In July 2016, Joseph Paxton retired after more than thirty-eight years with Rockingham County. His career with Rockingham began with a management internship in January 1978 and ultimately led him to serving as County Administrator for over 12 years. Joe recently joined the Berkley Group as an Executive Manager in our Executive Transition Assistance program. As part of our Staff Spotlight series, I asked Joe about his experience and accomplishments throughout his career.
Why did you get into this line of work?
I guess you could say I got into the "family business". My father, William J. Paxton, Jr. was the first city manager of Salem, VA. He involved us in various aspects of what he did for the City. I was the only one in the family that decided it sounded interesting and pursued it in college and then the work field.
What motivates you?
Helping people and communities solve problems. Local government is closest to the people and everywhere you go folks that know who you are will have an opinion about something that is going on. This is also part of the most challenging aspect. It is easy sometimes to deflect a comment and think that person just "doesn't have all the facts." However, it is important to listen to them, make sure you have all the facts and help to communicate the Board or Council's position.
What do you find most challenging about your field?
The "local government administration" field has changed significantly over the past 40 years. The amount and type of civic engagement has changed with local activism at an all-time high and the use of social media and instant "news.” These "innovations" require managers to be more thorough and transparent.
What was your favorite job and why did you like it?
I worked in the finance field first, then became an assistant county administrator which provided the opportunity to oversee several departments including the County's first paid fire & rescue employees (not a department at that point). Each of the employees worked in a volunteer station. The challenges and obstacles that came from the initial discussions with volunteer chiefs and how the county personnel worked with them was both frustrating and exciting at times as we worked together to help our community meet a major challenge. The paid fire & rescue service has expanded greatly in Rockingham over the years, but one of my most favorite jobs was working with the men and women in this noble field that served our community.
What has surprised you most during your career?
I would not say it surprised as much as I feel blessed to be a part of the hard working team that comprised the employees of Rockingham County, its school division, the social services district and the constitutional officers. To a person, with rare exception, each was dedicated to seeing that our community was served in the best manner that they knew how. Not that it does not occur at other levels of government, but when the service you provide directly benefits or impacts your neighbor it makes a difference! The employees really care and despite the often negative or misleading publicity, and the low level of pay for many, it was a team that I was honored to be a part of for thirty-eight plus years.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your field?
Get involved, learn all that you can, worry about the details...not to the detriment of your health, but to the extent that it ensures that the big things that come with it are successful. Find some downtime but don't watch the clock, do the job. You will be successful if you are inquisitive, work hard, stay engaged, communicate, and learn from every event (both successful and those that are less so). The politics and divisiveness today make our field difficult, but maintain your integrity and you will go far.