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NGGS: Contractors Motivate Gen Y to Break Through Barriers and Become Leaders

I originally published this on GovWin. As an aside, NGGS11 was an excellent event and every government related employee can learn from it.

Though government contractors and federal employees have their differences, one certainty is that the workforce will soon go through an employee transition as baby boomers retire. This means that a younger workforce is now blooming, and it is important to learn how to push through boundaries that lie in wait for the next generation of contractors and federal employees.

Two government contractors not only spoke about motivation and how to break down work place barriers, but acted on those theories during the Next Generation of Government Summit. IDEO partner Fred Dust and the Mejorando Group’s Patrick Ibarra presented two separate keynotes, both highlighting why it is important to act on concerns rather than simply complain about them.

Workplace concerns can be addressed during your interview process. A general theme that was discussed during the summit is that even though the job market may be rough, you still have a choice whether or not you want to work with a group of people. If you are looking for a career, connect with current employees and get to know about the workplace environment, and ask about flexibility for innovation.

Don’t Just Get Interviewed, Question Them Back

According to Dust and Ibarra, nobody forces you to take a job: It is up to you to choose who you work for, and who your boss is. Interviews are not just so the employer can learn about you, but also so that you can learn about them. “You can tell a lot about an organization from their hiring process,” said Ibarra.

According to Ibarra, if the interviewer is just asking you basic questions, they might be trying to fill the job regardless of your expertise. You should be testing the company as much as they should be testing you, because once you are through the doors, it is up to you to push through boundaries and create change.

Additionally, Ibarra stated that “standard” jobs without innovation and modern benefits will not motivate people. Though these jobs have expected salaries with low, specified annual raises and your average benefits package, they won’t motivate an employee.

Leaders Push the Limits

During a breakout session, David Hale, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Project Manager of Pillbox, said it best when he stated that as a federal employee, it is really hard to get fired, so why not just push the edge? The new generation of federal employees can use this to their advantage to push change and innovation. While this may not be as accurate in the private sector, bending rules and forcing accountability can make or break a leader. Moreover, it’s the pushers and doers who gain credibility and resist the norm.

A good leader will not get ahead by sitting back and waiting for someone to retire, and Gen Y will have to work with baby boomers and adjust to generational differences in work style. A leader must find a solution to problems, stick to his or her ideas, build credibility and follow through.

In Innovation, the End Justifies the Means?

Both Dust and Ibarra stated that pushes for innovation can bend a few rules as long as the end justifies the means.

This concept was also mirrored in Hale’s breakout session on how his team broke into the government 2.0 world. “You may get a slap on the wrist, but at the same time, you will get a pat on the back,” said Hale after discussing Pillbox’s crowdsourcing for information on Twitter, which at the time was not specifically allowed as a communications medium.

In addition to the words of advice from the private sector, Nicholas Charney, Office of the Assistant Deputy, Acquisitions Sector, Library of Archives of Canada, provided tips for pushing innovation:

  1. Start by finding support.
  2. Gather evidence.
  3. Identify blockages.
  4. Don’t underestimate small victories; these are important to building credibility.
  5. Relish victories privately; karma will be your friend.
  6. Bend the rules.

See more information on the Next Generation of Government Summit and view the Twitter discussions archived on our Cover It Live feed.

Elliot Volkman is an expert in new media communications and the Community Manager of GovWin, a Deltek network that helps government contractors win new business every day. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @thejournalizer.

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Bob Ragsdale

Elliot, nice summary of ways to push the limits.

I would add that irrespective of whether you are in the federal or private sector, it’s pretty hard to get fired if you are doing a decent job, so go ahead and push for change. If your organization doesn’t embrace your well-formed ideas, it might be an indication that you are working in the wrong place.

Susan Thomas

I like it when job applicants ask questions about the work environment. It shows me they are following along and are concerned whether they are a good fit. All questions are valuable, in my view. I don’t want someone I hire to have false ideas about the job or the environment.

