In 2018 what brought me to standing in the lobby of an Atlanta, Georgia hotel about to attend my first NACM conference was an invitation from a colleague, Jeff Chapple. Unsure what to expect, I walked into a room of a collective of court managers from across the country, where diversity, career experience, and innovation converged. The purpose of the conference moved beyond the goal of developing and improving leaders, but instilled in us that what we did made a difference. That’s the core of what NACM is as an organization. It’s the core of who are as professionals. We’re the face that builds public confidence in the judiciary. We’re the voice for those who work within the judiciary’s shadows, who want to heal the breaches within their communities and make effective, positive, long-lasting change.
Let’s be honest, it can be a daunting pursuit. In light of the waves of social advocacy, the weight of recovery from the pandemic, and changes in legislation, our personal and professional lives have collided. Of the many attributes expected of a court professional, like integrity, strong communication and active listening skills, innovation, fiscal responsibility, and excellent time management skills, self-reflection seldom makes the list. Yet when I attended the conference, I had time to reevaluate the direction my career was going in. You may be contemplating some of the same issues now.
Are you asking yourself:
- Can I have a rewarding, successful career as a court manager when there appears within the judiciary only lateral promotions on the horizon?
- Can I make an effective difference in the efforts to broaden the diversity, inclusion, and equity goals for the next generation of court professionals?
- Can my voice be heard within the community where I serve or within my workplace?
- Can I effectively navigate the challenges and changes of decisions that may be out of my control?
Yes, you can. As leaders, advocates, managers, and mentors, you are part of the catalyst for the changes we want to see reflected in our national judiciary. What you need to prevail is already in you, and NACM has the resources available to build the bridges to lead you to a place of successful results.
In our 2022 midyear conference, Resilience and Reinvention: Transforming the Future of Courts, Alan Mallory spoke during a session about reaching new heights. It was 9:00 in the morning, and I expected a light “frothy coffee with a muffin” type of talk. I was in for the surprise of my life. He shared his story about his family climbing Mt. Everest (the video is available in the NACM past-conference-video gallery). Alan talked about the supplies they had to take, the cost and precise timing that had to be made for the trip, and the extreme conditions he and his family endured to get to the peak. The details he shared were extraordinary and brutal.
By the time he finished his talk, I was in shock. I couldn’t wrap my head around the why. Why would a person embark on a near-death experience to get to the top of a mountain and have to turn around and head back down again in a matter of minutes or die on the mountain? I was contemplating this as I walked out the door, when one of the attendees walked past me and said, “I don’t understand how that applies to my job.” That question, in that moment, transformed me from being an attendee at a conference into becoming a well-equipped leader. It can do the same for you. What she didn’t realize was the “how” it applied to our jobs was hidden right in the middle of Alan’s presentation.
During Alan’s session, he said he reached a point of the journey where climbers needed a sherpa to get them up the mountain. A sherpa essentially is a guide. What he does is guide the climbers up to a certain point of Mt. Everest, then the climber continues to the top. As I researched sherpas, I discovered that unlike the climbers who hired them, they didn’t struggle in high altitude changes. Literally, there was something different in their blood that adapted to the change. The sherpa’s only job was to lead the climbers within the range of their goal. That was his job. It was up to the hiker to take the chance and ascend to the peak.
That’s what you have before you within NACM, a group of sherpas in suits, who lead by example to get you to a certain point in pursuit of your goals. The beauty of NACM is you’re exposed to opportunities and choices. Not unlike a climber setting up to reach the peak of Mt. Everest, you have a choice. You can abort the mission, if you don’t have the capacity to face the challenges, and give up. You can start out but end up settling in at one of the base camps and not going further. Or you can use every tool to overcome the obstacles and reach the peak, then come back and help someone’s journey to the top. It’s the NACM Effect. What is that? It’s how you choose to use the tools and opportunities that are within your reach. When you apply them to your life, it empowers you to go to another level of improvement in your leadership skills and in your career. How does the NACM Effect help you?
Gives You Focus
When you become a part of NACM, you immediately are invited to shift your focus. Whether it’s attending the First-Time Attendee or Early Career Professional Welcome or a breakout session, you have an opportunity to be exposed to new view of who you are as a professional. In the breakout sessions, there are unique opportunities to do a deeper dive into an area you want to target for growth or to learn about new initiatives or ideas that may help you as a court manager. Sometimes attending a session outside of your scope of experience may be a fresh perspective that you can take back to the office to conquer challenges you may be experiencing.
