Government employees who feel stuck in the professional doldrums should never fear – everyone has the potential for career heroism within themselves, according to a veteran public servant.
Dr. Elizabeth Kolmstetter currently works as Director of Talent Strategy and Workforce Engagement at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Following a 25-year career stretching across eight agencies, Kolmstetter said she recommends staying hungry for personal growth.
“Keep pushing yourself,” she said during a recent speech at the 2018 NextGen Summit. “If you feel like you’re getting comfortable, it’s time to try something else.”
Kolmstetter said that many government employees let their fear of failure prevent them from growing professionally.
“The places we learn and grow the most are where it doesn’t work out,” she said. “We humans are really adaptable. You will be a better professional in your career because it didn’t work out.”
Kolmstetter said she was initially reluctant to enter the federal government, worrying that she would not succeed at the FBI. She said her loved ones ultimately inspired her to begin a career with the bureau.
“Never underestimate the value of family and friends to support you in your public service when the time comes,” Kolmstetter said. “My mom, who’s my role model, said, ‘What are you afraid of?’”
Kolmstetter said that after joining the FBI, she learned that careers transform differently than mere promotions and demotions.
“I will offer to you that careers are not ladders,” she said. “They are lattices, as they go all ways. I pushed myself to things I’d never seen or done. That’s how you learn.”
Kolmstetter worked at the FBI during its 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian religious group’s compound in Waco, Texas, a standoff that ultimately killed 76 people.
After that, Kolmstetter worked at the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, before joining the CIA during its 2011 raid to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden over his role in the bloodshed.
Kolmstetter said people should understand that “personality and politics” are sometimes beyond their control at work.
“Be certain about what brings out your best talent,” she said. “It’s not OK to come into work each day and trying to push those boulders up and they’re not moving.”
Kolmstetter added that workplace tensions – or even career changes – are not automatic setbacks when they happen.
“I would say most of our performance issues are not performance issues,” she said. “They’re fit issues. You no longer fit what is needed in this role, this organization. That’s an invitation to mobilize.”
Kolmstetter noted that treating professional upheavals as new opportunities can lead to an ideal setting later. The NASA official cited working for her current agency after idolizing Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, growing up.
“Sometimes things happen that are just serendipitous,” she said. “I always wanted to work at NASA. I’m at a place where I love what I’m doing. There are always opportunities. Take those leaps of faith.”