Julie Chase

Interviews? I was called by someone in VA, asked me if I wanted a job in NC. I said yes, and viola, here I am almost 10 yrs later.

As far as being innovative and pushing the envelope…you can only do so far as a NAV or MC order will quickly put you back in your place. Our “millenial”, we only have 1, can not wrap his head around the fact that we are using Office 2007 and IE 7 and Windows XP. And there is nothing “innovative” he can do about it. As a baby boomer, I have come up with some timely, results oriented, innovative ways of speeding up the procurement process, only to fall on a rendition of FAR order CFR, whatever says….”no you can’t do that”. True @Bob, it’s pretty hard to be fired if you are doing a decent job and yes, you can push for change till the cows come home, but until “you” “yourself” are the authors of the “rules/processes”, you work with what you get. As babyboomers, we were the invincible generation, we asked questions, we argued why not normal is not normal, we questioned authority (something the “silent generation” never did), we welcomed change, we pushed the envelope, until gov policy and processes pushed back. Then shut your mouth and get back to work and in this economy, that is very sound advice. You won’t find engineers playing video games on their break (what break), or sitting in a circle on the floor throwing out ideas, or coming and going at all hours in shorts and Star Trek tshirts, not happening in DoD. Are you working in the “wrong place”, Julie? No, love my job, love the work, enjoy the morale which is very high. If change comes we shall embrace it, if it doesn’t, the alarm will still ring in the morning. The millenials are confused between work and play. Work is work and play is play…and if the taxpayers are footing the bill, you can use your annual leave to play. The way things are now, if you are offered a job, the correct response would be “I’ll take it, when do I start”.

Kristy L. Stewart, SPHR

Susan I agree a well thought out question from the applicant is great but – here is what annoys me 1) the answers are plainly on the website so they didn’t do their research or worse yet I told them the answer in an e-mail already so they are asking just to have a question (because sites all say have good questions ready) and 2) applicants in our interviews are alloted X amount of time, they are told they have this time…yet they continue to ask questions and we have to call an end to the interview (which appears rude but what about the person waiting in the hall?) particularly when the interviewee is using the questions to redirect back to their skill set which though savvy has already been covered, noted and moved on from…

Susan Thomas


I know what you mean and agree. Questions often run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. I want to hear questions of some depth that show interest in the agency and reveal what the applicant has to offer. In one interview, an applicant actually asked me when she would be promoted. I did not select her.

Kristy L. Stewart, SPHR

Susan – love it! It is amazing what you hear from candidates sometimes. Jokes that border on inappropriat to shamefull, of course the best for me are the random calls and odd applicant remarks. We had call the other day inquiring about the Pimp position; none of us knew about that job classifcation/opening. Then there was the guy who said – yeah I have an assualt charge and yes I am a registered sex offender but it was only my wife…I often find myself wondering if applicants tank on purpose so they won’t make it to the interview and can continue to collect unemployment. I guess I’m getting jaded after all these years.

Elliot Volkman

@Susan and @Kristy – While you all appear to have some pretty humorous/awkward stories about candidates you have interviewed, I have a handful from the other side of the table. I work as an online community manager and our field is still growing, which means new communities are often unsure of what a qualified candidate is. One of my interviews resulted in me giving them an hour and a half long consultation about things they should be doing to improve their communication. Clearly that wasn’t an ideal work environment right off the bat.

Agencies on the other hand are a lot more precise and transparent about positions. Though last I checked nobody is hiring pimps on an official basis. Yikes..

Susan Thomas

@Kristy, Truth is stranger than fiction. Some applicants just present too much information. It’s embarrassing sometimes. You are not jaded; you are a realist.

Kristy L. Stewart, SPHR

I find even experienced supervisors in our organization can be unsure of what they need in a candidate. Our best practice is to sit down before an ad is written and talk it out. What do you really need. It’s amazing how often it turns out to be different from what they thought they needed.

