Unconventional Career Advice From "Parks and Recreation"


"Parks and Recreation," the popular NBC television show, is great for laughs. Anyone who has ever had to endure working with lazy and disinterested colleagues, navigating institutional mazes, dealing with unreasonable customers, and getting their career-related enthusiasm squashed should be able to relate. Once you get to know the characters, like the ever-hopeful Leslie Knope, anti-government bureaucrat Ron Swanson, uber-moody April Ludgate, and sweet-sounding yet self-centered Tom Haverford, catching an episode on Amazon Prime or Netflix is an excellent way to cheer yourself up.

But you can also pick up lessons for maintaining excelling in your current job and taking your career to new heights without getting beaten down by insane bureaucracy or discouraged by cynical coworkers. (See also: Financial Lessons From "The Hunger Games")

Distinguishing Bad Advice From Good Will Save You Grief

Leslie Knope, the naïve and idealistic but dedicated deputy director of Parks and Recreation in Pawnee, Indiana, gets lots of work-related advice from her colleagues, friends, boss, and even her mom, who is also a government employee.

Early in her career, she tends to ignore the sound counsel and act on the wacky guidance. For example, soon after coming up with the idea to turn an abandoned building site owned by the city (aka "the pit") into a park, Leslie decides to hold a public forum, contrary to the advice that city planner Mark Brendanawicz gives her. On the other hand, she tries to blackmail a zoning official to get preferential treatment based on direction from her mother. Both situations lead to disaster. Eventually she learns what advice works best for her style.

Career Lesson: Separating helpful from harmful advice is essential to being successful. When you start a new job or take on new work challenges, you may have difficulty figuring out what recommendations to follow and which to discard. But the sooner you can discern who is trustworthy and what advice is credible, the faster you can start making good decisions and achieving goals.

Coworkers Won't Support Your Projects Until After You Succeed

As an unproven leader, Leslie struggles to generate excitement about her ideas. Her cynical boss and coworkers don't embrace her plans to turn the pit into a park, grow a community garden, etc. Generally, they don't want to expend extra effort to improve Pawnee, the town where they work and live, especially if there are no tangible rewards for them personally.

Career Lesson: People are often skittish about new initiatives and changes, no matter how well-considered and expertly planned. As a result, your colleagues may be more likely to act as apathetic bystanders waiting to see what happens with your new project rather than enthusiastic cheerleaders encouraging you to do your best. After achieving success, you are more likely to get support. The problem is that you may need their backing to pull off certain projects, programs, or activities.

People Will Help You If They Like You

When Leslie's coworkers finally give her assistance, it seems to be because they like her and admire her dedication. They don't necessarily believe in the worthiness of her ideas. But, having benefited from her kindnesses, they respond to her requests.

Career Lesson: Relationships are critical to the success of nearly any endeavor, whether it's selling a new brand of widgets or getting a referendum passed. While relationships don't guarantee support, buy-in, or votes, they do influence behaviors. What's often most relevant to getting help is the strength of friendships.

Making Big Things Happen Can Propel You Forward in Your Career

When the Pawnee government has a budget crisis and must trim services to save money, Leslie rallies her coworkers and members of the business community to revive the Harvest Festival. So, while others are trying to cut costs, she stages a weeklong event to reinvigorate the local economy. Her success brings accolades and gets the attention of a group that encourages her to run for city council.

Career Lesson: Doing your job and exceeding performance expectations, whether they're sales goals, productivity levels, efficiency measures, or profit numbers, are well-received by your employer. But to stand out and land prominent opportunities, you typically need to dream big and act boldly. Tackling a major project when everyone else is too timid to take action is often a great path to professional fame.

Employees Will Give Lousy Service If They Don't Believe in the Business Model

Pawnee citizens are treated shabbily when they try to make appointments with Ron Swanson, who doesn't believe in government even though he is the director of Parks and Recreation. His assistant, April Ludgate, screens his calls and helps him avoid all contact with the public. She schedules appointments for March 31, a date she mistakenly thinks doesn't exist. In subsequent interactions, she suggests truly nonexistent dates and times.

Career Lesson: When the people who work for a company don't really get why the business exists or just don't care about what the organization represents to its customers, they tend to make bad decisions and say stupid things. For example, I once heard a practice manager at a physician's office defend her staff's failure to help a patient because of an employee's discomfort in discussing health issues. On the other hand, companies that deliver outstanding service tend to employ people who understand and buy into the business model and reason for being.

