Your Career

Fast-tracking a government career

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Lisa Blomgren Bingham is the Keller-Runden professor of public service at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a former attorney who represented mainly government and nonprofit employers in labor and employment law.

This group is going to face work in which they have to collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries. Collaboration requires a special set of skills and [requires] that they get training in negotiation, particularly interest-based negotiation or principled negotiation, which is very different from the stereotypes you have about handling the marketplace. It is not trying to beat someone out in an argument but rather trying to be creative and innovative to come up with solutions. The reason they have to do that is because we are in a period of declining resources, and you need to figure out how you can leverage resources to get more done.

Lisa Bingham

Lisa Blomgren Bingham

We may see in this [millennial] generation — and they have been trained to expect — more job mobility in terms of wanting to move more and needing to move more. They have to balance that with how it will look on their résumé a few years down the road. One or two of those moves are fine, but four or five are a problem.

On the other hand, I do not think these folks are going to get ahead if they stay at one agency for 20 years. [You need to find] the strategic balance between showing that you are willing to be loyal and work hard for a respectable period of time and identifying opportunities that allow you, for example, to do a short-term assignment or do a detail assignment at another agency so you can get some experience.

You need to have mentors, you need to network, and you need to make connections with people. The best managers these days are able to delegate work to up-and-coming folks [that] require learning and acquiring skills that are in the interest of these young employees to have. The best managers are also willing to let employees go when there is an opportunity for them to move up. Finding those kinds of mentors and supervisors is a huge advantage.

Adam Cole, senior director at CEB, works with federal executives on business and workforce strategy in the areas of employee engagement, employment branding and performance management.

It is often the case that career advice centers on networking to some extent. Networking for networking’s sake is not especially helpful. Of course, connections can come in handy down the road, but you should network with a purpose. Who is aligned with a program you are interested in? Who is a subject-matter expert who could help you improve your technical proficiency? Purposeful networking has a dual benefit: It increases the transparency of opportunities to an employee, and it should help the employee perform his or her current job better.

Adam Cole

Adam Cole

To take full advantage of opportunities, it is helpful to have a “mobile” mind-set. High-performing employees cannot expect to stay in one place throughout their federal careers and still realize all their ambitions. Go on the offensive: Look for mission areas likely to maintain or increase in priority during this time of budget uncertainty. Be introspective about your interests and how well aligned they are with your current role. Avoid chasing titles, and focus on the experience a role affords.

The public sector is still very hierarchical, by and large, and job level is highly coordinated with tenure. But increasingly, it is the person with the great idea, irrespective of the amount or kind of experience they possess, who shapes opportunities. Do not be afraid to speak up, to share your ideas and to solicit ideas from those around you with a common interest or goal.

The guidance of superiors is important, but employees should not abdicate responsibility for their own advancement. Rather, employees should pursue performance feedback at every turn to support self-development. They should seek out influential leaders and subject-matter experts who can expose them to new and interesting projects. And they should participate in any formal programs offered by the agency in areas such as mentoring [and] also training in broadly applicable skills such as business acumen and managerial effectiveness.

Sam Davis serves as vice president of the American Management Association’s Enterprise Government Solutions division, which provides training and development to agencies such as the Social Security Administration, U.S. Postal Service and Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sam Davis

Sam Davis

The No. 1 scenario to consider is looking at your life and your career through a learning perspective and centering around lifelong learning. Leadership skills and a very clear understanding of what it takes to be a successful leader are going to be paramount for the success of young people coming into the federal workplace. The key components and the behaviors necessary for these individuals to not only be successful but also recognize they themselves need to develop are what we refer to as the four Cs: critical thinking and problem-solving, effective communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation.

Over the next few years, we are going to see a turnover in the federal government, and federal agencies are going to bring in a large number of new people. We want to emphasize to young employees the importance of developing leadership skills because they are going to become leaders. They will have an opportunity to progress very quickly in their careers if they do understand these behaviors and put them into practice on a daily basis.

Got a career question?

In the months to come, FCW will return to these experts and others with specific questions about building leadership skills, learning from mentors and navigating the federal workplace. Please send yours to careerquestions@FCW.com.

Be sure to include your name and preferred contact information. We will not publish names without permission, but we do need to confirm that questioners work for a federal agency.

Do not take for granted that things are always going to work out. Be proactive and do not sit back and wait for people to make things happen for you. You need to make things happen for yourself. That really centers around being aggressive and trying new, different things. These kinds of behaviors quite candidly get the attention of more senior leaders and hopefully will allow these folks to put themselves in situations that will enhance their careers.

Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns lecturer in public leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and was founding executive director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. Her books include “Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters” and “The End of Leadership.”

Have a heightened awareness of the degree to which leadership, followership and management have changed in the last five years. The reasons for this are multiple, but what I focus on in “The End of Leadership” are changes in culture and technology. Changes in culture mean leaders and managers do not get the respect they are used to, and they have to do a lot of influencing and persuading and less commanding and controlling. They cannot rely on the same prestige that was granted them in the past. And the technology aspect is obvious in the sense that it gives everybody a voice, so divisions of authority have to watch out and watch their backs in ways they did not have to before.

Barbara Kellerman

Barbara Kellerman

If I were advising young career leaders and managers in whatever field, I would suggest to them that they have a kind of cognitive awareness of the complexity of the context within which they are now operating. The rules of the game have changed in recent years, and [depending on] the degree to which rising young professionals are aware of those changes, their prospects and their capacities for leading and managing wisely and well will be enhanced.

