Motivation, modesty necessary for federal manager hopefuls

Federal managers advise that to take the next step in your career in government, it takes initiative and an understanding and acceptance that responsibilities w...

If you’re looking to make the leap into federal management, here’s some advice: be proactive, honest and humble.

When it comes to stepping onto the next rung of a career ladder, that three-pronged approach is what panelists at the Aug. 1 NextGen training summit in Washington had to say to an audience of workers perhaps considering that climb.

Anyone can be a leader in some capacity, said Kevin Richman, director of the General Services Administration’s Integrated Technology Service Portfolio Outreach, but it’s about demonstrating that ability in your current role, before you can take the next step.

“Your management or leaders or anyone you want to interview with, that will see you in that future role, need to already see you as a leader — capable in the work that you’re doing right now — before they will ever see you as a leader in your next role,” Richman said. “When you’re interviewing for a manger position it’s not about the projects you’ve worked on, it’s the outcomes you have produced, and you’ve really got to focus on that.”

As you prepare yourself for the hiring process, consider your personal experiences and how they can relate to a situation an interviewer might ask a more seasoned manager, said Jillian Curtis, the branch chief for public health and social services in the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Budget.

“Feel free to say it up front and acknowledge that you haven’t had that exact experience before, but here is something similar, and be able to describe that in a lot of detail,” said Curtis, who 18 months ago moved up to managing the team she’d previously been a part of for five years. “If you’re going to be moving into a managerial role for the first time, you have to be able to paint a picture for your hiring supervisor and that panel, of what that’s going to be like, even though you don’t necessarily have many concrete examples to draw from.”

Chat with Alastair Thomson, CIO of NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Aug. 16 at 11 a.m. Sign up here.

Matt McKenna, adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, said specific examples of success can be a “false god.”

While everyone has to deal with the importance of year over year growth and achievement percentages, a better answer to give an interviewer is why was the goal you set a worthwhile one, and what did it enable you to do.

“That’s going to tell the other side of the table that you are not just successful at achieving a certain goal, but understanding how those lessons can apply to the next goal,” McKenna said.

 A narrowing ladder

Once you’ve made that jump, the panelists advised that you carefully consider your future moves, because as you ascend the federal government, your career ladder will narrow.

“The government’s a pyramid,” Richman said. “Every time you move up, you have more limited ability to move around. Especially after the GS -13 level … you really need to start being selective.”

“Unless you’re really hurting for money,” Richman jokingly added, “… it’s really about is this job going to help you get where you want to get in your career. That is a huge shift, that may mean turning down some opportunities, and that may not  be that great for relationships, but at some point you also have to look out for yourself and you may have to turn some things down.”

McKenna pointed out that as the career ladder narrows, not only do the opportunities but also the ability to develop skills, something that agencies and the private sector look for in a manager.

“Seldom is the most successful manager someone who has spent all of her time doing only one functional area,” McKenna said. “If you look at successful managers, you look across their career, I wouldn’t say they’ve taken risks … but they have affirmatively chosen to broaden their responsibilities.”

That’s not to say it isn’t important to be an expert in some specific areas, but as you age and work your way through your career, it becomes “less and less what school you went to, less and less where you grew up,” McKenna said of resumes. “It’s more the stories around how you were successful. That success becomes the currency for a move.”

Learning from mistakes

The panelists also advised management hopefuls and current managers to learn from mistakes and lean on the people around them.

Richman said you need to prepare to make errors, and let your team know that those mistakes aren’t done intentionally, but they should feel comfortable coming to you to have a conversation if the relationships and productivity of the team are impacted by that mistake.

“It’s a learning process for everyone,” Richman said.

McKenna said that the reason someone is unsuccessful in most organizations is they haven’t surrounded themselves with the right team.

“You learn by assimilation, you learn by asking and talking to other people, sometimes in an official, direct reporting capacity, but also just from the group of people you work with on a day to day basis,” McKenna said. “Your stretch should exceed your grasp. Stretch goals. You should be willing to be unsuccessful at those goals. Because if you’re successful at everything you do, you and your team are not stretching far enough.”

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