What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting (To be a Fed)


I will begin my first blog with a personal fact: becoming a federal employee was never part of my plan. I entered federal service eight years ago, not as an idealistic 20-something (which I was once), but as an intense, serious nearly 40-something. I came to the fed from the nonprofit world: organizations where results were tangible, visible, and frequently immediate. The federal government proved to be a different environment.

Now I can’t say I came into the fed completely green: I am married to a third-generation fed who, while he didn’t give me specific advice, did tell me “not to be surprised” as I began my journey.

In the eight years since, I haven’t been surprised by much, but I have compiled six lessons learned I wish I had known from day one. Learning and mastering these lessons will help you in your current position, and help you as move up through the federal ranks.

  1. Listen more than talk—regardless of how long you’ve been a fed, you will spend a lot of your work life listening. Your colleagues will share their opinions about everything concerning you, from your job performance to how often you talk in meetings. And though all of us know about active listening, human nature is to tune out most of what we hear. But it’s important to quiet that instinct and listen as much as possible. It is mostly in these small, seemingly insignificant moments that you learn the most from those who have been where you are, and from those who are on the same forward-facing journey that you are.
  2. Know your worth—this isn’t about self-esteem, it is about how well you understand the contributions your unique knowledge, skills, abilities, and persona bring to your job, your team, and your office. Others can do your job; however, no one else can do it the same way you do. You must be confident in your abilities and understand what you bring to the table. If you spend your government career waiting for validation from others you will never have job satisfaction.
  3. Express appreciation—we have all heard “say please and thank you” since we were small children, but they are words that are frequently missing from people’s current vocabulary. Everyone wants to know that their contributions are valued, and the specific words are not nearly as important as the sentiment. Asking “can you help me with project x?” or “do you have time to proofread a document for me?” helps your coworkers feel involved and strengthens your connection. Likewise, upon completion of a project or task saying, “thanks for your help,” or “you saved me a ton of time,” or “I always appreciate your willingness to pitch in” always make people feel good and will encourage them to offer their help again. Just remember help is a two way street: as you ask for help, others will ask help from you.
  4. Clarify the difference between niceness and weakness—AKA: set boundaries. One of the first clear messages I remember receiving from my parents was “always be nice”. This is great (and important) advice for children, but trickier to implement when you’re an adult working your way through the workforce. Experience is the best teacher for learning to find your voice and set your boundaries. Knowing what you are not willing to do to succeed is as important as knowing what you are willing to do.
  5. “Cog in the wheel” syndrome—if you enter federal service thinking you will be able to change the world, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This was, by far, the biggest lesson I had to learn. Coming from a nonprofit environment, where you often see the change you are working toward, transitioning to government service was difficult. But if you focus on you (which is all you have complete control over), and your contributions to your workplace, you are less likely to feel like a cog in the wheel of a big machine, and more likely to see your contributions as valuable and important.
  6. The why—at the beginning of every year (fiscal or calendar, your choice), write down why being a federal employee is important to you. Then, post your reason somewhere you will see it multiple times a day. There will be days in your journey through federal service that this statement (AKA: your mantra) will help you talk yourself back into focusing, not on the immediate, but on where your ultimate goal lies.

Mastering these tips (and creating and mastering others you discover along the way), will drive your federal career forward and ensure you’re always ready to take it to the next level.

Kim Martin-Haynes 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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Rachel White

I love these ideas – especially the reminder to be aware of your own unique contributions and skills. So much of what we are able to accomplish (or not) comes down to individuals – the quick fixes we happen to know and our ability to help each other get things accomplished. I also like that reminder about the “why” – our missions really are important. And we are all helping keep this country running. 🙂 thank you!