Friday, September 28, 2012

Lean into it

Last week a pair of public servants published a couple of thought provoking blog posts; it was a conversation I felt I needed to get in on.



It's perfectly natural to question the path you're on; I do it all the time.

I can't speak to your political views online (you probably shouldn't either) but I did want to speak to your concerns about the future the public sector; its what prompted me to start writing here in the first place.

You are right to compare our working conditions with those of the outside world and hope for more. Long gone are the times when back of house business was an truly internal matter. When you see photos of the Googleplex, the Shopify offices, or visit virtually any startup enjoying even a modicum of success its hard not to feel a bit left out of the mix while sitting in your cubicle. When you read about their latest product or sit down with a bootlegged copy of their employee handbook you can't help but wonder if you should've taken a left turn instead of a right one coming out of school (or perhaps even heading into it).

But here's a word of caution, the web brings you the best of the best 24/7. What makes the rounds online are the sensational success stories, the next hottest item, when you look out there the grass will always be greener. If you can understand it intellectually you are one step closer to coping with it emotionally. Call it satisficing or chalk it up to hedonic adaptation but if you want to enjoy success in this sector you need to make the daily effort to lengthen your shadow of the future. Success isn't as immediate or as readily available as what you read on the web may make you think.

I repeat: the grass will always greener my friend.

Social technologies are giving you a window in the carefully curated lives of others; a highlight reel of firehose like proportions makes it easy to get caught up in the wave. Whenever I come across someone who is down about their job or their prospects I tell them that even Batman has to be Bruce Wayne once in a while, that professional snowboarders still have to ride the chairlift, that not everything you do can be as exciting as what you read online.

In short I think we've become helpless romantics chasing the startup culture that Forbes, Harvard Business, and all the rest write about on a weekly basis. Make no mistake the romanticization of success puts you under constant pressure and lessens your overall satisfaction with your immediate surroundings.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you need to temper your expectations somewhat or you will forever be chasing them. I'm not advocating settling for less then you think you deserve (or can demonstrably earn) but rather trying to make a case for avoiding a career characterized by schizophrenia, not because your resume will suffer (as some people would argue) but because you may not actually learn all there is to learn prior to moving on to the next thing.

This isn't easy.

It's something I struggle with daily and something I have repeatedly pushed back on whenever a senior manager pulls me aside and tells me that "[I] have so much potential, if only [I] smoothed the edges a little bit ..."

I think you're right to be worried about the tipping point. I'm of the firm belief (and have argued publicly) that in a hyper connected world defined by an increasingly mobile labour force, labour supply can (and ultimately will) self organize in ways that fundamentally reshape the fabric of some of our public institutions. Organizations with a solid reputation, built on openness, access, and trust will attract like minded workers to help them strengthen their culture while those with a reputation for rewarding ostrich-like behaviours will attract those who prefer to muddle through with their heads beneath the sand.

I haven't read Voltaire's Bastards (at least not yet) but I have spoken to a number of retired high ranking civil servants who talk with great admiration about that same bygone era; and I, like you, would like to see a return to a time where civil servants are treated with the respect I think they deserve but rarely enjoy.

I want to encourage you to lean into the challenges you face on a daily basis. Treat every obstacle as a learning opportunity. Write about the challenges you see, posit solutions and write about those too, read lots of books and share your insights about those too.

When we spoke briefly (weeks ago now) I told you not to look at the metrics around your blog. I want to reiterate that message again right now.

Write for yourself; your blog should help you navigate the system, help you challenge it, and help you improve it. If along the way it helps others, consider it collateral benefit.

Make no mistake, engage with your readers, network, connect people and ideas, seed communities wherever you think it makes sense; but never lose sight of the fact that your blog's primary purpose is to help you lean into adversity and turn resistance into forward momentum.



As you can see, I too was struck by Kent's recent lament (as you so nicely put it). While you may feel that you face an uphill battle, I'd caution you on your use of metaphors. I do so only to point out that you are on the same side of that battle with your colleagues and casting your approach in antagonistic terms may breed more antagonism, which in the end isn't what I think you are working towards.

I understand that I'm writing you from position of what could be considered as relative power - having interdeterminate status, being a mid-level professional, and working in Ottawa - but don't want that fact colour what I am about to say, or how you respond to it.

I've travelled across Canada a number of times in the past five years and have met a lot of great people (public servants) along the way who are in similar situations as yours. My understanding is that its at least doubly difficult to get ahead in the (career) game in the regions. In some respects its a matter of scale, there is simply more opportunities here in Ottawa then there are in other parts of the country; but that may change over time, given advances in technology and, more importantly, management philosophies.

I, like you, fell into public service. I left the most incredible job I ever had - working for a National League Hockey Franchise during its Stanley Cup run - to join government and have been trying to recapture some of that magic ever since.

As you continue to move around the edges of the organization looking for opportunities to stretch its boundaries, know that whatever you choose to do there - be it speak softly or swing your elbows - will make some people uneasy. I came to the conclusion (read: was told by others) that I can be a fairly polarizing individual because I tend to push where the pain is the often greatest. Over time I became used to the fact that whatever I do, in any given situation, will result in roughly one third of the people in room being angry at me (because they are status quo people), one third being completely oblivious to me (because nothing moves them) and one third will be interested in what I bring to the table. That may not sound that appealing, but a 1/3 conversion rate is a fairly solid foundation that has (at least in my experience to date) created a wealth of opportunity (not in the financial sense, but in the learning sense).

You aren't a masochist for leaning into a challenge, you're better for it. Many prefer to take the path of least resistance; and in the public sector the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason, the path isn't groomed, its a tough trek, and often the incentives aren't there.

Its a path that requires you to be a self-starter, derive your motivation from within and know how take pride quietly in your work.

Keep leaning into the challenge, as you continue charting the route, leave markers for those who will follow behind you.

In time, the path will become more clear and easier for others to follow.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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