs her own blog called Very Kate Fitzpatrick, where she talks about being a Town Manager and her relentless practice in local government.
Career Story Interview
Q: Let’s kick this off with an easy question – can you tell me about what you do and how you got started?
A: Sure. I am the Town Manager in Needham, Massachusetts, which is a community of about 32,000 residents just southeast of the city of Boston. I’ve been the Town Manager here essentially since 2001, so I’ve been doing this particular job for a long time.
Before that, I was an assistant Town Manager and I was in HR. I’ve been in Needham for 33 years, which is an unusual career path for Town Managers, but it just sort of worked out that way.
I came to this position from HR. There are a couple of different ways people become Town Managers or City Managers. They can go the traditional route – go to college, get an MPA, and then get a job in a Town Manager’s office, or what I was more used to is you get get a job as a department manager, like HR or finance, and that’s where a lot of City Managers or Town Managers come from. From there they get promoted up.
Q: Can you tell me more about the Town of Needham and your department?
A: We are a full-service community, meaning that we offer all the services that your readers may expect from their various governmental entities. In many parts of the country, the county will provide services or there’ll be unincorporated areas that provide services. Here in Massachusetts, municipalities provide virtually all the services.
So we’re full service, which means we have fire, police, public works, streets, highways, plowing, and also the town provides education K to 12. We have a very excellent education system here in Town. We’re known for it. We’re also economically developed. Route I-95 goes through Needham. It’s the first ring out from the City of Boston so there’s been a lot of development in the last 30 years or so. And lately, there’s been more development because Boston just got so expensive.
Needham is the world headquarters for Trip Advisor. We have two local television stations here that are state of the art, and we have a Coca-Cola bottling plant that until very recently bottled Coca-Cola here in town.
As for our particular office, I work for a board called the Select Board. We have Town Meeting in Massachusetts. So the Select Board is the Executive Branch and Town Meeting, which meets a couple of times a year (it’s 250 people), is the legislative branch.
I am responsible for supervising all the departments except for the schools, and I am responsible for ensuring that all of our services are performed well, supporting all the goals and priorities of our board, and implementing all of the decisions of our town meeting.
Q: What’s been your favorite part of working in the public sector and the biggest challenge?
A: The absolute best part is what you see in this form of government. You see the fruits of your work.
I talk to people all the time who have benefited from something we’ve done. We have completed an awful lot of construction in Needham over the last 20 years, particularly the last 10 years. We just opened two brand new police and fire stations. We have a brand new pool and an amazing brand new elementary school. So just driving by and seeing projects go from funding to getting built is very rewarding.
It is also rewarding to talk to someone whose interaction with the police department went well, and somebody who just very recently had his life saved by the fire department. You just really feel that. It’s very close to the people.
So they often say your greatest strength is also in excess, your greatest weakness, right? It’s the exact same thing when you drive around and you see things that aren’t done. But I would say that for the challenges, you’re very close to the people, and they’re very close to you.
Q: What would you tell someone who wants to pursue a career in the public sector?
A: When I was applying for the job, my husband said, “You will do great, but you won’t grow a thicker skin.”
So if you have the propensity to take things personally, this job can be hard. I would tell people not to take things personally, but I don’t know that anything substitutes for experience in that regard.
I would also tell people not to try to do everything at once. My mother used to say, “Save something for your thirties.” You can’t do everything at once. But on the other hand, don’t be afraid to take that step. My manager left in 2001, and if he hadn’t said, “You’ve got this, you are absolutely qualified,” I’m not sure I would’ve applied. So I would tell people to take the step to apply for the promotion, even if you don’t get it, you learn something from the experience.
And try to put yourself out there. I also tell people to make themselves invaluable. Take every opportunity, and apply for weird assignments that other people don’t want, just so you can get a real breadth of work. I have people here in Needham who might be doing one job, but they are also covering a meeting for me because they want to learn about it and can put it on their resume. I really do suggest that people volunteer for assignments and then find something that they do really well and keep at it until they are invaluable at that thing.
Q: What has been your greatest achievement so far?
A: You’re gonna laugh at this. It’s not my biggest achievement, but one of the things I’m the proudest of is that we’re funding our OPEB. So I know you’re gonna think I’m just saying that just to you [Odyssey], but it’s true. In 2008, we made the transition so that we were funding from what used to be called the Annual Required Contribution.
