By Steve Kelman

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Young feds are coming up fast

At the closing dinner for the executive education program we teach at the Kennedy School for federal GS-15s (and military counterparts), I sat next to Steve Varnum, a 31-year-old GS-15 from the General Services Administration Public Buildings Service. Varnum had promoted to the grade last year at age 30. He reflects in a dramatic way the generational transformation beginning to occur in the government, and I was eager to get his reflections on how he had been able to rise so fast.

After majoring in information technology management in college and graduating in 2002, Varnum took his first job with a government contractor that did work for GSA. However, after only two years with the contractor, he switched over to GSA, because he felt that GSA provided a clearer path for professional development and growth than the contracting industry. He also recognized the significance of public service, and felt his skills and abilities could be applied effectively to make the agency more efficient.

As I listened to him tell his story, there were two things that seemed important in terms of his fast rise within the organization. One involved his own personal career management, the other his supervisors and managers.

In terms of his own personal career management, Varnum had clearly thought explicitly and strategically about getting opportunities to interact with people in the agency outside his own part of the organization, to develop contacts and opportunities in cross-stovepipe contexts. He clearly thought that this would signal his broader, agency-wide perspective and distinguish him from colleagues who just had their noses to the grindstone of their own narrow work.

When he spoke of his supervisors and managers, he was enthusiastic. He said his immediate supervisor never felt threatened by a young, aggressive subordinate coming up with new ideas and suggestions. On the contrary, his supervisor was eager to work with the young employee, realizing that benefits from implementing his ideas would be a credit to the supervisor as well as the employee.

For example, Varnum recognized that one of the organization's key performance measures was masking issues within the program. The measure had two major components, but they appeared in reports as an aggregate. Varnum realized that combining two calculations into one metric was allowing the high- performing piece to hide the negatives of the low-performing piece.

Varnum suggested breaking apart the measure into two separate items so that the weaknesses of the low-performing aspect would be exposed and could be improved. Instead of feeling threatened by Varnum's suggestion, his supervisors welcomed and embraced it.

Second, his supervisors over the years had been quick to give him opportunities to do things that were too hard or that put him in over his head. Just recently, his several-levels above boss asked him to take charge of a briefing to the GSA administrator. Varnum told me he was terrified, afraid he would make a lot of mistakes and embarrass himself. But everything worked out ok, and it turned out to be a real learning experience.

There are too many people around federal workplaces who feel threatened by the young people coming on board -- and probably some young people who act like the know-it-all's they are often accused of being. I'm wondering whether any young, or senior, feds have experiences or lessons learned about how to create a more-productive interaction at the workplace between new and older employees?

Posted on Dec 08, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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