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Archive for January 28th, 2011

Yesterday, I offered an article I’d read by Miguel Torrado, former Associate Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA).  Today, I’ll offer some of my own thoughts.
Preface:  Some time ago, I met an employee who had fairly recently joined the SSA (less than 5 years of service).  Even though I’m not an executive, manager, or even a supervisor, I was asked for some advice on how to get ahead in a Federal agency.  I think my suggestions will apply to anyone seeking to get ahead in any medium to large company or government agency.  Anyway, here they are:
Generally, there is a list of things one should always be aware of when one is starting out and trying to make a career in a large agency or company:
1)  Look the part…  Dress higher than your current grade / job.  Normally you should shoot for two jobs higher than your current job.  You don’t get a 2nd chance to make a 1st impression (well, you do, but it takes a lot more effort to change a bad 1st impression than confirm a good one).  This goes beyond what you wear though.  Examine your bearing and mannerisms in a mirror.  Stand tall, walk confidently and don’t fidget.  Slouching makes you seem less forceful; schlepping along does not connote grace, poise or leadership; and fidgeting makes others nervous.  Practice talking to a mirror or tape yourself.  Then study it.  Do you seem poised?  Do you swing your arms in a distracting fashion? 
2)  Do your current job to the best of your ability.  Push yourself…  Look around you at the folks who seem to be getting their job done a little more easily or quickly than anyone else.  What are they doing differently from everyone else (and you)?  If you’re not sure – ask!  Most people love to talk about the little tricks they’ve come up with to do things better.  If nothing else, it will give you different perspectives on what’s considered important to others and why.
3)  Look for opportunities to take initiative.  Don’t try to horn in on other people’s pet jobs, but let it be known that when you are done with one thing (your own job) you look for other ways to help.  This goes hand in hand with leadership – contribute at team meetings, volunteer to help with the X-mas party; diversity week, the CFC campaign, etc.  These are little headaches your manager always needs “a body” to help get the job done.  If you are seen to consistently step up to the plate, you’ll be the first person that comes to mind when other opportunities (details, training, etc) come up.  If you find your paths are temporarily blocked within the job, look outside work.  Find a volunteer interest that excites you, get stuck in there and lead.  Fundamentally, leaders lead.  If you find you don’t want to lead, (it’s best to find out early,) then look at becoming a technical expert as a means of getting ahead.  A word of caution – there are far fewer well paid technical jobs than there are managerial jobs, especially as you get higher and higher in the grades.
4)  Read – continue your education.  You may not always have time to attend formal instruction, but you can always read.  Read deeply and widely.  Read about what interests you and pick a few topics that don’t.  Read about government, history, economics, philosophy, leaders and leadership.  Where did SSA come from?  Why is it still here?  Why do the Regions/Areas/Districts look the way they do?  What program areas are you good at?  What are you not so good at?  How is the Regional Ofc organized, why, how does it affect you?  What does the grade structure of the SSA look like?
5) Plan, Do, Check, Repeat…  Think about yourself and what you want out of life.  That sounds “airy-fairy, warm and fuzzy” but it’s important.  If having a family is important, you will have to make concessions at some points in your career.  If the career is more important, you’ll make different choices.  The important thing is to know yourself – or no matter what you do or have, it won’t fit.  There’s been lots of talk over the last couple of decades about 1yr, 3 to 5 yr, and 10 yr plans.  To the extent you find they help you stay true to your picture of yourself, I think they are of value. 
I prefer a “scenario” approach to a rigid plan.  I look ahead to get a feel for where I want to be or what I want to be doing at some points in the future.  Then I try to anticipate the major issues and factors that will affect what I want to do or be.  This includes what I feel I must do (as a minimum) to have the opportunity to get from point A to point B.  (This would be like: if I have a BA and want a PhD, I have to go back to school.  Notice I haven’t decided on the school, subject or completion date.  I just “know” I want to be a PhD.)
I am a big believer in Stochastics, Chaos and Serendipity.  I have found the “goal” is only satisfying if the journey was difficult (or at the very least challenging).  Success is fun, but I almost always learn more from my failures and recoveries than I do from my instant successes.
Ok.  Enough with the general tips.  Now for some specifics –
1)  Keep your weapon loaded and your powder dry.  Every quarter, review your resume and 45 [Form 45 is equivalent to a resume / job application], so you have both ready to apply for a job within a few hours of hearing about it.  Anytime something significant happens (award, detail, project, training) update both within 48 hours.  If you don’t, you’ll forget to and you won’t be ready…  Success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity!
2)  EVERY DAY, check the job pages [most companies have internal job opportunities / announcements].  You’ll never know there’s an opening if you don’t look.  When you see something that looks interesting, study the job description, duties, required skills, etc.  You’ll begin to see a pattern for skill sets for grades, jobs and areas (various Centers in the RO) you may be interested in.
3)  Practice speaking (in public) and volunteer to do it at every opportunity.  Take a class so you’ll learn the theory and then practice, practice, practice.  These days leaders must be able to communicate.  If you’re not sure about your writing ability, practice that as well.
4)  Every day, get your “mental” game face on.  Before you get out of the car, look in the mirror and ask yourself two questions: what do I have to do today to be better at my job; and, what can I do today to make myself a better person.  Neither of these are about the “planning” mentioned above, they are all about the attitude you’re going to have the minute you step through the office door.  At the end of the day, before you drive home, look in the mirror again and ask yourself did you get them done.  You won’t be able to answer “yes” to both every day, but you should be able to answer at least one “yes” most days.
5)  This is probably the most important thing (after doing your job) – be mobile!  If you’re willing to travel – even if just to the next office over, you’ve doubled your opportunities to apply for openings.  You can’t expect to sell your home and move your family every couple of years (although some do), but if you can stay within reasonable commuting distance of an area office, regional office or central office, you’ll have a tremendously broader range of grades and jobs to select from
6)  Finally, take chances!  Sometimes a lateral or a down-grade is the best you can do to get your foot in a different door.  Look before you leap, but there is no profit without risk.
I hope these ideas are of some help.
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