We’ll let you in on a secret: When an agency hires you, it wants you to succeed. It would be counterintuitive to set new employees up for failure. That’s why agencies have employee manuals, organization charts and onboarding processes. But new hires need to do some of the legwork, too, to make sure they stand out for all the right reasons. Here we offer five tips for being an exemplary, engaged and enterprising employee that you won’t necessarily find in those manuals or hear from the hiring manager.
Understand Your Own Values
Values and beliefs underpin all of our choices in life, and the workplace should be no different. As you embark on a new gig, it’s worth taking stock of how they’ll apply. One way to do that is through the Knowdell Career Values Card Sort, in which you organize a list of 50 values into five categories ranging from never to always valued. That may sound easy, but GovLoop featured contributor Myranda Whitesides says it’s actually quite thought-provoking. “When I sat back and looked at my values, I began to piece together what I appreciated about my position and what was, or had been, frustrating me in my career,” Whitesides said. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and being able to pinpoint these things can provide you with a clearer sense of self.”
Kima L. Tozay, another GovLoop featured contributor, recommends asking yourself these seven questions as a guide:
- Is this the most important thing I should do with my time and resources right now?
- How does this opportunity align with my values (perhaps based on the card sort)?
- How does this new opportunity align with my goals for personal or professional development in the near and long terms?
- Will I gain new skills, experiences or professional connections because of my involvement?
- Can I give 100% effort to this opportunity?
- If I say I can, what would have to give to make room for this?
- How can I add value?
Find Your Voice
With your values as a foundation, determine how you can support them through actions at work. This can mean pitching new ideas, crafting an effective presentation or simply speaking up in meetings all while exhibiting — and cultivating — soft skills. Indeed defines those as “abilities that relate to how you work and how you interact with other people,” and they’re crucial. Fifty-seven percent of people who resigned in 2021 cited feeling disrespected at work.
GovLoop featured contributors offer four tips for being assertive when you’re new to the job and always:
- Don’t worry about winning over everyone because only 2.5% of the people in an organization tend to be innovators who readily run with new pitches, advises GovLoop Director of Content John Monroe.
- Learn to communicate well, whether through email, casual watercooler conversation or meetings with decision-makers, recommends Nefertiti DiCosmo, Supervisory Life Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Craft a presentation with audacity, or be authentic and enthusiastic, says Wanda Dandridge, a Financial Systems Analyst at the Defense Logistics Agency.
- “Be a voice, not an echo.” Albert Einstein said it, and you can do it in several ways, such as reinforcing someone else’s idea with your own experience rather than just restating their idea with different words, says Christine Makell, a training and development expert.
Learn to Listen
So far we’ve focused on you, but it’s not all about you. To succeed in any job, whether it’s your first day or 10,000th, it’s imperative to consider others’ voices the same way you want them to pay attention to yours. Why is this important? Seventy-four percent of employees say they are more effective at work
when they feel heard.
Listening seems easy enough, right? But truly listening to others — not just hearing them — takes practice. Here are four things you can do:
- Create a listening environment free of distractions, including your own inner monologue, and aim for generative listening, which GovLoop featured contributor Charice Pidock calls the deepest level: “We open ourselves up to what is possible that was previously unknown to us.”
- Control your body language. Lack of eye contact, slouching and fidgeting while someone else is talking sends the message that you don’t care — even if you do, warns Shirley A. Jones, a Senior Executive Service (SES) member at the Government Accountability Office.
- Operationalize empathy — the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings — by acting on what you’re told. Otherwise, your words of support are just lip service, Tozay notes.
- Ask questions to show your engagement and to encourage others to interact with you. This is particularly useful in building relationships as a new employee because “our inquisitiveness helps us paint a better picture in our minds, one that may not have been so clear had we not asked for further clarification,” said Ozlem Aydin, a Senior Management Official at the Internal Revenue Service.
Recover from Your Mistakes
Messing up is inevitable. In fact, it’s important to learning, and that factors into how you recover from your blunders (yes, plural). Fear of making a mistake is real, but it could limit you from volunteering for more challenging work. Understand that as a new employee, you’re bound to make plenty of missteps in navigating the new environment, but seasoned leaders also make mistakes, even if many are loathe to admit them — which itself is, well, a mistake. When you mess up, pause for a self-pity party if you need it and then move forward. Here’s how:
- Recognize the mistake, whether you’re the one who realizes you made it or someone else points it out. “You will definitely make a mistake,” DiCosmo tells new employees, before launching into the four Rs of mistake management: recognize, reflect, rectify and remember.
- Own your mistake and avoid catastrophizing it, or making it seem impossible to get over. Taking responsibility for your action — or inaction, as the case may be — can minimize stress and show maturity, says Rebecca Mack Johnson, a GovLoop featured contributor and SES member.
- Make amends and share the reason why you think you made the mistake (an element of DiCosmo’s recommendation to reflect). Apologize and offer to fix the error while describing the context in which you made it, such as during a time of extreme anxiety or stress, Mack Johnson adds.
- Remember the lessons you learned from the mistake. This is self-explanatory, DiCosmo says, but crucial to ensuring you don’t repeat it in the future.
Speaking of mistakes, throwing yourself into a new job without seeking guidance is probably a significant one. A mentor is someone who advises or trains a colleague, and most agencies have a structured mentoring program — here’s a list of some federal ones.
The reason why is likely obvious, but here’s how the Office of Personnel Management describes it: “A formal mentoring program can help an agency enhance developmental opportunities, transfer knowledge from tenured employees to new employees and rising leaders, and decrease turnover by motivating and challenging employees.”
Still, for a mentorship to be most effective, you and your mentor must mesh. Here are three ways to find a good fit:
- Connect with someone who’s a step ahead of your current position — without being intimidated by the fact that they know more than you do, Makell recommends. “This could be a leader in your department whom everyone looks to for their expertise,” she said. “Ask if they’d be willing to mentor you. The best leaders are always willing to uplift those who ask.”
- Ask if your agency has an established mentoring program and if it doesn’t, create your own by asking a subject-matter expert in your area if they would help you improve your skills, Makell advises. “You have no idea how flattering that is for some people,” she said.
- If you’re not finding what you need at work, it’s OK to look for mentors outside the agency who can help you hone the skills you want to focus on improving. “You will get keen insights, actions and results when working with a professional who has your interests in mind and is unafraid of giving you honest feedback,” Makell said.
You can find more advice for starting your career in government in our New Hire Playbook.