But we’re funding it, we’re on a plan, and we have an end date. I think it’s amazing we’re at 50% funded for our OPEB and we’re a real leader in the Commonwealth for that. We’re known for being very financially conservative so we’ve been able to do some amazing building projects in Town. I think I’m most proud about creating the team of people that we have working here, and of being able to manage when really great people leave.
I don’t know if you’re a Patriots fan, but they have something called the Belichick Tree, and they always talk about all the players who ever played for Bill Belichick and where they are now. Well, we have our own version that we call our Needham Tree, and we have a lot of people who’ve moved on to incredible jobs in other places. We’re really proud of how they’ve made a career in government starting here and then getting more responsible jobs in other communities.
In one of our departments, we’re piloting an official succession planning program so that people can come in and let us know they want to move up or move to a different department. So sometimes it’s people identifying that they’re in Water and Sewer now, but they might actually like to be in Parks and Forestry and this program will help figure out how we can get them there.
Q: How has your career evolved over the years and do you have any tips for aspiring Town Managers?
A: How has it evolved? I think it comes down to like in any career, the longer you’re in the field, the more broadly you can see and the less reactionary you can get. It’s kind of a joke, but we tell everyone that everything takes 18 months. So if you come up with an idea today, I’m going to tell you it will take you 18 months. For some people, this freaks them out. But then when we go back after the work is done, we say, “see how long it takes? 18 months, right?” There are setbacks and obstacles on a daily basis, but having that long view and knowing where you’re trying to go keeps you on track.
I think that I would tell aspiring Town Managers that there’s more than one way to get things done and not to fight everything. Sometimes you have a skirmish and you just have to get through it or give that piece up and keep moving.
“…I would tell aspiring Town Managers that there’s more than one way to get things done and not to fight everything.”Kate Fitzpatrick, Town Manager
Q: What do you think will be a future challenge for the public sector?
A: It’s very hard to recruit. I think this is going to be the challenge of our age. Not just getting people who want to be police officers in a time when it’s a very difficult environment to be a police officer or trying to get people who want to be paramedics. It’s also generational. I feel like some of the younger people who work here are the most passionate and committed about public service, but they push back on working 50 hours a week, which they should. But you know, that’s a big change, right? When I came in, it was just expected you would work two, or three nights a week and you’d be at your desk at eight am.
People who are coming into the workforce now simply won’t do that and they want to bring their dog or their child to work. So we have to find a way for local government to adapt, which is almost impossible because all of the volunteers run the government at night. I think it’s just going to be sorting out that there may need to be more people or we may need to offer fewer services. I’m not sure how but it’s different from the way that my mom did it versus the way my kids are coming in.
Q: Can you tell me about your personal blog, the Very Kate Fitzpatrick, where you talk about being a Town Manager and how it got started?
A: I was doing research, maybe from 2018 into 2019 about my generation of managers. There were a whole bunch of managers that I was in a cohort with that were probably five, six, or seven years older, sometimes 10 years older, and they’ve all retired. So I was wondering how things were going to change, how I was going to make new friends, and whether they would do things differently. So I did a lot of research with that cohort about how the job is evolving, what they would’ve done differently, and what they would have told their younger selves. Exactly what Odyssey is doing now, pretty much.
So the blog started basically by answering questions like yours and trying to connect with people. I know a lot of people across the country and it’s a way when I put it out, I get a lot of comments from people I know. It’s just fun.
We actually did a crowdsourced poem last year called, I Long for A City, and it was the biggest blog post I’ve had. It was about 50 people in my wider community that wrote about what they long for in their city. And it was just a really fun thing to bring people together.
Rapid Fire Questions for Fun
Q: Is there a trend you wish would make a comeback?
A: Yes – written letters and getting them in the mail. I would love that. And handwritten recipes because a recipe that your grandmother gave you in her handwriting is so much more valuable than a PDF.
Q: On your blog, you wrote an anti-bucket list with your daughter about all the things you don’t want to do – can you tell us something that’s on your bucket list?
A: I want to be invited to the White House, but it has to be me being invited, not just a tour. And now that I’ve said that – watch, Parker will tell me that the White House just called and they said they wanted municipal people to come in and talk about OPEB and he knows that it’s on my bucket list.
Q: If you could do another job for a day within Needham, what would it be?
A: I think I’d like to try plowing.
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