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Pay It Back, Then Pay It Forward

Leadership icebreaker No. 37 – “Think about a person who has served as your mentor or once offered you career advice that really made a difference. What was the advice and how did it help? Share it with your neighbor.”

If you are like me, certain people come immediately to mind. It might have been a professor who told you that you would never be an architect or a lawyer, saving you and your family tens of thousands of dollars in credentialing, or the boss at your first job offering an old chestnut like: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

For me, I recall joining the executive branch, where I arrived from Capitol Hill with the smart, self-assured confidence born from my 10 years working on oversight committees and in the personal office of two Members of Congress. After about six months, the head of the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs dispatched me with a quick word of advice that echoes with me 30 years later.

“You know Neil, you always bring me great analysis of what’s going on. Can you bring me some solutions?”

In that moment, I realized I had been doing great – at less than half my job. I wasn’t being paid to assess and inform. I was being paid for action and influence. I needed to up my game and marry my analysis with actionable recommendations – feasible, well-argued, timely and within the scope of our office to execute or at least influence.

That 30-second conversation impacted my career for decades. I share that story regularly to underscore the value of mentors. Years later, after another retelling of the story, I reached out to my boss to thank her for believing in me and pushing me to the next level.

Paying it back means just doing someone the courtesy of thanking them for making a difference in your life. In government, this kind of feedback is rare. Many leaders don’t know how a brief encounter, a timely word of advice or a more serious coaching conversation can impact the entire course of someone’s career. I share these details with the hope that newly-minted managers and emerging leaders will do two things. Pay it back and then pay it forward.

In Washington – and more broadly in the world of work – no one gets anywhere by themselves.  And in the nation’s capital in particular, one’s network is the currency that makes the system work. So borrowing from the philosophy of the popular movie “Pay It Forward,” think about how you might offer help to three or more people in your professional life to get started, get unstuck or get help when they need it.

Most D.C. types recognize that they themselves relied on making these calls to get their careers started and see it as an obligation to continue the custom. Information interviews create the capillary action necessary to make Washington’s career lines flow. The best federal managers understand this.

If you’re not motivated for the simple reason of doing a good turn for others or participating in the custom of mentoring and sponsoring others, there are pragmatic reasons to pay it forward.

Adam Grant has studied the dynamics of networks and identified the behaviors of what he calls “givers,” “takers” and “matchers.” As the name implies, the “givers” are open to sharing time, advice and information in the conduct of their work. Takers are the opposite. They take without giving and move on to take from the next person. The matchers work on a reciprocal basis and pay back favors, kindnesses or transactions.

Grant’s research finds that the most effective colleagues are givers, but only when they give strategically, triaging demands and their time so as not to be overwhelmed, finding that reciprocity in the form of information and collaboration beats out those who are takers and matchers.

With this framing in mind, it makes sense to pay it forward.

  • Hiring managers are open to information interviews to be aware of the talent out there should a job become available.
  • Talking to young professionals is a good way to find out what they are learning, how the field is changing and what young professionals think of emerging trends and new actors. Engaging the next generation is a way to gauge expectations of people entering the field so they better manage those who succeed in breaking in.
  • An inactive network risks going stale. Advising those who are making career moves is a good way to take the pulse of the system and lets people learn what you and your organization are working on. Listening to job seekers will bring you information you may not otherwise be getting as they may be talking to more people than you are at the moment.

For many baby boomers, John F. Kennedy’s call for public service remains a powerful message that drew them into public service.  The generations that follow could use messages from inspiring leaders who can describe a rewarding career, defined by a sense of mission and service, by those who choose to pay it forward.

These are the mentors and leaders who change the lives and careers of others.

Neil Levine retired from federal service in 2017 after 30 years. He taught Strategic Leadership at the National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Policy. Neil is a certified professional coach with over 20 years of experience in advising individuals and groups on setting the conditions for success. Neil has a M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National War College (2008), a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University (1986) and a B.A. from Earlham College (1983). In 2017, he received his Executive Coaching certification from the College of Executive Coaching.

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