Seeking Public Servants
by Mark Lindquist.
First published in The Tacoma Weekly.
Walt Bettinger, the chief operating officer of Charles Schwab & Company, sometimes takes job candidates to breakfast. Before the meal arrives, Bettinger asks the restaurant manager to botch the applicant’s order.
For example, instead of the pancakes and orange juice she ordered, the applicant could be served bacon and a banana shake.
This, of course, is a test.
How does the applicant react? Is there anger? Is there a scene? Does it throw the candidate off-kilter?
Or does the applicant respond with coolness and grace?
As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, action is character. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in nine years as your elected prosecutor is to hire character with competence.
I personally interview all of the finalists. The future of our office depends on hiring talented, diverse, service-minded people with integrity.
The safety of our community also depends on this.
We best serve the community, we best protect the community, we best keep the community safe when we hire the best people.
Based on experience, we have condensed what we are looking for into three criteria we call the trifecta: good worker, good colleague, good emissary.
A good worker is someone who has the skills to do the job well. If a candidate is a finalist meeting with me, they almost certainly qualify.
A good colleague is someone who can do the job well and also help those around them excel. Good colleagues are team players. They treat everyone respectfully. They understand the job isn’t about them, it’s about serving the public.
A good emissary is someone who can do the job well, help their colleagues do their job well, and represent the office well to the public we serve.
In this noisy era of fact-free politics, it is especially important that public servants let the community know what their government is doing for them. The antidote to misinformation is information.
We also have to listen.
Last year, I spoke with approximately 200 community groups. I listened, I learned, and we made adjustments in the office based on feedback from our constituents. Everyone in our office is expected to communicate with the public to some degree.
People from the community serve on our juries and elect the county council members who set our budget. We earn their confidence through action, including communication and responsiveness.
We have a staff of about 220. Many were hired long ago. A few have struggled with our demanding standards and our culture of public service. We are progressing from the trial warrior culture of the past to the public service culture of the future.
Public service is not for everyone.
It’s a tough job. You’re always busy, you’re sometimes maligned. People can burn out. To survive and excel, you cannot let bacon and a banana shake throw you off-kilter. You have to find grace.
You will not make everyone happy.
If you want to make everyone happy, sell ice cream.
Like many organizations, we use character-driven interview questions designed to distinguish positive people from negative people, learners from blamers, hard workers from slackers. You can guess who successful organizations prefer to hire.
Every year, some people retire or move on. We are often hiring. We want our office to reflect the diverse community we serve. We are always changing and growing and improving.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has had a few cool careers, said, “I guarantee you will discover that while public service improves the lives and the world around you, its greatest reward is the enrichment and new meaning it will bring your own life.”
If the ecstasy and occasional agony of public service appeal to you, if you want to help us keep our community safe and strong, if you can be a good worker, a good colleague, and a good emissary, then you should consider applying to our office.
If you’re a finalist, maybe I’ll take you out for breakfast.
A career prosecutor with more than 22 years of service, Mark Lindquist is our Pierce County Prosecutor. He was appointed in 2009, elected in 2010, and reelected in 2014.