Wagner: A society of immortals

What you do matters, and how you do it matters, too. Lately, folks are obsessed with the job changes that will come with the arrival of a new administration, but the truth is that Washington has always been a city in which people move around. They move within the federal government, within industry, and between government and industry.

Understanding those dynamics is crucial to a successful career in Washington.

When I got my first government job many years ago, I worked several levels below an important senior executive. As my career progressed, he continued to be several layers above me.We were always on good terms, but I knew that if I called him, an assistant would return the call.When he went to another department, he was even more important. I then worked several layers below people who worked directly with him.

A change in senior management at that department meant he went from being a government executive to being a private citizen and academic.Moreover, he received a grant from my agency and conducted research for me.He had gone from being too important to return my calls to doing research managed by my staff members.

At the time, I thought he no longer mattered. I had missed the point. Two years later, he came back to my agency as a deputy administrator, and once again, I worked for him in a position several levels down.

Fortunately for me, we had had a good relationship while he worked for me.

That story is not unique. In the technology industry, I see many of the same faces, but the business cards often change.

The same is true at government agencies.

We work in a society of immortals. The people we work for might someday work for us. The people who work for us might someday be our bosses. Your ally today might be your adversary tomorrow, and vice versa.

A successful career depends on technical abilities and accomplishments, but it also depends on how we do what we do.

In a society of immortals, we regularly take on different roles. How we disagree with, compete with, support or direct one another becomes every bit as important as what we accomplish. People will remember what you did 10 years ago at a different organization in a different role.

The rules in a society of immortals are straightforward. People don’t die until they really die. Competent people almost always come back in new and important roles and can help you or haunt you. So listen to what your parents taught you. Say please and thank you. Tell the truth.When you disagree, don’t pretend that you agree. Disagree politely.

Accomplishments matter, but it’s much easier to build on them when you follow that advice. Perhaps you have known immortals of great ability and accomplishments who had a reputation for being abusive, untrustworthy or only interested in their own gain. That reputation limits them. They are less effective and successful than they could be.

Wagner is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He recently retired after more than 30 years in government, where he served for a time as acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.  

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