What I wish someone would help me out with is the interesting catch twenty two that has developed due to high unemployment rates. We look at experience on our job descriptions as a screening criteria – and frankly it can tend to leave out the younger candidates. In this economy with hundreds of experienced people looking I am very thankful I have a few years under my belt. The newer graduates really have more work to do upfront to show why they deserve a chance to break into the industry over a seasoned employee… They have selling points they just need to learn how to articulate them so we can make justifiable decisions to hire a NextGen employees. If you can’t justify it you have to consider potential legal issues.

I have yet to learn how to give credit for what remains unsaid in an interview.

Anna Abbey

When I read that individuals with job security should push for change and innovation, I didn’t think of a cultural change that would lead towards a more relaxed dress code or incorporating play into the day. I thought of the myriad of practices that are inefficient but “have always been done that way,” or the ideas generated from above that few seem willing to critically question in any other way than grumbling around the water cooler.

As for job interviews…I think of it kind of like dating. It is a two way street, in which both parties are trying to find the best match. And of course one’s standards and level of desperation come into play. If I get the impression during an interview that the job will bore me to death or get a bad vibe from the staff- I of course have to factor that into my calculations as to whether or not I’d work there. If I only get one offer in a long while of searching- my answer may very well be “I’ll take it, when do I start,” regardless. If I am financially secure enough to keep looking or have multiple offers, you bet I’m going to consider all the factors.

Julie Chase

@Anna, in DoD, DoN there are processes. Consider the one I read this morning MARADMIN 375 11. This is most recent. All typed in capital letters, hard to read, and equally hard to understand. (love the plain English, thread on here, DoN, MC should buy a clue). I have been following the past MARADMIN on the purchase of IT and software to the letter for the last 5 yrs. Last year was different. I quit the grumbling, and I kept a time line of how long things took, who it had to go through, the PR process, the routing process, the contractor process, to finally getting the IT to my desk. End result, 6 months. I emailed all the folks in the chain, and posed questions, and gave solutions. You know what happened, I was sent the MARADMIN. Ok, truth, I didn’t read that one. Well today, I looked up the latest one and read it. And lo and behold, I found out “why” few seem willing to critically question or are quick to say “have always been done that way.”….. just four capitalized letters followed by a name….. BGEN. Ok, innovation? change? I’m going back to my desk tomorrow morning and “wait”.

Anna Abbey

@Julie, I have to admit I don’t know what half of those acronyms mean! But the message on the frustration and necessary cost benefit analysis that comes from banging one’s head against a brick wall is heard loud and clear. I may not have been in government long, but I’m already getting a bit burned out by the bureaucracy. It seems especially frustrating in organizations that hold to a strict hierarchy. *sigh*

Julie Chase

@Anna, welcome to the party. Our motto is “hurry up and wait”. The bureaucracy is as thick as a Scottish brrrr…..

I came into the game in my 40’s and wondered why I waited so long. Either that or I just landed with a great boss and a great people to work with. Our organization and each orgainization at a military installation is run by set of policies, and they are defined by “acronyms”. Study up, there are thousands. The hierarchy which you speak of is known fondly as the chain of command. Even for civilians, the “chain” is followed. It doesn’t matter that SF 345.abc/6 is the same form (not in pdf, not fillable and not saveable) we have used since 1972 (I was 14 by the way), this is “the form” we are using. Ok, so how about if I convert into .pdf??? It would make filling out the thing easier and then I could just email it to whomever??? Uh, no, you can’t do that. You need to call so and so, who will get you in touch with such and such, then the adjutant’s office has to look at, then it has to go up the chain, to be “approved”………Anna, I’m lost already. Now if it’s an “in house” form, yeah you can pdf it. Depending on the job market where you are, stay there is my advice. The private sector can be picky now and move is on to get the “millenials” in government. Don’t expect play time and casual Wednesdays, not happening.