The story of a one-year plan that turned to a 30-year federal career

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She thought she’d work for the government for a year, maybe two. It ended up being 30 years. She’s worked in personnel, administration, field operations, grants — you name it. We thought you’d like to hear her perspective on retirement as a Senior Executive. Her last federal post was deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA. Federal Drive with Tom Temin welcomed Bridget Bean.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Bean, good to have you on.

Bridget Bean: Thank you so much for having me.

Tom Temin: A lot of your career was concerned with human capital and the personnel side of things, but tell us how you got into this whole gig in the first place.

Bridget Bean: So about 33 years ago, I was putting my husband through graduate school, and I needed a job, had just had a baby and putting my husband through graduate school, I was going to go to law school afterwards. And life happened, and a one year gig turned into a 33 year amazing career.

Tom Temin: And you started at the Small Business Administration, correct?

Bridget Bean: I did, and it was a wonderful opportunity. And I continue to grow and learn about the federal government and the important work that federal employees do to serve the American people.

Tom Temin: And what was your first assignment there? What did you actually do when you joined SBA as a young mom?

Bridget Bean: I was a secretary.

Tom Temin: Wow. But then you had stints in several program areas, as well as the human capital area. Tell us a little bit more about that what you did, and also the connection between the ability to get a program done and the human capital side.

Bridget Bean: You raise a great point Tom. Every job I had focused on people first because I could never accomplish anything unless I worked with people and had people who bought into ideas and a vision, you can’t do it alone. I don’t care if you’re a secretary or the head of administration, it’s all about people and getting people to work together and have that collaboration. Otherwise, you will not be successful, you might be in the short term, but in the long term, you will fail.

Tom Temin: And 33 years ago, what was it like to get hired in the first place at the federal government?

Bridget Bean: It’s a challenging process. And post retirement, one of the things I’d really like to do, Tom, is help the government streamline hiring, improve personnel. It’s challenging and automation has helped, but in some ways it’s made it even more difficult. So I’d really like to help shepherd the government through reinvigorating and recreating that process because I think it’s important for people to be in the government and then in the private sector and then back in government, because it’s that lens, it’s that diversity of thought, that just will make it a much richer, a much more efficient and effective government.

Tom Temin: But even as a young joiner upper at a what GS-8, 9, 10, 7 — you sense that the hiring process was probably not ideal relative to private industry.

Bridget Bean: Correct. I mean, it’s very laborious and oftentimes going off of a written piece of paper only gives you a piece of the puzzle. That’s certainly an entry point, but the key is marrying what you write down, and then meeting the person because it’s skill set, it’s temperament, it’s a number of factors that go into making sure that you make the right selection.

Tom Temin: And you also experience the notion that a lot of people have experienced that hide bounds that might be sometimes, the government is also a way that someone coming in at the entry level does have that opportunity to rise up through the ranks to where you were a deputy administrator, eventually.

Bridget Bean: I could not have imagined starting as a GS-7 secretary that I would be a senior executive someday. But there are amazing opportunities. It is really an organization, and I’m talking about the whole government, where getting into a job with a career ladder, 7, 9, 11, 12, allows you almost on an annual basis to continue to grow. And the potential is there. One of the things I really am excited about is getting other people to look at the federal government as a career choice. Probably won’t be 30 years, but if it’s three years here, and then five years, in a few years it really is a wonderful place to work with amazing opportunities.

Tom Temin: And let’s get back to your function in both FEMA and also SBA, you had human capital jobs. What’s the essential challenge for human capital people? Because that’s considered a mission in itself. That is to say the hiring people are somewhere, and the HR people are somewhere else. And so for HR, for human capital, what’s the essential challenge in that particular function?

Bridget Bean: I think there’s two main challenges. One is HR specialists have to understand what the program office needs. HR as a service organization, absolutely. You have to embrace that you’re in a service role. So you have to understand what the program office needs. And just putting out a job announcement, you’re not going to get the right candidate. So understanding what the needs are, understanding the mission of the agency, and what does your client need is the first challenge and that takes time. And so you’re not just an HR specialist, but you become a specialist in some of these program areas so that you can be responsive, you’re part of their team. The second challenge that human capital specialists face is having to translate what the job is to to non-government people to better understand what are they applying for, get away from using jargon, use terms that translate to non government sectors. So it’s really working with the program office and making sure that the potential pool of candidates understands what the job is, and get them excited about it and go through the process because it’s worth it. So I think it’s those two facets.

Tom Temin: So that means there needs to be a pretty good internal communication then between HR and the hiring entities that have the job to get done with those people.

Bridget Bean: That’s absolutely right. And so one of the best practices that we see is embedding HR specialists in the program offices, because you’re part of the team, you understand, you hear what’s happening. And it’s through that almost intangible interaction that makes you more effective.

