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Riding the Waves of Change in Your Government Career Like a Ronin

The book that most influenced my career is The Way of the Ronin: A Guide to Career Strategy.

The Way of the Ronin was written by Beverly Potter in 1984, unlike other career books I read. I was in my junior year at college and started feeling the pressure to get a job after I graduated in a year. I signed up for all the classes that the university career center offered. And I read most every book on resumes and interviews in the college library. I was feeling the pressure and looking for help.

I needed a strategy to make sense of all the career advice I received from the job books and classes. In The Way of the Ronin, I found a career strategy that has served me well for nearly 40 years.

What is a Ronin?

A ronin in feudal Japan was a masterless samurai.

The samurai were highly respected in Japan as accomplished warriors. However, as samurais who lost their master in battle or were dismissed from service by their master, ronin were looked down upon in Japanese society and could be challenged to duels at any moment because there were no penalties for killing a ronin. It seems like a strange choice upon which to model a career strategy. However, the chaos and uncertainty that ronin lived in is a perfect metaphor for the uncertain job market of the 1980s. And the early 1990s, mid-2000s, and the post-COVID economy.

The way of the ronin was to be agile and master of many disciplines. As a result, the ronin excelled in adapting and thriving in their current circumstances. Ronin means “wave man” or one who is adrift in life.

Career Mastery the Ronin Way

The key to surviving as a ronin was to master a wide range of skills.

Being a samurai meant that the ronin was accomplished in martial arts and swordsmanship. In addition, ronin added to their skills by becoming an astute businessperson and mastering creative arts. A ronin was constantly learning and improving themselves because they wanted to thrive and not merely survive — most ronin committed to being better tomorrow than they are today.

In what ways can you, as a government employee, master the ronin career strategy?

Take advantage of your agency’s training resources – Federal agencies have many training and development opportunities available to employees, such as online, self-paced courses from LinkedIn Learning or similar services. Many agencies also offer access to online libraries, short training videos, and tuition assistance. As a training specialist, I was surprised by how few employees took advantage of the free resources offered for their development. Ask your training department about their educational offerings.

Do an unconventional detail or two – Many federal employees take details that help them expand their skills in their current job. However, consider taking a detail in a different position from your everyday tasks. For example, I have hosted several detailees who wanted to learn more about training and development. Detailees came from various backgrounds to learn more about training and development functions. The detailees didn’t necessarily want to become trainers but wanted to learn teaching skills to help them work with colleagues.

Commit to learning three new things a year – Since I graduated from college, I would commit to learning about three significant new topics each year: small business entrepreneurship, public relations, and crisis communication. Sometimes topics would relate to my work or be unrelated to any job I have. For example, I remember one year that I did deep dive into chaos theory, complexity theory, and network science. The lessons that I learned have been extremely useful in my career. In many cases, it’s not really about what you learned but practicing the process of learning that is most useful.

Have a career Plan B (and C, D, and more) – The keyword here is career agility. For example, I started my government career as a paralegal for a state government. It was a great job, but after six years, I quickly became bored with doing the same tasks daily. So I decided to become an information technology project manager, which is a significant career change. My strategy was to determine what transferable skills I could take with me while acquiring the new project management skills. Within a year, I had become a proficient project manager.

When I look back on my career, I see many instances of reinvention. Sometimes I reinvented myself to take advantage of new opportunities. Other times, the reinvention was triggered by necessity. Whatever the reason, being agile and continually learning has kept me growing and thriving over the years.

What are you doing to ride the waves of change in your government career strategy?

Dr. Bill Brantley works in the U.S. Navy Inspector General Office as a Senior Training Specialist where he is leading the project to build the Office’s first learning portal for nearly 1,000 employees in the enterprise. He has been a program manager for the Emerging Leader Program and Supervisor Certificate Program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He also managed the Executive Coaching and the Career Coaching Programs. Dr. Brantley was awarded the 2019 Emerging Training Leader by Training Magazine and is an IPMA-HR SCP, a Certified Professional in Talent Development, an ROI certified professional, a certified data scientist, and a Certified Professional in Training Management. He is a certified Project Management Professional, a certified agile project manager, a certified professional in business analysis, and is certified in Disciplined Agile. He has completed over 200 hours of coaching training from the Neuroleadership Institute, the American Confidence Institute, emotional intelligence coaching, and the Global Team Coaching Institute. Dr. Brantley is an adjunct faculty member for the University of Louisville (20+ years) and the University of Maryland (8+ years). He is the author of the “Persuasive Project Manager” (2019) and “Four Scenarios for the Future of the Federal Government” (2019).

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