• Opinion
  • August 12, 2019
  • 18 minutes
  • 0

New in government? Here’s how to succeed and make an impact

Opinion: 3 tips to turbocharge your career — and avoid government burnout

This opinion piece was written by Joseph Maltby, a change management specialist in the US federal government and chief outreach officer at Young Government Leaders. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


Not everyone succeeds in government.

Some new public servants show up with great ideas and enthusiasm and then quickly start to feel stagnant, underappreciated, and frustrated before eventually leaving. Why does this happen and what can you do to be someone who stays and makes a difference?

Behind this problem is mindset, meaning the behaviors and beliefs that someone new to their public service career bring with them.

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Often this mindset is something that they don’t know they have, or that they don’t fully understand. In every area of our lives, the expectations that we don’t know how to say out loud are the ones that trip us up the most.

The good news is that starting your early public service career with the right mindset can set you up for a more successful and impactful experience as well as improving your long-term career prospects.

What’s good for you is good for government

Be advised, this article won’t tell you how to do your job well. That’s its own challenge.

This is an article about how you should understand public service, your career path, and your role in your organisation. If you have the right mindset, and avoid some common mistakes, this can help you to:

  • Avoid getting burned out and leaving your new job, or government, early.
  • Be more effective in your role and in bringing your fresh perspective and necessary change to government.
  • Help you avoid some of the complaints, fair and not, from more experienced colleagues that cause generation gaps in public service.

What’s good for your career is also good for government, because we need more talented new public servants and their ideas in government to increase innovation and effectiveness. In this article I will focus on three common, but often unstated, assumptions that new public servants often hold.

“Cliques are for high school”

It’s easy to come into government and assume that if there are rules and processes, they are followed by everyone, and that everyone is treated the same way:

Everyone with the same job, or at the same level, is the same and will be treated equally based on the rules and the needs of the mission.

The reality is that, while the rules do affect everyone and will limit how people can act at work, human beings are social animals who form tribes. When you’re new, you’re not in the tribe yet, and working hard or having good ideas isn’t enough to join it.

It takes time to get to know people and to be accepted. It also takes a little humility, because no one wants to feel like you arrived already certain you were better than them and their work.

That means you need to wait to share all your good ideas, even if they are what the organisation needs, until you know you’re in the tribe.

There are teams and offices with a terrible culture where you may not be willing to take the time or make the sacrifices it would take to get into the tribe so you can start to improve things. In that case, you may want to move on.

It can be easy to get frustrated when you don’t feel like you’re making an impact, especially when you know what needs to be done. You’ll have to deal with that reality without going crazy

There are also teams and offices with a really good culture who will accept you and be open to your ideas early on. If that happens, great! But you have to accept that having a good idea isn’t enough by itself.

This doesn’t have to mean that you should just sit on your hands and wait. While you wait to become part of the tribe you can do the groundwork to be more effective once you’re there.

Learn the politics of your team and your organisation. Figure out the relationships between people and organisations. Learn the history and baggage that longer-serving colleagues are carrying with them, and which still affects their thinking. Find out who has the most influence — it’s not always the person higher on the organisational chart — by asking, listening, and watching who wins the most arguments.

Find out who talks to everyone and who seems to know everything first. These are the people and teams you’ll need to account for to grow your career and to make change.

This is where soft skills like active listening, empathy, or communication, come in handy. It’s actually pretty easy to find the first 80% of what you need to know just by listening. People aren’t subtle.

If you pay attention to what they say and how they say it, you’ll learn what you need to know about them. Never forget that your colleagues are human beings. We spend more time with coworkers than with anyone else in our lives apart from our immediate family, but we often think of them as somehow following different rules of human behaviour and so allow ourselves to talk and act in ways we never would anywhere else.

This is a path that requires work and patience, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit you function the same way.

If someone joined your family, or club, or sports team, or any other group where you feel at home and immediately started telling you how to be better, or arguing that it doesn’t make sense for their role to include a particular task, you would have problems with them.

You would feel disrespected. People need to feel respected and if you can meet that need, you’ll be a lot more successful down the road. This patience will also make your good ideas better. To paraphrase Chesterton’s Fence, if you haven’t been around long enough to know why the bad idea exists, how do you know your good idea will fix the problem?

“I can make a big difference quickly”

It follows from the first point that your career will likely move at a slower speed than you hoped.

