Lessons From Lifers

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Lifers, people who have spent more than 20 years in federal service, are a knowledgeable, diverse, and dedicated group employees. And now, as the long-predicted brain drain (40% of federal employees are eligible for retirement this year) begins to take its toll on our federal agencies, now is a good time to share the stories of three lifers I know; and to learn what they can teach those of us who are well into our careers, or just beginning our journey.

Mindy was one of the first people I met when I came to USCIS, as we worked on the same team. She didn’t talk much (she’s a true introvert); but it was clear, even in those early days, how much respect other staff members had for her. Over time, I learned she was the knowledge base: the go-to for information on HR, the person who could quote the Code of Federal Regulations backwards and forwards. Mindy is the person you want when the chips are down.

Like many in federal service, Mindy didn’t initially think she would be a lifer. She started working for the fed while still in high school, and continued to do so all through college. But the longer she stayed, the more expertise she gained, the more it became clear that the fed would be her career. Today, after nearly 30 years of federal service, she is a well-respected HR professional who is proud of her contribution to the service: “I am privileged to work with dedicated professionals. I know that the work I perform contributes to the mission of my agency and the betterment of the federal service,” she said.

Renata is a people person: she knows people across the government at all levels, has never met a stranger and never met anyone she hasn’t been willing to help. Renata is someone who speaks her mind; so if you can’t handle the truth, she’s the wrong person to ask. A prime example was her first job in federal service: she spent her days on a computer searching for aliases for people coming into the country. After a couple of months, she told her bosses that she wasn’t suited to the position- she needed to work with people. Her bosses, valuing her work ethic and honesty, found a position that was a better fit.

Over the last 30 years, Renata has worked, at a handful of agencies, in a variety of positions including organizational development, diversity and inclusion, and human resources. Today she is a respected senior advisor who is preparing for the next phase chapter of her life: in a few months she will retire from federal service and embrace the consulting life, using the myriad skills she gained in federal service to continue to help others.

And finally there’s Jeff, a rare lifer who has worked for the same agency for his nearly 25 year career. He is a third generation lifer, following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother. He, like Renata, entered into federal service just out of high school and has worked his way up through his agency to his current position of proofreader/publisher. He has entertained the thought of becoming a supervisor, but for now, remains happy to “do my best every day and fulfill my family’s legacy of service.”

I have learned a lot from Mindy, Renata, and Jeff, not just about their respective areas of expertise, but about what being a public servant truly means: weathering the ups and downs, Administration changes, budget and staffing cuts, and public disdain or misconceptions of their contributions. They are concrete examples of what we newbies (at least by comparison) can aspire to and if we’re lucky, we’ll one day serve as role models to those who come after us.

(Thank you to Mindy, Renata, and Jeff for letting me share your stories. I’m sure your colleagues will immediately recognize you…even beneath your pseudonym.)

Kim Martin-Haynes is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a paper on intergenerational wisdom transfer within the public service, that ended up being written about in one of the public administration journals. Not because it was that great a paper, but because it was the ONLY PUBLISHED EXAMPLE the authors could find related to the topic of wisdom in public administration (which I suppose says something).

One of the points I made in the paper was that there is always a record of decision, and documentation about what was done. But there is hardly ever any record of how people reasoned through their decisions, and balanced off competing priorities. Sometimes it comes out in memoirs, but not many of your more senior coworkers are going to publish memoirs.

What organizations need to do a lot more of is extracting that wisdom, and providing mechanisms, and even accountabilities, for it. Maybe in the last 2 years of service (which admittedly, many folks may not be aware they are in), a certain percentage of time should be allocated to knowledge/wisdom transfer, so that it doesn’t drop to the bottom of the stack as something you’ll get around to when you have some free time. Maybe a Friday brown-bag lunch once a month where coworkers and managers reflect on “the hardest decision I ever had to make at work”.

One of my favorite stories to tell is one in which I was chatting with my grandmother some 30 years ago, when she was in her mid-90’s, blind, and bed-ridden with a broken hip. During that chat she dropped a 20 megaton bombshell by mentioning in passing that Tolstoy had been a nearby resident when she was a girl in St. Petersburg, something no one in the family had ever known about her. She started telling me about how he dressed, and details of his funeral (which were corroborated 25 years later in the Christopher Plummer – Helen Mirren movie The Last Station, depicting Tolstoy’s last days. For her, it was just her life, and not “history”. Don’t let your senior co-workers’ historical memories of your agency (which is just their working life in their minds) exit with the retirement card.

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Collins

This topic is known, but not utilized. Structured organizations have committed to this practice and way of learning. And, you will see that particular organization using this method of sustainability is more successful and stable than other companies or their competitors.

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Karissa DeCarlo

Thank you for this timely article. We definitely lean on those with institutional knowledge and would be wise to commit to preserving that knowledge as retirements are sweeping through. I’m hoping we see more articles on this topic.

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