How this City Strategist Became an Ambitious and Confident Leader at Work: Irene’s Story

How this City Strategist Became an Ambitious and Confident Leader at Work: Irene's Story

Irene, City Strategist with the Bloomberg-funded American Cities Challenge

I worked at the EPA for nearly 14 years. I had a mind for internal reform and put a lot into developing the capacity of my region through climate programs I initiated, and I positioned myself to take on a sweeping new climate program. The program was put on hold by the Supreme Court and was not reopened during the Trump administration. When the Obama era contracts ended in my portfolio, I was unhappy and unable to do the work that motivated me.

I choose to take an internal shift to one of the regulatory programs I’d always been adjacent to, the Clean Air Act program. Within that, I worked on the emerging Citizen Science program, which was driven by the availability of new low-cost air sensors, in the hands of engaged citizens to create a denser and more informed network of air quality data to help address local sources of air pollution. 

I knew that this new position was a powerful learning opportunity and a future I wanted to shape, but not sufficiently funded nor ultimately where I wanted to be. I’d been operating at the margins of the real central thrust of the organization, which was importantly upholding environmental laws, but I wanted to do some more innovative work.

Why I started working with Maya

I engaged Maya to gain some creative control over what I do. Instead of being conservative in terms of protecting the environment in the existing critical but inadequate framework, I wanted to be able to be ambitious, aspirational, and meet the moment around climate change. I wanted to redefine what we think is possible. 

The work I did with her was really gratifying in terms of setting my North Star.

I was battered by the shifting political winds, and she helped me understand and define my motivations in plain language. 

Working with Maya, I realized much of my work in government was an experiment – how to engage the public, understanding the role that government played and the privilege of that service, and how the public can access this service. Environmental justice on the local level really spoke to me. My original training was community planning, and true to my roots, I realized localized decision-making was where I wanted to focus my efforts.

I sought the job of City Strategist with the Bloomberg-funded American Cities Climate Challenge. I was prepared and confident I could bring a lot to the table. I made the jump to an exciting major environmental nonprofit just one year before the start of the pandemic, which meant I had a limited chance to get to know my new coworkers. I continued to work with Maya and would share what was happening with my new job – which was dynamic and intense in a start-up project environment. 

It was an enormous, ambitious project – working with 25 cities to achieve major policy wins on climate change within two years. We had a lot of resources and dozens of experts on our team but had to move so fast it was impossible to find time to reflect. I joke that it felt like Christmas every day, but I was Santa Claus, which, as parents know, is actually a ton of work. It was difficult obtaining good visibility where I was going. I was navigating a lot of uncertainty and a lack of familiarity. I remember Maya giving me an assignment to write a daily note of my win for that day. She taught me how important it was for me to be able to articulate what I was doing right because I was really coming down hard on myself. When you’re learning something new, it’s easy to focus on the things you don’t know yet.

Within about a month of starting my new job, Maya encouraged me to think about how to get promoted, which felt a bit overwhelming at that time. I am grateful that she planted that seed.

She helped me build a much broader game plan for myself: how I wanted to build relationships, how to position the work, and how to communicate my abilities.

She helped me understand that people really did want to hear about me. She helped me adjust to a very different culture, in a proactive and fun way. 

Maya helped me realize I wanted to be openly ambitious. Recently, my supportive boss moved on and he was not backfilled. I really had to step up. I made more judgment calls and shared my thoughts about strategy. I created a sense of direction and clarity on behalf of my staff, who really needed it during this pandemic. I’ve absolutely grown into a more strategic thinker, one who will step up and weigh in.

Before, I held myself back. She helped me reflect and understand my fear of being wrong was causing me to refrain from sharing my viewpoints until the end of a meeting. Maya helped me become intentional about contributing earlier. She also helped me understand my value professionally. I am a trained facilitator and trained in mediation. When I was recently asked to facilitate the beginning of what may become a reorganization process, I used what Maya taught me. And after, people sought me out for leading a strategic planning workshop. I’ve been building on my skills, my natural proclivities toward facilitation and support, and I am using them to move me forward. 

It’s taken some time. It’s as if I spent a couple of years eating my broccoli—I was someone who knew what was happening at the city level in my field, but felt uncomfortable being surrounded by people with a lot more experience working in city government. I was not in my comfort zone. Now that I have the ability to integrate the vertical government structure across city, state and federal and influence pathways,  I do think I’m even more able to utilize my skill set. 

It was a hard remake to start at age 38, especially working with a lot of younger people. 

I learned about challenging myself to be outside of my comfort zone and how it genuinely feels like low-level pain every day until you work through it. Working with Maya, I feel confident I will be able to step up at the right moment as my institution is reorganizing and reformulating its strategy. I know more clearly what I have to bring to the table.

Most Valuable

Maya had me do a charismatic embodiment exercise. She advised me to pick someone I admired and put on their pants – what would they do in this situation? That is what I should do. 

I like how earnest she is. I’ve recommended her to my sister and others because it feels so female-centric. She really chips away at a lot of the hang-ups that women deal with.

Maya taught me to own my non-traditional leadership style, to be willing to stick my neck out and take up space.

I am small and look younger than I am, which can be a professional liability. She taught me to go for it regardless, that baggage is not unique to me, it’s in society all around me. She helped me unpack some of the professional hang-ups so common for women and told me that I could get past whatever I was letting hold me back. I’m so grateful for her help. She spent a lot of time thinking about things on behalf of me. I’m really grateful for her to be shining her light on people and saying, “Here are these things that we’ve all been dealing with, but don’t make it abstract, take it head on and overcome it personally.”

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    Hi I'm Maya

    Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

    I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.