How To Succeed In Your Government Career


If working for the government teaches one valuable lesson, it is that opportunity is everywhere. And the assertive employee can build an impressive resume by listening for the knocks of opportunity available throughout public service. Answering the call can lead you to promotions, career-building moments, and personal challenges that surpass anything available in the private sector. But opportunity is not without risk, and there are a few tips that can help you make the right choices to succeed in government work.

The Basics of Career Advancement

Before starting out, it is critical to take a quick inventory of your personality. In the introductory paragraph, you may have noticed that I used the term “assertive,” and this is a foundational term to understand and utilize to fuel your career. There are a number of excellent articles on the internet that you can Google, but this article from Psychology Today is a good primer. In government careers, possibly more than any other field, it is very important to make a constant effort to be recognized as assertive and not aggressive.

Now that you’ve reviewed your internal environment, take a moment to observe your work environment. Consider the following prospects:

  • Is there an opportunity on your team to tackle work that no one else will do?
  • Did a recent retirement leave your agency with institutional knowledge loss that you could be trained to fill?
  • Are there inter-agency projects that will provide the opportunity to share your talents with other government organizations that might be hiring now or in the future?

Armed with this information, schedule a meeting with your boss and have a discussion about how you can get more involved in your agency. As a supervisor, I can honestly tell you that just having an employee say “I’d like to take on additional work,” would be an offer that I would find nearly impossible to refuse.

Advanced Tactics for Career Building

One of the slyest tactics I’ve found for career advancement is to enroll in the mentorship program in your agency or industry. Because mentorship programs are usually based around a high-level project or program, you’ll gain resume-building experience and will have access to career insight that is otherwise unobtainable. By the very nature of having a mentor, you now have a third-party that is invested in your success and will give you impartial feedback on your talents and areas for improvement. If your agency doesn’t have a formal mentorship program (creating one is a career-building opportunity!) connect with someone who has already obtained your career goals, or whom you professionally admire, and ask them to mentor you.

If you can’t find a mentor, follow the leaders in your career path on social media, and interact with their posts providing thoughtful commentary and/or asking questions. Likewise, employ your own social media account (but review your agency’s social media policy first) to write articles on government work, your specific profession. If you don’t consider yourself an author, link to articles you enjoyed and encourage conversation with your co-workers and peers in the industry. With this simple technique, you will make use of the Internet as your own personal mentor and could even become recognized as a specialist in your field.

But you don’t have to look up in your organizational chart to build your career; instead create a powerful team for career advancement by working with peers and subordinates. Review the questions above with a group and brainstorm on how you can help your agency or profession on an individual and team basis. Imagine what would happen if your entire department went to the boss and said “we want more responsibility,” or if your workgroup singlehandedly created a professional association of like-minded individuals. Just remember to constantly give praise and recognition to your teammates; that way they’ll be more inclined to do the same for you.

One final caveat about assertively pursuing your career-building moments is that you need to watch for “winds of change.” For example, if an election year changes your organization’s leadership, you do not want to find yourself working hard on a project that no longer receives support from the new senior management. On the other hand, I personally utilized Oklahoma’s IT consolidation bill as an opening to change agencies and get involved in a number of opportunities in an organization that was growing by leaps and bounds. Just ensure that the opportunities you seek out match your agency’s vision and your long-term career goals. Then you can ride the winds of change like a tidal wave of success.

What has helped fuel your success story in government?

Please share your experiences in the comments below!

Daniel Hanttula 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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I would say that it’s essential to understand “soft power.” Too many people in government (and not) seriously overestimate the impact of “hard power,” influencing others through your position and status. But for government in particular – especially the federal government – “hard power” doesn’t carry that much influence because you don’t have as much hiring/firing leeway as you do in the private sector. Building relationships and showing kindness to others will often get you and your projects much further than trying to force anyone to do anything.

Daniel Hanttula

Shannon, this is such a great tip! And I love the way you define this — our state CIO says “rules without relationship create resentment.” And you’ve put this so perfectly; leaders cannot bully people into following them, you need to create that relationship with your team, and develop influence as a key part of working together.