Reminds You of Your Purpose
Has someone ever asked what you do, and when you told them they asked you, “So you’re the one who is typing in the trial?” Or the person mistakenly took your answer as the perfect opportunity to tell you their court horror story? It’s times like that which can make you feel disconnected from the reason why you serve in the judiciary. As a NACM member you have a chance to authentically reconnect with your why. You can recharge remotely by accessing any of the resources on the website. Whether it’s an issue of Court Express newsletter, Court Manager, an archived conference video, or a Court Leaders Advantage podcast, you will be reminded of how important you are to making sure that the administration of justice runs as smoothly as possible.
You Become More Service Oriented
As much as you can gain as a member, what sets the next generation of leaders apart is realizing we are positioned to serve others. After receiving the benefits of the opportunities available to us as members, we can, in turn, be a part of bringing that same experience to others. There are a multitude of ways to engage at any level: from helping at the door, helping with registration, getting on a committee, submitting a proposal to teach a session, to even running for a position on the governing body. When you volunteer, you are given the tools and support you need to do a good job. You also have opportunities to develop new professional relationships. What you learned volunteering and participating in the various activities can help make a difference in the lives of others. It can help you to achieve more satisfaction in your career, if you are willing to do the work. What I received from Alan’s presentation was to use your available tools, keep your eyes on your goal, and strive to overcome every challenge. That’s what we do as court professionals, so when our lives and career collide, we are able to manage challenges and make a difference in the world around us.
I’m reminded of the letters I have from two nine-year-old girls. One I met during a presentation for her grade school where I was one of the presenters. I talked about court administration and the part municipal courts play in the judicial branch of government. Afterward, when the city received thank-you letters from the students, hers was in the group. She wrote, “I love how all of you have a spectacular tipes (sic) of jobs. I love all of the jobs and you all inspired me to do good things fore (sic) life and fore (sic) all, too.
The other nine year old’s letter is different. It was written to her. The letter was older. The oil from the ink was already melting into the page, threatening to distort the words, but they were still there. Her letter was written to her from her father in jail. The date on it was four years before he was murdered. There is no thank-you note from her. The only memories of her experience with the judiciary were from the other side of the bench, either being related to a defendant in a criminal case or being interviewed by a social worker as a part of a petition for a divorce being worked through the civil courts. The breach between these two young girls’ exposure to the courts is the reason that I became committed to not only being a part of the membership of NACM, but also finding a way to give back. I needed to bridge the experiences those two girls had with the courts. What’s your reason?
As much as we may not like to admit it, the last years have been a consistent level of unrelenting pressure. We can get caught between the neutrality of our positions and actual need to be an active part of the solution. We can find ourselves feeling stagnated by the pace of legislative change yet feeling damaged by the brunt of the public’s demand for immediate correction for intricate problems. Add to that bearing the weight of the expectations we have for ourselves. Often, we can find ourselves suffering in silence; holding our budgets together with scotch tape, all the while struggling with being understaffed with few viable candidates in the selection pool. Life can become a cycle of survival without any gains. Not unlike the story I was told from an early age about a tribe of people who turned an 11-day trip into a 40-year journey. They were moving, yet nothing significant was accomplished. As a matter of fact, they moved 42 times, but never went anywhere, because they were walking in a circle.
Amid the guaranteed uncertainty that shall be ahead of us professionally, it’s times like these that drive up the value of experience and community. This is the rich area where NACM thrives. As a national organization, NACM uses every circumstance to develop court managers who not only understand how to manage a crisis, but also are solution oriented. Not because they’ve had every experience, but because they have learned to glean wisdom from their personal and professional lives.
NACM members become leaders, mentors, and teachers, willing to share with their colleagues the triumphs, challenges, and hopes for change that have shaped their lives and helped them remain fully engaged in their careers. Does it work? Yes, it’s been my experience. NACM helped me to break some professional barriers in my life and helped me translate my personal experience into a meaningful professional contribution to the community I serve. Because the letter written to the little girl that’s in my possession, which only a couple of people knew about, was written by my father from jail to me. After becoming a part of NACM, I realized I didn’t have to hide my letter in a drawer anymore. I could use the experience to be a bridge, so possibly there would be less children who’d ever have to receive one of those letters and be a light for those who do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stacey Fields is court administrator, municipal court, Crestwood, Missouri.