Tom Temin: Got it. And with respect to getting people that are applying excited about the mission. I mean, in some ways, government has a great story. And for pay and benefits, I think actually one of the best there is, especially on the benefits side. Yet somehow that seems to be something that, I don’t know, doesn’t become part of the appeal. And I guess you don’t want people just for the money in the benefits. So how do you instill in candidates that idea, and we hear this across the board, it’s the mission that we’re selling.

Bridget Bean: It is the mission, but like every other organization, if you look on LinkedIn or you’re anywhere else, you see we’re family friendly, we have telework, we have health, we have benefits, retirement, it’s important. And especially the generation that’s entering the workforce right now, they’re looking for the whole package. What are my volunteer opportunities? What’s my retirement package? How do I do this? Am I going to get training? Interviewing people today is a two way street. They’re interviewing us as much as we’re interviewing them. And we as hiring managers in the federal government have to be able to share that information that’s relevant to the applicant pool and make them excited. Everybody wants to get someone to the Moon or to Mars, people want to help disaster survivors. But there’s also that piece about the individual, the applicant — what is that value proposition to them? And that’s great pay, great benefits, great retirement, great opportunity to grow, and to really help the American people. So it’s really selling the whole package of what it means to be a civil servant.

Tom Temin: And in your career, how useful to you, or how relevant or irrelevant, was the Office of Personnel Management?

Bridget Bean: So I think they play a very important role, but it’s important to understand what that role is. They identify policies and procedures that are very broad level. And they stay away from being too narrow, too prescriptive, because what we need to do at FEMA is very different than what we do with the Small Business Administration, which is very different. I just had dinner with the senior executive from the food service at USDA last night and hearing about her work in HR. So OPM does a great job of establishing policies and procedures, and then letting the agencies tailor it to their specific needs. So they play an important role. They are very customer service focused, but they play a unique role at a very high level.

Tom Temin: Alright, let me ask you one more question about an actual job that you had outside of HR, and that was in the resilience function at FEMA. What a time to retire when the country’s resilience is being tested almost daily, even as we speak.

Bridget Bean: Again, when I talk about the opportunities in the government, I’m a poster child for opportunities in the government. But working in resilience has opened my eyes to the role and the responsibility of every single one of us as individuals. So it starts with individual and community preparedness. One of the things that I want to do in post retirement, which is not really looking like retirement, but more like an exciting new job that I get to craft myself, is helping individuals and communities be prepared. Look at Texas, look at the weather right now. Are they prepared? Do they have a certain number of days of food? Do they have flashlights? Are they prepared because you don’t know what’s going to happen? Seamless response to COVID. Really important. Are communities ready and prepared to face what’s next? Because what we’ve seen in the past is not going to be what we see in the future. But those fundamental principles of resilience and preparedness will help you recover from disasters and various things. So it’s all about preparedness for what’s next.

Tom Temin: And to that young person that might want to come into government, they’re looking around and saying, well, the government in Texas didn’t do so good with the weather. And, frankly, the government with COVID didn’t do all that smoothly for the first year. And if you look at the vaccine distribution, that one’s not going so well either. How do you convince them actually government can be a force for good?

Bridget Bean: Well, I would probably push back a little bit on that, Tom, especially with the COVID. And having been able to work with the folks at FEMA and HHS, and what they did in a short period of time, is really nothing short of amazing. And so I think it’s important to understand all that did happen in the first several months. And that is really working with state and locals to figure out what they need, this really was unprecedented. Getting the USS Comfort into the New York Harbor. I mean, everything really creative and innovative solutions. And FEMA, as the lead really worked with state and locals in a unique, tailored approach, getting the vaccines, two or three of them approved before the end of the year. This is no small feat, it has never been done before. And I’m excited to see that the Biden administration is carrying on that good work. But you know what, 99% of that was all done by federal employees, not by the White House, but by the people who go in every day committed to making a difference for the American people. And I can tell you, FEMA and HHS, we worked around the clock in the office, making sure we were doing. So I really want to push back because the response really was quite incredible. It in no way diminishes the people who are adversely affected and who died. My heart goes out to them. But it could have been so much worse. And that is directly attributable to the career employees across the government in every agency. They’re not necessarily glamorous. But man, when you go to bed at night, and you think what did I accomplish today, you can put a checkmark and you can feel good about yourself. And then the whole resilience thing is we get up and we do it again, Tom. And I’ll tell you some people are not very positive when they talk about the federal workforce. I am proud to serve with them, by them, and they will be the unsung heroes in my heart and publicly.

Tom Temin: So noted and so broadcast. Bridget Bean recently retired a Senior Executive Service member after 33 years in the government. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bridget Bean: Thanks, Tom and look forward to continuing the dialogue. Bye bye.

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