Friday, July 25, 2008 Weekly: Some Career Advice from a Senior Public Servant

As stated in last week’s column, being an executive member of my departmental youth organization allows me the opportunity to make contributions to the broader renewal process and to new public servants in general. This week our departmental youth organization held an informal discussion with our Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM). In attendance were the ADM, the director of ADMO, the youth network champion, and approximately 25 new public servants (including the executive of the youth committee).

We asked the ADM to speak to four different things during the discussion and followed up his address with a question and answer period. There were a number of lessons learned, both in the process of organizing and in participating in the discussion, which could make up the substance of this weekly column. However, I think the most important of those lessons came in the form of advice given by the ADM on how to navigate the public service, advice that I wanted to share with you today.

Career Path and Critical Skills

1. You need to strike the proper balance between the compromises you will have to make in order to do your job and preserving your integrity, while staying passionate about what you do. You may find yourself in a difficult position, so you need to learn where you want to draw the lines. Remember that while you are never completely beholden to the system, it is not practical to completely avoid compromise. In the end you have to connect what you do, with what matters to you. Given that most of what we do is knowledge based, this may not always be feasible on a daily basis or with a straight line – but it is essential that you are able to do it over the long haul, or with a dotted line.

2. The standing assumption that the Public Service rewards conformity and not creativity is false. The government is an ideas institution, and while not every idea gets buy-in, if you put enough of them out there the chances are that some will. Managers are generally receptive to new ideas, but you have to remember that line managers are busy with the day to day activities of moving dockets and ensuring the work is completed. They often are forced to sacrifice time that could be spent discussing new ideas to the necessity of the day. If you have an idea, bring it up. If you lack a forum to discuss new ideas, suggest that your manager carve out 15 minutes in your monthly meetings for it and get it on the agenda. Most managers will be amenable to a gentle nudge in that direction because they see its value. Finally, you will rarely suffer a negative consequence for bringing up a good idea so do not hesitate to bring one forward when you do.

3. Relationships matter, a lot. They don’t matter in the sense of Machiavellian networking, which seldom pays off in the public service, but relationships matter in the real sense of working with others. Government today is increasingly interconnected and issues are increasingly crosscutting. Working inter-departmentally or informally with people you have just met or worked with in the past is thus equally important. As new public servants you should seek out people with whom you share an affinity and similar ideas. Some of your best resources in the future may be the people moving up the ranks with you right now.

4. It should always be fun at the end of the day. You might not be out saving the world every day, but overall you should understand and feel good about your contribution. If you don’t, then you need to step back and ask yourself the hard questions: is it about the job, is it the Public Service, etc? You should seek advice from colleagues, and trusted managers. In the end if it isn’t fun, find something that is.

5. Don’t obsess about your level. Obsessing about your level will burn you out and it will burn you out quickly. If you’re striking the right balance, expressing your creativity, building relationships, and having fun then the levels will come naturally. Promotion and advancement do matter, but shouldn’t be the heart of the matter. The content of your contribution is much more important and rewarding in the end. Success for its own sake is an empty exercise, one that will leave you looking back wondering what you had to give up to get it.

6. If you want to move up you need to build a base and then expand out. If you are lucky enough to be in a smaller portfolio, learn it and learn it well. Devote some time to the area and make an effort to become known as invaluable in that area. Once you are established then start to broaden your experience base. If you want to move up in the public service, experience at one of the three central agencies (Treasury Board, Finance, or the Privy Council) is critical. You also need to remember that our job isn’t just about serving Canadians, but also about serving our democratically elected Ministers. It is important to be aware of the reality Ministers face and how Cabinet works. Sometimes what counts in the long run isn’t the sexy stuff, but knowing how to run the machine.

In addition, the ADM had a couple of things to say regarding innovation and the role of youth:

7. You cannot create an infrastructure of innovation but you can create a climate for innovation. This can be accomplished by creating task teams, demonstrating receptivity, and giving employees opportunities to get together and talk to each other. Groups like youth organizations are one way in which this can happen.

8. Youth groups are a great mechanism that supports new and/or younger employees. It is great for ideas generation and questioning established systems. The government should be looking to its new hires because they can often provide valuable feedback to senior management because they may not be as prone to accepting the given order of things. There are a great number of improvements that can be made by those who come into the public service with fresh eyes.

As always, we welcome your own thoughts and perspectives on this type of public service career advice – things you’ve found in your own experience, or perhaps wisdom handed to you from others.

Additionally, if you are interested in hosting a similar event in your own department but don’t know how to get started, please feel free to contact us and we will be happy to provide you with input (perhaps even a process map or checklist).

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