Thriving in Government - Have one foot out the door

August 3, 2016

As a Federal Government employee for seven years now, a lot of friends (new and old) have asked me about my experience as a civil employee. I have always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit and have perhaps never seemed like a natural fit for a large federal bureaucracy but I've managed to make it work, albeit with a bit of a learning curve. I have had a few setbacks and failures but I've managed to move up because of some great people who have been willing to mentor me and help develop and reinforce some ideas that I’m adopting as my own personal principles. I think these principles are certainly helpful for other federal employees but also helpful for state and municipal employees. Hell, a quick glance through the leadership and business section of your local book store would show that these principles are pretty consistent with ideas endorsed by leaders throughout the private sector.
There is some crossover within these principles but I do believe they are sufficiently different to warrant individual categories all their own. If you are reading this as a federal employee or are considering a jaunt through, my hope is that these principles will reinforce the positive aspects of your work, challenge some feelings or apprehensions you might have, and embolden your spirit in a line of work that can be challenging and daunting. I’m going to use this website over the next six weeks (or so) to elucidate the ideas and how they might apply to you.

1. Have one foot out the door.
2. Pursue your other interests.
3. Build Relationships
4. Maintain good boundaries.
5. Like it or not, Documentation Rules.
6. You have crazy power.
Have one foot out the door.
The first principle is "have one foot out the door." To literalize the analogy, imagine you are standing in the doorway of a room. You have one foot in the door (into the room of stability, security, your current job) and one foot out the door (the hallway of opportunity, change, chance). In the summer of 2007, I arrived in Waco, Texas on the campus of Baylor University. I was there for orientation to the Baylor University MBA program. After some coffee, juice, coffee, kolaches, and coffee, the Associate Dean of the program, Dr. Gary Carini, dropped some knowledge in our brainiums that has always stuck with me: "Starting right now, have one foot out the door." In truth, I think it resonated with me because it's a sentiment that, at face value, jives with my personality (as a lifelong ENTP, I was notorious for jumping from one good idea to another without actually completing anything... OK. There was a chance that the ideas could have been shit too.) But to hear the head of the program also endorse this kind of behavior was not what I was expecting. Of course, he didn't necessarily mean that we should jump from one thing to another or neglect our course work. Rather, it meant to be prepared; it meant having multiple bullet-proof resumes in order; it meant being ready to jump on new opportunities; it meant being open to experiences and opportunities outside of the classroom setting that may further your personal and professional development; it simply meant to, as my dad would say, “have your head on a swivel.” The idea is that if you are doing the work, networking, putting yourself out there, and looking for the lessons in everything, then new opportunities will come to you. When they do come to you, it's up to you to recognize and act upon those opportunities.


A cynic might think this sentiment makes sense to someone in the private sector but not to civil servants; and the cynic is exactly the person I am trying to challenge.

Of course, we all have friends that seem to jump around from one job to another or, at the very least, don't seem to stay in one job for more than 2 years. I actually think that's fine. I would contend that most employers these days do not expect their workers (especially millennials) to stay in an organization for more than 5 years and I argue that governments, as employers, have similar expectations. Fortune Magazine published an article in October 2014 outlining acceptable time periods to stay in a job from 18 months to 5 years. In short, there is no reason to stay at a place for 5 years or more if you're not advancing. The expectation that was on folks like my parents to work in a place for 30-plus years and retire just does not exist anymore. In fact, I've heard stories of job seekers whose resumes show incredible stability but they cannot get hired outside of their current organization because it's really hard to sell a potential employer on the idea that they (the job seekers) are risk takers or even great employees. The truth is that if you enter government work, there is a good possibility you will have a realistic supervisor who might expect that you will leave at some point for one reason or another.


So how does one have one foot out the door? Check back soon and follow me on Instagram and Twitter for updates.

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Riley Evan Ross
Speaker and Writer Moderation Blog

I speak and write on the topic of moderation because I believe that a thorough re-examination of moderation can help our societies build change resilience and grow together.

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