The Art of Leadership in Parks and Recreation

January 25, 2024, Department, by Colton Patak

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Experienced park and recreation professionals can offer valuable expertise to those who are new to the field. City of Mason (Ohio) Parks and Recreation Department Program Supervisor Colton Patak recently discussed the varied facets of leadership with City of Mason Parks and Recreation Director Chrissy Avery.

Patak: Can you please introduce yourself and share your background and experience in the field of parks and recreation?

Avery: I currently serve as the parks and recreation director for the City of Mason. After high school, I explored the field of parks and recreation in college at Michigan State University. While completing my undergraduate and graduate studies, I explored a variety of positions in areas like historical interpretation, grant writing and park maintenance. After graduation, utilizing the NRPA Career Center, I began the process of applying for positions. My professional career began with the City of Mason as a program supervisor. Over time, I was promoted to the program manager position and then to my current position.

Patak: How has your leadership style evolved over the course of your career in parks and recreation, and what is a key lesson that you have learned?

Avery: At the beginning of my career, as I was gaining experience and confidence in the field, I felt a need to strive for every detail to be perfect and controlled. Understanding the importance of building relationships and trust within a team was a valuable lesson for me. Over time, I learned that to grow and mature in the field, I needed to develop strong leadership skills to help create new leaders within the department.

Patak: How do you approach building and maintaining effective relationships with various groups and individuals?

Avery: There are many unique needs and interests communicated to recreation professionals. Meeting the needs of local communities with available resources and within an organization’s value system can be challenging at times. Service providers rely on users, volunteer groups, staff and businesses to offer facilities and services to the public. Taking time to listen and clearly understand what is important to your local community is key. Being genuine and informative when responding is very important, too. Providing clear communication and reducing ambiguity is helpful and shows you understand the need and you care.

Patak: In your experience, what is a critical challenge that leaders in parks and recreation face today, and how do you suggest they address it?

Avery: A critical challenge is understanding what is important to your local community and how your organization supports those needs. Understand that the facilities and services we provide should align with the defined community needs instead of benchmarking with another trend that is of personal interest. Financial sustainability for park and recreation departments is critical, too. Collaborating with your organization’s economic development department is key to assuring programs and services offered are sustainable and promote local economic growth.

Patak: Can you discuss your strategies for ensuring park and recreation programs are accessible to all members of the community?

Avery: The City of Mason aims to build a culture of wellness through the recreational amenities we provide to the community.
Adapted and inclusive programming are key considerations when we build facilities and offer programming. In 2021, the City of Mason opened Makino Park. Makino Park encourages interaction and recreation opportunities that span multigenerational users of all abilities in a peaceful and welcoming setting. Concepts learned from Makino Park have been integrated across our organization as new facilities and services are created.

Patak: As a seasoned professional, you’ve likely encountered unexpected crises or challenges. Can you share an example of a particularly challenging situation you faced and how you navigated it as a leader?

Avery: Navigating operations during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was challenging. Park facilities and programs help improve the daily lives of community members. Finding ways to connect with the community during this time was critical. The frequent changes in expectation and protocols required strong leadership skills to help foster communication, coordination, collaboration, cooperation and compassion with staff and community members.

Patak: What advice would you give to aspiring leaders in the field of parks and recreation who are looking to make a positive impact on their communities and advance their careers?

Avery: Take time to learn and understand what you are passionate about; passion is a key component to longevity in this field. Staying involved in professional organizations like NRPA and your local state organization is a necessity. In my career, change has been the only constant. Understanding the need for change and making necessary program and facility updates as community needs and desires change is important. Careers in parks and recreation provide a great avenue to be creative while serving our communities.

Colton Patak is Program Supervisor at City of Mason Parks and Recreation Department.