Personality Is Often More Important Than Skills

Gruff and intimidating Ron promotes departmental intern April to the position of his assistant because she is "aggressively mean and apathetic," attributes that he finds desirable in an employee. Because he wants his department to have minimal involvement in the community, keep its distance from citizens, and avoid improvement in park facilities and programs, he prefers ineffectual staff members who support this vision.

Career Lesson: The unique needs of the manager and department often play a major role in hiring decisions. Credentials that should get you a slot with an organization may not be as important as personality and culture fit. To land a job that makes you happy, look for companies that share your values and don't be afraid to be yourself.

Awards Are Stupid but Can Be Useful

Community, industry, and agency awards are exposed as meaningless in at least a couple of episodes. For example, when Ron is nominated for a woman-of-the-year award so the organization can benefit from the publicity, Leslie is upset. She rightly believes that he is slated to receive recognition for a girls' camp that she initiated and developed. Ron contends that awards are stupid and offers this situation as an example. Ultimately, though, he realizes recipients can get accolades that reinforce right behaviors and provide a career boost.

Career Lesson: There are many things that don't necessarily add to your qualifications but bolster your career. These include awards along with certain certifications, classes, and publications. Though your capabilities may have been stellar even before receiving an award, such professional recognition can validate your credentials and make you more attractive to potential employers and clients.

Advocating for Yourself Is a Valuable Skill

Leslie is a regular guest on local television and radio shows, including "Pawnee Today," which she likens to "Meet the Press." Most of these appearances portray the show hosts as buffoons and cast Leslie as a Midwestern yokel. Nevertheless, participating in these face-offs and defending her integrity allow her to counteract negative publicity, preventing her career from spiraling downward. And these appearances help her to develop a polished stage presence.

Career Lesson: At some point in your career, one of your coworkers, bosses, or customers will publicly question your capabilities or blame you for a problem (aka "throw you under the bus"). To keep your job and reputation, you'll need to learn to defend yourself. These techniques may include clarifying your position on a certain issue, giving background information about an incident, and reminding others of their roles in certain situations.

When You Ask for Input, You'll Get Weird Responses

Throughout her career, Leslie holds many public forums. Most of these events draw community members who make bizarre gripes and issue odd statements.

Career Lesson: If you have ever conducted a survey or town hall meeting, you likely have received startling and scathing remarks. The desire to be heard and understood overcomes some people's ability to think and speak kindly about the topic at hand. Don't be surprised if an open call yields at least some unexpected responses. However, this process may uncover genuine problems that drive your customers or staff crazy.

People May Seem Crazy, but You Still Need to Deal With Them

The citizens of Pawnee often seem like a bunch of crazies. And, if you consider only those who stand and speak at the public forums, then the view that something's not right with the population is spot on. However, other encounters reveal that many people have normal sensibilities, think rationally, and treat each other respectfully.

Career Lesson: If you view customers through a lens that shows them as insane, over-the-top critical, or just plain stupid, then your interactions will reinforce this perspective. And, while there are always a few memorable oddballs in any group — whether your customer base, neighbors in a homeowners' association, or parents at your kids' school — most have the capacity to act reasonably. If you can find a way to deal effectively with such people, then your day-to-day work will go more smoothly than otherwise, and your performance is more likely to sparkle.

Effective Leadership Sometimes Means Abruptly Ending a Discussion

During the Harvest Festival, Ron deftly ends squabbles among his staff when he states the truth about their motivations and asks them to apologize to each other, rather than allow continued standoffs. In another episode, Leslie tries to prolong her working relationship with Ben Wyatt, the state auditor who becomes her love interest. She tries to get citizens riled up about the lack of an environmental impact study and potentially disruptive evening activities at the soon-to-be smallest park in the state. Ben squelches the drawn-out dialogue, rather than engage her and local residents.

Career Lesson: A command-and-control style of management can be useful in some scenarios. Certainly, collaborative leadership is effective for engaging employees, gathering input, making sure that all perspectives are understood, and getting buy-in for decisions. In certain situations, however, this progressive approach just wastes time. Being able to apply common sense and take quick decisive action is sometimes needed.

What career lessons have you learned from "Parks and Recreation"?

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