Public Workforce

Managing Your Future, Your Boss and Your Future Boss

This past July, young public employees and their experienced colleagues congregated to share tips on how to advance their government careers.
by | August 10, 2011

With budget shortfalls, layoffs and hiring freezes, it can be all too easy for public employees to focus on the negative. But for two days in July, approximately 500 local, state and federal leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to focus on the positive -- how to accomplish more in their government careers.

The Next Generation of Government Summit, presented by GovLoop and Young Government Leaders, attracted many of the public sector's emerging leaders, along with their seasoned counterparts. This year's conference -- nearly double the size of last year's event -- focused on removing barriers and fears young employees often face on their way to becoming government leaders. The most resonant message? Don't let age define you. Be an innovator and speak up when you have valuable ideas or information to offer. Don't let age define those around you either. Look to experienced employees who have dealt with their own professional challenges and can help guide you on your career path.

One lunch keynote in particular, "Digital Government: Me, My Career, and My Future," helped me compile a few takeaways that will help prepare early-career professionals (and their supervisors) for successful careers in the public sector. In his speech, The Mejorando Group's Patrick Ibarra spoke about developing leadership skills at a time when the only thing that is definite in government is change and uncertainty. Some of his advice to the crowd included:

Map out your career path. Look at the direction you want to go. What will be your measures of success? Possible challenges? Ways to overcome these challenges? How will you build alliances and leverage your network? Take ownership of your career path by harnessing your self-esteem and applying it to decision-making. "Even when you have doubt, make a decision. Move forward," Ibarra said.

Be a leader today. Leadership has little to do with titles and a lot to do with your behavior, Ibarra said. No matter the position, leveraging communication, adaptability and decision-making skills can help you become a leader in your own right. While some baby boomers may be a little apprehensive toward younger colleagues speaking up, Ibarra insisted that this should not deter potential leaders.

Rely on experienced employees. A seasoned government employee in the audience who defined herself as "probably one of the oldest people here" addressed feeling as though she had missed her own opportunity to lead. Ibarra's recommendation? Be a resource to young leaders. Collaborate with them to solve problems and help them navigate government.

Keep learning and growing. Leadership is about taking initiative. Employees may have a number of tasks to tackle each day, but it's important to continue looking for additional new opportunities. Don't just wait for assignments to come to you. Go out and find them. "You'll unleash your talents for as long as you're challenged," Ibarra said. Don't forget to continue learning. Employees can do this by finding a mentor, looking for job-shadowing opportunities or investing in professional training outside of the office. According to Ibarra, "If you want to keep your trajectory going, you need to invest in it outside of work."

In another session, "Leading From Your Level -- Managing Up & Sideways," representatives from the U.S. Department of Education and the General Services Administration spoke about ways to lead while working with both supportive and difficult managers. Some tips and advice:

On working with a boss who is spread too thin: With bigger workloads, it's probably not unusual to have a supervisor who is taking on double- or triple-duty. Despite this, work to get face-to-face time with your boss on a regular basis. Try scheduling weekly or bi-weekly meetings during which time you can address any questions or problems. Have a list of the highlights you need to cover ready, and keep your meeting brief to help manage your boss' time. Use this meeting as an opportunity to ask your boss if you can assist him or her with various tasks. Keep in mind that your boss can only assign you so much without fully understanding your workload.

On dealing with difficult managers: At times, you may encounter a boss who gives you specific assignments, and then changes his or her mind. Try to understand where your boss is coming from -- he or she may be working for a senior manager who keeps changing the rules. The best strategy is to manage conflict -- gather support from those around you, or from those who have been in similar situations. Look to these supporters for advice. Maintain your patience and remember not to react in a negative manner. If possible, sit down with your boss and talk through the problems that you are having.

Anticipate the needs of senior management. This can be a difficult task, but this can help show your value in the organization. One way to anticipate these needs is to try and get into senior management meetings, even if it's to simply listen or take notes. Your boss may not always invite you because "sometimes they're afraid you're going to outshine them," says Lora Allen, a program manager at the U.S. Department of Education. It's important to think of ways to mitigate this fear by gaining trust. Before entering these meetings, have as much information on the topic as possible in case you are called upon. Know when it is your turn to say something. Speak up when you think you can add value, but do not be presumptuous or try to control the meeting. Be an active listener, and take note of things you might be able to assist your boss with, especially if he or she has weaknesses in a specific area.

Seek help when feeling stuck. Look around your organization and find positions in which you are interested. Address these interests with your boss. Your boss may have a suggestion on the best way to move up. The important thing is not to remain stationary. If your career path is being hindered, look for new projects or even a new position in your organization.

Network as a group. There is a misconception that networking only has a self-serving purpose, but you can network both within and outside of your agency or department to work toward a common goal. Consider forming an informal networking group that meets either online, during lunches, or after work. The group should fill a need in your agency, such as helping new hires navigate the system or coming together to share tips on overcoming common challenges.

Look for your supporters. Create your own organizational chart and look at where your supporters are. They may be at your level, or many steps above you. Don't bypass your boss when it is unnecessary, but understand when you need to seek support at a higher level. You can also find support from those who have held your position in the past. Ask for advice on the best way to support  your boss.

Do you agree with these recommendations? What additional suggestions would you offer government's emerging leaders? Share your thoughts in the comments section, or send them via e-mail to Heather at kerrigan.h@gmail.com

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