The “don’ts” would [include] one that exists in the leadership industry: to focus on self-development [or] leadership development without being aware of your so-called followers — your subordinates — and in some cases, peers and superiors. Do not focus on self- or leadership development at the expense of textual intelligence and the intelligence of those around you.

Any advice that harks back to the demand and control way of leading and managing is obviously outdated. What I call the leadership industry — this obsessive focus on leader as opposed to everybody else — is outdated. We are in a time when everybody has a voice or a device that gives them a voice, and it is a game-changer. To me, the whole idea of fixating on those at the top at the expense of everybody else in itself is dated.

Alexandra Levit is a career and workplace consultant who has advised the Obama administration and Fortune 500 companies. Her books include “They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World” and “Success for Hire: Simple Strategies to Find and Keep Outstanding Employees.”

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit

In the beginning, do not focus on advancing. Acquire as many transferable skills or skills relevant across a wide range of job roles as possible. Examples are project management, sales, constituent relations, finance and marketing. Learn another language if you can. You never know where you might end up, especially if your role is tied to a particular administration, so you want to be prepared for a host of different scenarios.

Do not have tunnel vision. It is critical to do a good job, but you do not want to be so bogged down in your work that you do not notice the temperature changing around you. Federal employees especially have to understand insider politics and ensure that they are visible with the right people.

The most outdated advice is that you should prepare for a career as a lifer. These days, it is rare for even government employees to stay at one agency for their entire careers. With all the upsizing and downsizing that's going on in government, flexibility and nimbleness will be essential in your ability to land on your feet.

Young feds should do more networking outside the government because the public/private switchover is now commonplace for many. They should not be insular. They should seek mentors who are in positions to which they aspire, but they should not take older mentors' words as automatic gospel. Life as a fed has changed a great deal in recent years and will continue to change, so they have to assess whether advice is workable in their particular situation.

Bruce Tulgan has written several books on management, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y” and “It’s Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need.” He is a consultant, speaker and management trainer.

The first piece of advice I would give to any young rising professional in any job in any organization is make sure the first person you manage every day is yourself. Make sure you are taking good care of yourself outside work so that you are bringing your very best to work. And while you are at work, you should be all about the work. Focus on playing the role assigned to you before you ever try to reach beyond that role. Attitude, effort and work habits do matter — a lot.

Bruce Tulgan

Bruce Tulgan

Do not act like a jerk. You know you are acting like a jerk at work if you do any of the following: Approach relationships from the vantage point of what you want or need from others rather than what you have to offer the other person, or blame others and make excuses when things go wrong rather than focus on the role you played in creating the problem and on what you can do to contribute to the solution. You take yourself seriously, but do not always take your obligations seriously. You focus on the negative aspects of situations without volunteering to help make things better. Or you deny, steal or begrudge credit for the success of others. If you find yourself doing any of these things, knock it off.

Here’s [advice] that is obviously outdated: “Hitch your wagon to the star of a large established institution, keep your head down, and do as you are told. Pay your dues and climb the ladder the old-fashioned way, and if you are patient, the system will take care of you with long-term vesting rewards.” Here’s another oldie that goes hand-in-hand with the first: “Cater to your boss in every way you can and follow him or her up the ladder.” This sort of advice goes with the outmoded view that careers and supervisory relationships are simple, fixed, long-term and hierarchical — whereas most careers and supervisory relationships today are often complex, shifting, short-term and transactional. So you have to be prepared to adjust and adapt every step of the way.

Allen Zeman is president of the Center for Human Capital Innovation, which he created after a 20-year, Senior Executive Service-level career serving in various Pentagon and deployed assignments.

Learn your passions for work and make them central to how you manage your own career. Take a free, online self-assessment to learn more about who you are as a professional and what things at work excite you. Then find assignments that optimize your engagement. If you love leading efforts, find a small task nobody else wants and lead it well. If you love IT, find opportunities to become the go-to expert on a particular IT topic. In any case, measure the outcomes and get ready for more opportunities to be sent your way and for moving your engagement levels to new heights.

Do not focus your energies on one senior manager or leader. Each manager/leader has his or her own definitions and preferences about performance. There is also a risk that you will overemphasize doing what works just for...that manager or leader, [who] may or may not be there for you in the future. And the view of the many is likely to be more useful and accurate than the feedback from one.

It is outdated advice to complete tons of training courses and earn multiple certifications. Courses and certifications are not good proxies any longer for genuine productivity, and what selecting officials are looking for are candidates with a proven history of delivering measurable outcomes. They want "aha” stories, and those seldom occur during a training course.

Get out of the office! Accept a short-term, rotational assignment to another agency or division within your agency. Join an online community of practice, volunteer for a project that requires civil servants from multiple agencies, write entries to a federal blog or an article for FCW, or visit an agency like yours at the state level or in another country. There are many ways to get out of the office, and if you select well, you will learn more about your current position and agency.

The 2014 Federal 100

FCW is very pleased to profile the women and men who make up this year's Fed 100. 

Reader comments

Thu, Nov 29, 2012

Also include volunteering to work on task forces, CFC campaigns, and even something which appears a lower leval admin task like hand-delivering mail to individual offices. (Often it is dropped off in centralized locations). One of the most connected individuals in our agency is someone who started with doing basic helpdesk responses like installing s/w, getting a computer mapped to a color printer, replacing toner, etc. Later he moved up to be the "media administrator" for many live executive-level briefings ata center linked nation-wide. By that point, most of the Execs knew and trusted him from prior years where he crawled under desks but responded quickly.

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 Sanjay Dewan Washington, DC region

Excellent. Extremely good advice for young professionals.

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