6 Ways to Put Your Best Foot Forward and Advance Your Career

As we’ve all heard countless times — and are bound to hear countless more over the next year —  hindsight is 20/20. At our recent in-person GovUp, “The Whole Fed: Understanding the Government Career Lifecycle,” Patrick Malone, Executive in Residence for the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University, reflected on six important lessons he has learned over the course of his career.

By implementing some of his mantras and practices, you’ll be on your way to reaching the next rung on your professional ladder. You’ll also save yourself from having to learn his lessons the hard way.

1. Identify Your Niche Skill

It can be difficult to find what sets yourself apart from others in the professional world — but not impossible. To do this, Malone recommends taking some time and identifying a niche, specialized skill that you possess. This could be a particular certification or the way you handle your work. One particular skill that Malone emphasized the value of is being good at talking about what you do.
Once you’ve established what your particular skill is, own it by writing about it regularly (for example, in an annual case study), and find a blog or some other platform on which to publish your work. By doing this, you will distinguish yourself in your field and open doors as you advance your career.

2. Find Someone to Listen To

For those trying to find a new job, Malone’s advice is simple: Get out there, meet people and bring business cards with you! “People like to talk about themselves,” he said. “Everyone has an ego. Everyone loves to feel wanted and valued.” Find someone who wants to talk about what they do, and listen! By being unafraid to reach out and network with others, you can get your foot in the door and build recognition with individuals in an organization that interests you. This will set you apart from the crowd and give you an edge in the application process.

3. Recognize that Mentors Matter

Malone expressed that the biggest misconception he sees where mentors are concerned is the idea that you can only have one. Contrary to this belief, he expressed the importance that his mentors have had in each stage of his career. No matter where you are in your own professional journey, never stop reaching out to others for their wisdom or perspective.

4. Plan Ahead

When making plans or goals, set a three- to five-year window. Start at that three- to five-year mark, and develop your plan by working backward. Malone cautioned against getting locked into plans. However, he shared that one of his least favorite questions to be asked is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” The reason? Almost always, those asking are looking to hear you provide a job title. Instead, approach the question with answers like “I want to be making a difference. I want to be fulfilled. I want to be helping others.” While specific plans can change, values like these do not, and using them as guides will help ensure that you end up in environments that allow you to flourish.

5. Stay Positive

Malone also stressed the importance of kindness and gratitude in the workplace, stating that a lot can be said for having a positive mental attitude. Although this sounds corny, it really is true. He described how research has shown us repeatedly that organizations that foster a positive, supportive, caring workplace culture accomplish their missions better than others. “It’s not mission first, it’s always people first,” Malone said, noting that it isn’t about what we know, it’s about the environment we create. “People may be impressed by what you know, but they’ll never be inspired by it.”

6. Focus on EQ

For his final piece of advice, Malone offered the following: “The smartest people rarely make the best leaders.” While IQ is great for grades, it is simply a measure of your capacity to learn new things. He stressed that in the workplace, what truly matters is one’s EQ, or emotional quotient. A healthy workplace that puts EQ above IQ is marked by authentic connections between people who care about one another. Putting energy into developing your EQ is an essential step in better caring for yourself and for those around you.


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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Patrick Malone is always a great speaker, but he really knocked it out of the park with this one! I really liked his paradigm for setting short-to-long term goals. Planning around your values (as opposed to titles or pay rates) and placing EQ above IQ both seek to create a more thoughtful and prepared future leader. Great piece, Zack – thanks for sharing.