You can’t afford to do your job

I have a completely different way of thinking from my fellow public servants about career development. Their way of thinking is I am going to sit in this job for as long as possible, obtain civil service protections, and maybe move up the ranks in responsibilities. This can take years.

It’s the old way of thinking we found in the factories. The idea is that there is a job to fill. As long as you can do that job adequately, you’ll be fine. Don’t get yelled at. Don’t take risks. Go home at 4:30. You’re guaranteed a raise every year as a long as you’re mediocre. These practices reward stagnation.

My generation hops from job to job for good reason. How long can we sit still and do the same work year after year? That doesn’t help our careers.

The fact is that the public sector for a long time has rewarded stagnation. The consequences are now that we can hardly support our own workforce. Furloughs and layoffs have to happen and the unions can’t do much about it.

Nowadays, you can’t afford to do your job. The job you are assigned to calls for you to be mediocre and easily replaceable. It also calls for you to be selfish and fill a narrow role. It’s the silo mentality at work. And this way of working is not just found on the public sector, but in the large bureaucracies of the private sector as well.

The big question is who’s your audience? If your audience is your boss, then maybe this way of doing things will be adequate enough that you can keep your job.

But chances are, your boss secretly wants more from you. Your boss wants you to do great things. That doesn’t mean doing your job better. Being 2% better than the previous year doesn’t really get you noticed. Doing your job better is not a scalable strategy. As you approach perfect, then what do you do?

Maybe your coworkers are your audience. Maybe it’s time you give rather than take. Maybe it’s time that you think about how you can be a champion for the people you work with. Being a champion means more than “hard work”. Hard work is not rewarded in this economy. It’s about always doing exciting and innovative things that make other people look great. It’s not about making yourself look great. That’s selfish. The way to win accolades is to champion the work of others. Help them make their great ideas a reality.

Question for you: Are you in a job where you can champion great ideas? Are you shipping or thrashing? Can you be indispensable? We’ll talk about the kinds of jobs you want to avoid in a later post. But I think that being indispensable is the only way to manage your career. And if you can’t do that, then what are you doing? Your job?

Visit my blog, Conversion-Driven Government, for more!

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I’m hearing more and more people talk about us as being in a “gift economy” – where giving and promoting others is what helps you advance.

And I definitely agree that this concept applied to information – “need to share” vs. “need to know” – is critical…but very difficult to incorporate into a culture of work that has rewarded people who hoard/guard information.


Paul Day

Actually, that’s really interesting. I like how you put that. People are rewarded for hoarding and guarding information. And actually, sharing information between agencies is a huge problem in my area. I’d say to someone from a state agency, “I can help you, but I need that information to make it happen” and it almost falls on deaf ears. I’m offering free help… All I need for you to do is let go and keep me in the loop. There’s a lot of fear. I’m not sure why.

Candace Riddle

Great discussion. This was a conversation between myself and another young professional in the private contract administration business the other evening. Our generation has been forced to be innovative and to “job-hop”. The mentality of “get a job and hold” has to be let go of.

Employers would be wise to look at an employees overall experience instead of length of time in any one position. I’m just going to say this….if you would look at my resume, it would appear to be a “train wreck” for lack of a better word. However, my current employer saw value in the fact that I had a “well rounded” background instead of “ten years of experience” in one job related to the open position.

In the five years following graduation I have worked in the real estate, legal, financial, and media industries. What am I doing now? Using all of those skills to work in public procurement of course. I’ve integrated my knowledge (including the media knowledge) to contribute to and promote the project that I’m working on in my new position.

I’m bringing innovation to the table. Trying to use social media and networking to generate support for my current project. I’m promoting the research of my fellow colleagues and integrating ideas from others here on Gov Loop and at other organizations. I am a believer of sharing best practices and new ideas! By sharing and collaborating we make ourselves indispensable to our organization and company.

Lets face it…you are only as strong as your network. The company stands to lose more than just a valuable employee if you leave for a better offer; they could lose your entire network of contacts which may be critical to project goals. My suggestion for any young professional is to make themselves indispensable to their employer by building a strong and large network of relevant contacts. Without turning yourself into a resource…YOU WILL BE REPLACEABLE.

Paul Day

Agreed Candace, well said!
There aren’t enough of our generation in the public workforce. I think it’s because we want to do interesting things and there is a perception that we’ll end up in a 9-5 office wage slavery working for stodgy institutions if we choose the government route. Nobody wants that… Doing interesting things for your coworkers is a great way to network because you’ll not only have the relationships, but the work to show for it.


I’ve found all the personality traits that supposedly make for a brilliant private-sector employee are strongly frowned upon in government. Maybe this will change over time as the previous “hang-on-until-death” generations move on. All the big battles I’m seeing these days have to do with status quo devotees vs. innovators, and it’s not pretty. I worry that because of the bad economy, we’re going to end up repeating history. Younger folks will take that government job that eventually opens up and hang onto it for dear life because it’s *a* job, not really for career-related motivations or a desire to be a top shelf public servant.


Paul/Andrew –
In regards to “hoarding & guarding information” I haven’t experienced it so much in the public sector (more so in my private sector jobs). In fact, some organizations pretty much promote this type of behavior (indirectly by rewarding those that “shine”), and the workplace is full of “backstabbers” trying to outdo their coworkers to get the promotion or raise — I’ve heard Intel is pretty cut-throat, and people who leave an organization to go there for the money, quickly leave because they are worried about being “cut” by the organization, and having to “watch their back”, and/or constantly innovate to just keep their job (their #1 concern is no longer the promotions/money).

As far as the “gift economy” goes, glad to hear this being talked about more, and maybe it truly is! I know I try to do this, as why not help out someone to make their job easier/more effective – but I can honestly say that I haven’t seen this type of giving and promoting others as helping someone to advance. Again, I think I see more giving in the public sector, but no advancements because of it (I suspect this may be to insecurities of individuals who are afraid if they do promote someone they may end up in their position, or passing them by entirely and becoming their boss, or worse yet, the director – the higher up you get, the less opportunities for advancement – gotta play your cards right!).

Dannielle Blumenthal

Has anyone here seen the Brazen Careerist social network? It was founded by my favorite blogger, Penelope Trunk. (Sincere endorsement, personal opinion, not reimbursed, etc.) Much discussion of surviving the new economy. Google and ye shall find.