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Open Your Agency to Diverse Voices

Speak Up — And Listen

Imagine yourself sitting in a meeting, surrounded by coworkers who talk and offer insights while you weigh in with head nods and passing smiles. You’re not doing much to advance your career, and you’re developing a personal brand — yes, we all have them — that says you’re disengaged and even ill-prepared.

It’s exceptionally critical to find your voice and share it with colleagues and supervisors, said Treva Smith, Deputy Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence College at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. You’ll improve your career prospects when you do and, perhaps most importantly, you’ll find your work more rewarding.

Managers have a role to play also. “For leadership, we have to be intent on creating a workforce and climate and culture of psychological safety, so that team members can show up and be their best whole selves,” she said.“I don’t treat every single one of my employees exactly the same,” Smith said. “I respect them the same, but I treat them the way they need to be engaged.”

With employees who need more one-on-one time, she’s there for them. With the worker who functions better in the afternoon, she talks to them after lunch. With the person who only needs to check in once, maybe twice a week, that’s when Smith meets with them.


Smith said that “in federal spaces, supervisors have an opportunity to encourage and support team members in their career desires,” and this — the opportunity to feel professionally fulfilled — is perhaps the most vital benefit of getting your voice heard.

It’s not just hypothetical, she said. A team member who had lost his drive, his interest in the agency, privately gave voice to his desire for something new, but said he had little idea what to do. “We literally talked about career pivots, career ladders, career progression,” she said, and today the team member is at another agency, in a high-level GS-15 job … and happy.


If speaking up were easy, there would be little need for guidance on doing it. Smith acknowledged that there can be reams of government red tape and many layers between employees and senior executives. There might be remnants of an old-school management approach, in which employees have to “ship and shape to the leader,” she said.

There also is the natural discomfort that comes with being new to an organization or to the workforce at large. And there are negative stereotypes, including some perceptions that that people often overlook.

“There have been so many adverse stereotypes placed on any number of demographics, and I know we stay hyper-focused on race, national origin, gender and disability, but you [also] have weight, you have height, you have education, you have other [considerations],” she said.

Best Practices

For Smith, there are specific behaviors that can propel your career.

Develop your personal brand. Think about what experience you want people to have when engaging with you. In retail terms, would you rather be a department store with friendly, efficient customer service and excellent offerings, or would you rather be the store that people dread?

Having a good personal brand means you’re something of an expert in your field. “It’s really important to take time to study and know the ins and outs of the field you have chosen,” Smith said. “There are no real silver bullets here. It’s really just about being on time and prepared for every engagement.” The very quiet employee can be very unprepared.

In addition, “timeliness shows that you are interested, and you’re interested in a conversation you’re about to have,” she said. “Are we present in the moment, or are we continuously reminded, ‘Hey, don’t forget about this?’

“Often folks may think that a professional brand rests in wearing a suit every day and being really dressed up … and I’ve got to tell you, that’s not it,” Smith said. “In present times, it is no longer about that pristine look, but it’s more about delivery.”

Build relationships. Professional connections can make you better at your job and help you lay a path to future positions. “There are so many delightful ways to engage within an agency,” Smith said, “whether that’s with employee resource groups, communities of practice for certain topics … participating in think tanks and just some of the standard federal government activities that every agency has every year.”

She said people should find ways to interact outside their immediate work areas. “And don’t give up if there’s some red tape or misunderstanding, but take time to seek out mentors and advisers to help navigate some of those complexities,” she offered.

Know your agency. In addition, it’s critical to understand the purpose of your agency, the people it serves and its leadership’s five-year strategy.

Smith said people should “be OK asking questions and inquiring about any process or procedure. … It’s just so important to settle in, take a breath and get to know the agency and
what’s going on around you. Just listening and looking and learning is going to set any team member up for optimum success.”

For supervisors, Smith stressed the need to make new employees feel appreciated and well-settled, so they are comfortable and more productive.

“If we can get them grounded [and] understanding that we value them, I think everything else takes off from there,” she said.

This article first appeared in “Your Guide to Becoming an Adaptive Agency,” from GovLoop. For more insights on embracing agility, download it here.

Photo by Christina Morillo at pexels.com

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