Rachel McEneny
Rachel McEneny, County Administrator for Benton County, Oregon

The COVID-19 pandemic was taxing for every sector of our world, and local governments were certainly no exception. As government employees worked tirelessly to ensure that our communities remained both functioning and safe, burnout among them became seemingly inevitable. Rachel McEneny, who served in several leadership positions for the City of Albany, NY, including Commissioner of Administrative Services, Budget Director, and Deputy Mayor, experienced this firsthand with her staff, and had a pressing problem on her hands: how do you continue to motivate a 1,200-person organization through a global pandemic? It’s what led her to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Executive Education, where she received her Executive Certificate in Public Leadership, with the goal of becoming the most effective leader she could possibly be during a time of unprecedented crisis in her workforce.

Rachel is never one to shy away from an obstacle, telling us, “Local government can be messy. I like messy. It means there’s problems, but also tons of opportunity. Go for the challenge.” She brought this desire to tackle the issues within her department to the HKS executive education programs Leadership Decision Making, Leading Through the Changing Media Landscape, and Senior Executives in State and Local Government. (HKS Executive Education also runs in the family, with her father completing a program nearly fifty years ago!)

It was through these programs that she was able to form, nurture and eventually executive a huge undertaking for her city, the Join Albany campaign, which aims to draw new employees to the local city government. Through collaboration with her fellow HKS participants, she brought the framework of this this monumental project back to her organization. “My HKS peers were so supportive, it helped me figure out the resources I needed to implement the Join Albany campaign,” she said. “I never would have been able to put this together without them and their ability to give me fresh perspectives on my problems. I left HKS knowing exactly what we needed to do.”

Join Albany launched with great success, which both revitalized her current staff, while also accomplishing their goal of recruiting new, top talent to their city. “HKS taught me how to engage more folks and bring them to the table so that it’s all of our ideas. Join Albany was such a group effort and I was able to bring along so many members of my staff to launch this,” she said. “I was burnt out by politics, the pandemic. Join Albany sparked me.”

The campaign grabbed the attention of a recruiter who reached out to Rachel, leading to her transitioning into her current role as the County Administrator for Benton County, Oregon.

Rachel’s time at HKS aided in getting her initiative off the ground, while also allowing Rachel to examine her leadership approach as a whole, which she is now implementing in her new role on the other side of the country. “The big takeaway from HKS was community engagement and inclusive decision making,” she said. “I wanted to learn to be a better, modern, and more flexible leader. Leaders cannot micromanage. It’s really changed how I communicate with my team. I’ve changed my language, my tone, I try to lead with empathy.”

Rachel credits both the program faculty and the caliber of her fellow participants with helping her achieve this enhanced level of leadership. “The faculty had a great way of taking their very impressive experiences and accomplished resumes and relating them to the issues we were working with in our organizations. They recognized the significance of the issues we were dealing with and broke their experiences down to the common themes of what we were all dealing with back at our home organizations,” she said. “I also really like that HKS brings so many different occupational titles to the table through their participants. These give such huge, important perspectives. It’s invaluable.”

As she continues to make an impact in her new leadership role in Benton County, Rachel is grateful to have her experience at HKS executive education to support her. “HKS offers a safe space for leaders to be vulnerable to figure out their problems. When you have this opportunity and can really focus and commit to these programs, they are so incredibly worth it.”