As a 27-year-old woman kicking off my career, I’ve often wondered how to merge what I love to do with a career that allows me to eat more than just packaged Ramen noodles. Matching my passions and skills in a position that actually pays is definitely not an easy task, but one worth pursuing—even if it feels like it will take a lifetime.
I’m pretty sure that this isn’t generational, or gender based—despite the Lean In, Recline, Confidence Gap leadership discussions happening recently. It’s something that we all think about. The first step to becoming a leader is figuring out what you’re passionate about, building a career in it, and then leading. Having passion in, and about, your position is a necessary ingredient for leadership.
Jon Baliles’ discussion at the NextGen Conference last week served as a great jumping off point for me to think about this. As a city council member in his home city of Richmond, it was interesting to hear about how turned his passion for where he grew up into a career as a public servant there.
But, how do you figure out what you’re passionate about? Isn’t there a light bulb idea moment that’s supposed to strike like in the movies? Not always, but a good way to start is with some questions.
Think about what gets you worked up. What makes you tick? What do you pay attention to in the news? For Jon, he became aggravated that there were too many four way stops in the Richmond neighborhood that he bought a house in, and was determined to take away some of those unnecessary stops.
So, he started writing about it on a blog—another necessary ingredient to throw in the mix of turning your passion into a position. Finding ways to channel energy, either positive or negative, into a productive outlet—such as a blog, art, articles, or even Tweets—is a crucial step to establishing a voice, your voice. It shows the world what you’re passionate about and invites them to take part in the conversation.
If you do start a dialogue with likeminded people who share your passion that means you’re beginning to build your network. “The bigger your network, the better your opportunities,” Jon said during the discussion.
It’s imperative to listen and converse with these key stakeholders—whether they are constituents, competition, clients, or consumers. Finding likeminded people who agree with your ideas is definitely important. But creating a network with individuals who don’t see eye-to-eye with your position is also essential to making informed decisions. It also denotes good leadership.
Open communication, in any position but particularly working the public sector, is really important to maintaining that network. For Jon, this involves making newsletters and writing blog posts about the issues his constituents want to hear about and then getting feedback. Garnering ideas from others and strengthening your network is an important part of turning a passion into a position. “It’s all about bringing people in a room,” he says, “then taking their ideas, molding them, making them better, and then having them get behind you or rally [to support a cause].”
For the next generation of young leaders in government, particularly at the federal level, we need to think about how transparency and spurring dialogue on a local level can be translated nation-wide, or even on a global scale.
Jon had open communications with his constituents by reading blog comments, holding city halls, making door-to-door visits, and listening to open discussions. These experiences were personal and immersive. How can we, as a federal agency, re-establish some of the trust that wanes when applying policies that span across the country or globe?
That’s what I’m passionate about in my position at U.S. Department of State’s Collaboratory.
We’ve tried to start tackling this big problem with a small but very impactful action in the Collaboratory, by applying user centered design and design thinking principles to our educational and cultural exchange programs. We passionately believe that feedback from the stakeholders participating in, and leading, our programs is critical during the initial design phases. For example, gathering input from key stakeholders—our colleagues at Embassies around the world, exchange participants, private sector partners, and grantees—on best practices in education diplomacy programs, and then integrating them into the program design process. By actively involving all stakeholders in the planning phases, we aim to ensure that our programs meet and support our end users’ needs
Turning a passion into a position where you can get paid isn’t always easy. Whatever happens, don’t give up on pursuing a position that you’re passionate about. We need more passionate leaders to make an impact in this world.
So, what’s your next move?