Conflict can be constructive, if it’s the right kind. That’s just one of the takeaways from the Office of Personnel Management’s #FedWomenLead panel, held in honor of Women’s History Month. The panel featured five successful female feds offering lessons learned on management and getting ahead in federal agencies.
The OPM Twitter account (@USOPM) live-tweeted key points of the discussion, and the audience was encouraged to participate and ask questions via the accompanying hashtag.
#FedWomenLead – listening to some very interesting career stories from a distinguished panel of female SES members. — Wanda Pemberton, MBA (@ConsultPem) March 29, 2016
Most of the advice dealt with successfully navigating a career at federal agencies, from standing out among the competition to successfully dealing with conflict.
Here are four key takeaways:
Be open to opportunity
Each of the women panelists stressed how much they focused, earlier in their careers, on doing their homework and preparing for every possibility. But it was the opportunities they hadn’t prepared for that turned out to be the most rewarding both personally and professionally.
“While we all need to make plans, you really need to be open to opportunity. It is about being ready, and having a mindset that makes you ready for opportunity,” Beth Cobert, acting director of OPM, said. “And the corollary piece of advice is it’s really OK to wing it sometimes. I was very focused on making sure I had done my homework … because that’s what gives me confidence. But there are times when you just have to be willing to take that leap.”
Patricia Silvey, deputy assistant secretary for operations at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, agreed with Cobert. She too stressed the importance of being willing to “wing it” from time to time. “Don’t be afraid, and jump in. You can wing it sometimes, and sometimes you have to be prepared,” she said.
Michelle Lee, undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the Patent and Trademark Office, said younger people often don’t realize that they have just as much likelihood of completing a really tough job as everyone around them.
“Nobody expects a home run on those really tough projects, and if you even move the ball forward, or even hit it out of the park, you’ve set yourself light years ahead of everyone else,” she said.
Alexis Smollok, assistant director of the Transportation Security Administration, emphasized how important it is to surround yourself with the right people. She said being able to trust your coworkers is important, as are different perspectives when it comes to problem solving and innovation.
“Surround yourself with people that you trust and respect, but not like-minded,” she said. “You want that different opinion, that different perspective. You don’t want like-minded little rubber people behind you. It’s the worst thing in the world, you’re definitely going to hit the iceberg then.”
Lee agreed with Smollok, saying that diverse teams make better decisions. And the more diverse — be it along the lines of gender, ethnicity, background or industry — the better.
“I don’t want to hear from the people who agree with me. I want people who test my assumptions,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to get a [more] diverse group of [Senior Executive Service] career people. That’s critical, not just as a social matter, but as a matter of good decision-making.”
Don’t shy away from conflict
Cobert said it was important to distinguish between different kinds of conflict. She said that conflict can be either healthy or disruptive, and it’s necessary to understand when someone is questioning an idea, concept or approach in order to reach a better solution, or when someone is challenging or disagreeing out of a lack of respect.
“Just because a person disagrees with me about an idea doesn’t mean they disagree with me as a person,” Cobert said. “A debate about an idea is a great debate, and we should frankly have more of those. A conflict, which is someone doesn’t want to listen because they’re disrespecting me, is a very different kind of thing.”
Lee agreed, saying that anyone with an idea should never feel shy about expressing it clearly and respectfully, even if it goes against the conventional wisdom. Personality conflicts, she said, should be handled quietly and privately.
“I always like the healthy disagreement,” she said. “Stating your position … on behalf of an agency or organization, that’s to be respected.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.