Emily Colón recognized early in her career that tackling difficult, change-worthy problems and issues helps build a strong path to success.
When Emily Colón first moved to Florida, it was without much of a plan.
She came to the state as a first-generation college student from Minnesota, with dreams of palm trees and playing collegiate volleyball. As for career-planning, she says, that was about it.
It’s hard to imagine that version of Colón, more aimless and carefree. As assistant city manager for the city of Lakeland, the 34-year-old lives on intention — with a capital ‘I.’ She approaches life like a strategic plan and believes there is no such thing as being stagnant, only becoming better or worse.
'The more complex a problem or the more disgruntled a person is that I can turn around, that is what fulfills me.' Emily Colón, Lakeland
She’s a go-getter in every sense of the word, guided by a desire to solve problems and make an impact. And despite previous opportunities at the state and federal level, Colón is passionate about the importance of local government.
“You feel the community impact of where you live,” Colón says. “It’s more tangible than at the state and federal level — you can do a lot of hard work [there] and not make a lot of movement.”
After graduating with a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of South Florida, Colón took a job as a budget analyst in Pasco County.
There, she learned an important lesson: doing two jobs for the price of one was a good strategy to ascend the career ladder. She took a temporary position — on top of her full-time job — when a department head was unexpectedly hospitalized and his second-in-command had recently retired.
Some employees might have taken that decision with frustration, but not Colón. She saw it as a “great opportunity” to understand complex problems and figure them out.
That became a pattern for her — opportunity opens up, Colón jumps to the occasion, success ensues. During her roughly five years with Pasco County, Colón held about as many positions, eventually rising to program administrator of the Internal Services Branch Departments. The pattern also had a theme in the context of making change: since change is inevitable, Colón chose to embrace it — and all its ups and downs.
“I always say I was a utility player in Pasco County,” she says. “I went to where the problems were and I got to work with a bunch of different teams and be agile in that sense.”
Those adjustments weren’t always easy. Effecting change, Colón has learned, usually isn’t. When she became the interim purchasing director, her third step up, she found herself in a “hostile environment” — here she was, young and with no purchasing background, trying to direct a room full of longstanding county employees.
So on her first day, she brought a peace offering: donuts. And her message was simple — “I donut know what I would do without you.”
“It’s being intentional about it. It’s not the Emily Colón show,” she says. “I don’t have my own city or my own corporation. I work for a government organization, and that’s ultimately the citizens.”
Her transition to Lakeland in April 2019 wasn’t part of the plan, but it felt right. She was recruited to work there by the previous city manager. Her goal had always been a city manager role, and this seemed like the logical next step. But leaving Pasco was bittersweet.
In theory, a city might seem more approachable than a county. But the city of Lakeland has roughly the same number of full time employees as Pasco County — 2,600, Colón says. One of her chief focuses in Lakeland is to bring every employee on board with viewing the city’s strategic plan as a “living and breathing thing.”
“I want everyone to understand how important they are to the city and what role they play,” she says.
Her role in strategic planning has since led in large part to a recent promotion to Lakeland’s Manager of Innovation and Strategy — once again on top of her full-time job. And although she doesn’t manage all 2,600 employees personally, she makes sure to discuss future goals with each of her direct reports. That means putting together a personal strategic plan to dictate their impending growth. And that also means embracing more change.
That recipe is also what it’s all about for her: people, problem-solving and making an impact.
“The more complex a problem or the more disgruntled a person is that I can turn around, that is what fulfills me,” she says. “If it’s a developer having an issue through the permitting process or an employee just not understanding something, the moment that it clicks into place and you’ve sorted out the problem — that is why I’m here.”