Here are 10 experience-based tips to help you accelerate your ascent up the federal career ladder:
- Follow the power: As much as possible, interact with your organization’s front offices, which are usually disproportionately loaded with high-graded positions, large budgets and senior managers who have the power to promote. Even better, if possible, arrange a detail or transfer into a front office. Why? Because it’s usually easier to advance in these power vortexes than backwater offices.
- Lead: Seize opportunities to lead work groups, manage projects, serve on hiring panels and screen job applications, initiate trainings and supervise—even if you can only do so by volunteering to recruit/manage interns. Why? To gain potentially pivotal qualifications for higher level leadership positions. Can’t get leadership experience on your job? Then, seek management or mentoring positions in alumni or professional organizations or help manage your condo board.
- Soak up knowledge: Learn about management issues, such as budgeting, IT, human resources, contracting, and communications—even if such issues don’t interest you. As one federal executive says, “If you’re going to run a large department, you need to know it all.”
- Spread your reputation: Remember: When it comes to advancement: it’s not just about who knows you but also about who knows what you can do. So don’t just nurture your relationship with your supervisor; cultivate relationships with as many managers as possible. After all, if your supervisor is the only manager in your office who appreciates your abilities and if s/he leaves your organization before you do, your reputation will walk out the door when s/he does. But if you continually cultivate strategic contacts throughout your organization, you will maintain an excellent reputation and key contacts even after your supervisor’s departure.
- Announce your availability: When your office is short-staffed, tell your office director that you’re available to help. I know, for example, a policy analyst who did just that on July 3—a day when most of the staff had taken leave ahead of the July 4th weekend. Because of the policy analyst’s initiative, she ended up working on rush projects for an assistant secretary on July 3. And by the end of that July, the policy analyst was hand-picked by the assistant secretary to become her special assistant.
- Bust out of your cube/office: Join interoffice and interagency work groups that will help you generate outside contacts.
- Develop a useful, unique specialty: I know a young financial planner who used this technique to catapult into the SES. He explained, “I volunteered to distill complex data and trends into bit-sized descriptions and easy-to-understand graphs for managers. I thereby helped them find good answers to hard problems. Soon I was getting invited to high-level meetings where these conceptual skills were useful. And those meetings provided a good vantage point for me to spot opportunities for advancement.”
- Keep in touch: Keep in touch with as many colleagues and managers as possible, even those whom you don’t like (if you can stand it). Why? Your contacts may eventually be positioned to hire you into more senior positions, provide you with valuable advice, and serve as your tentacles into other organizations.
- Stay current: Every field continually evolves. So you will fall behind if you just tread water without learning about the latest methods and software tools in your field—no matter how skilled you are at applying current methods.
- Be a “friend in need:” Help colleagues and managers when they’re in a crunch, even if doing so involves doing menial tasks. That way, they’ll recognize your team-friendly approaches and reciprocate when you’re in a crunch.
What are your tips you’ve learned from your own experience? Share them in the comments!