Change is hard and it takes a lot of time. The vast majority of people, even people with plenty of experience, underestimate how much time it takes to effect change, so you’re in good company. The best metaphor for change isn’t engineering, where you figure out a good idea, draw up blueprints, and then build it.

The best metaphor is biology, where things grow slowly, ooze back and forth on their way to the next step, and end up accomplishing their goals in roundabout, sometimes ugly ways.

It can be easy to get frustrated when you don’t feel like you’re making an impact, especially when you know what needs to be done. You’ll have to deal with that reality without going crazy.

You’ll need to show yourself kindness and patience, because it’s normal not to know for sure if you’re succeeding in your career or in making the world a better place

Having the right skills and approach can help you close the gap between your expectations and your results, but the other part of the equation is to adjust your expectations. Again, you probably already know this on some level, because you’ve probably set goals for yourself as a person that took a long time, and a lot of back-and-forth and backsliding, to accomplish.

Organisations are just collections of people, so the organisation’s path through change is the sum total of all of those people’s paths, which will look a lot like yours did.

This might sound obvious when stated plainly, but it’s surprisingly common to meet people with unrealistic expectations of how fast their ideas, and their careers, will move. Perhaps this is because someone who’s spent their most of their life somewhere with clearly defined goals and measures of success assumes the working world has those too. It doesn’t.

You’ll need to show yourself kindness and patience, because it’s normal not to know for sure if you’re succeeding in your career or in making the world a better place. This is something that nearly everyone, even those who accomplish great deeds, struggle with. You should expect that you will fail a lot in your goals. Indeed, that’s the only way to know for sure that you’re learning.

This isn’t meant to discourage you from public service. Quite the opposite. You are right that government needs to change. But if you hold unrealistic expectations and quit, who will make that change happen?

“All it takes to succeed is to keep getting better”

If you make it through the first couple of years, you’ll start to think about the next step in your career. Moving up requires more than just doing your work better.

There are so many iffy managers in government because they were promoted based on some combination of doing good work, having technical skills, and seniority. This unstated assumption about who should be promoted fuels the Peter Principle: “people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence.”

Every terrible manager or leader you meet in your public service career is likely someone who was a great contributor or expert, but who didn’t change their thinking when they changed their job

Not updating your mindset is a common mistake because it’s really hard to understand the different kinds of thinking you’ll need in a new role until you’re there. The best way to learn is to see people fail at that shift in thinking, to fail at it yourself and to learn from your mistakes, which isn’t easy.

Aside from that, finding mentors who are already succeeding at the level you are aiming for will help. Though you will need to be able to tell the difference between a manager or leader who succeeds because of their people skills versus one who happen to lead very talented people who can work on their own.

There are three sets of skills, or new ways of thinking, you’ll usually need to succeed as you advance to the next level.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list or a guide to success, but it’s a starting point for how to prepare to change your thinking.

Moving up the ladder

First, you’ll need those soft skills again.

Listening, emotional awareness, communication, mediation, problem-solving, and so on. You just need to use them more, and at a higher level. Practice makes perfect.

Second, you’ll need more political savvy. This means more of the same work to understand who has influence and how the different managers and leaders around and above you interact. One key piece of this is learning how to influence the people above you and when to give away credit for your work and ideas to get the change you want.

Third, you need to understand what it means to be valuable at each level of the organisation. Basically, this means understanding what a higher-level manager will need from you.

  • An entry-level person just needs to be able to do what’s asked of them, ideally with minimal oversight and errors, so their boss can focus on other things.
  • The next level of value is anticipating what will need to be done and doing it before your boss needs to ask, so that they don’t even have to spend the effort assigning tasks.
  • After that, the next level of value is to see what work or tasks will need to be accomplished to solve your boss’s problems, whatever those might be. This goes beyond doing the work and gets into understanding how to turn a problem or project into discrete tasks, which is a key skill for a manager.
  • Finally, the most valuable contributor goes beyond anticipating work and anticipates problems, so you have the answers to questions your leader hasn’t asked yet. This means figuring out what problems are going to get in the way of your leader accomplishing their goals and presenting solutions to those problems. In all likelihood, pitching those solutions will involve anticipating the work and tasks needed to accomplish them.

If you put some effort into acquiring the right skills and moving up that ladder of value early in your career, if you take the time to become part of the tribe, and if you are patient with yourself and your organisation, you’ll be able to accomplish a lot in your first few years of public service and beyond.

Good thinking leads to good actions, and good actions (hopefully) lead to good results. — Joseph Maltby

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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