How to have one foot out the door while working for the government.

August 5, 2016

In my last post, I set out to establish the first of my principles of Thriving in the Federal Government - Have One Foot Out the Door. So… if you are considering entering, are new to, or are currently working in the government, how do you have one foot out the door? And what does that look like?


It has a lot of the same meaning as it did for me in business school. It means you are never done developing "you."  There are always certifications to get, companies to research, blogs to write, and presentations to give. In fact, the government wants (read: NEEDS) qualified employees just as much as any other employer. So the opportunities for Project Management certifications, Six Sigma Belts, other certifications, or college credit are plentiful. Here are a few steps you can take to get started.


1. Scrub your resumes

Make time every month (or quarter) to update your resumes. Your government resume and multiple other resumes. Having your government resume ready means you'll never miss an opportunity to apply for a better job on USAJobs. I have been lucky enough to work with a woman who has gone from the US Marine Corps (as a soldier), to the Department of Defense (as a civilian), to a GS15 in the largest federal organization outside of the DoD. After achieving Senior Executive Service (SES) status in a relatively short period of time, she left to pursue a passion in the non-profit world. Not only is she bright and capable, she has been ready every step of the way.


It’s also a good idea to have a couple general resumes ready for work outside of the government - for jobs that you actually want. I actually recommend adjusting your resumes to a particular company or job description. There are plenty of resources out there on how to tailor your resume.


2. Say "Yes" to almost everything (I reserve "almost" for something to be published later regarding boundaries).


More times than not, if you are doing good, noticeable work in the government, management will recognize it in some form or fashion. Maybe not in the way that YOU envision it but your work will be recognized. You will have opportunities to speak, travel, learn more, and even give trainings on your good work. You will have the opportunities to engage in cross functional teams, try different duties on a trial basis, apply for temporary details, or even relocate job sites. Not only have I experienced this myself as a lower level employee, but I’ve also made it a goal to maximize the opportunities of others.


Here’s some of my story to try and establish some bonafides. As a GS-10 employee at a regional office for a massive bureaucracy, I was asked to give a presentation on subject matter that was gaining national attention (both in the media and amongst law-makers). For whatever reason, I found a niche in this particular topic and made it a point to learn everything I could. That self-appointed expertise was recognized and honored in the opportunity to train my colleagues at the office. By saying "yes" to that training opportunity, it opened more doors for me at the local level. Those opportunities culminated in an opportunity to work as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on a national project, which morphed into an Analyst position for our headquarters in DC, which has afforded additional continued opportunities. Let me be clear: It didn't happen by accident; it happened because I had done the work and was saying "yes" to the opportunities as they came up.  

I had one foot in the day-to-day tasks of my job and one foot out.


In the corporate best seller “Good to Great” and the monograph companion “Good to Great and the Social Sectors”, Jim Collins, says getting the right people on the bus is imperative for a great company. I’ll grant that moving people around to their appropriate fit is probably tougher to do in a large federal organization but I’ve witnessed enough folks move around to believe that managers and executives are as interested in getting the right asses in the right seats as most private sector managers. If you are willing to say Yes, it could be your ass in that seat.


It's an unofficial rule from both within and without government work: If you are geographically mobile, then you are upwardly mobile. The more willing you are to move around for temporary or permanent jobs, the more reward you will have. I realize this is a non-starter for some folks, especially with families and THAT IS OK. However if you have the availability then it’s worth considering.

Sign up for the right email notification groups and distribution lists. Once you do, you will get all sorts of notifications for temporary details and assignments and leadership groups; then apply. You already have your resumes in order, so this shouldn’t be a problem.


3. Write down your short term goals

To actually codify the opportunities that you want to have from year-to-year, you should get with your supervisor and complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP). I want to explore more about IDPs later but they are great tools to assist in your professional development. In short, you work with your supervisor to determine what you would like to accomplish in the coming year and how it will serve the organization. Once all parties agree to the IDP, you get started accomplishing those goals. By codifying your professional goals, it is more likely that the goals will be accomplished. And since the supervisors are signed players to your IDP, they can have a more active role in helping you accomplish your goals.


What About the Risk??

So what about risk mitigation? Should you want to leave the federal service (let’s say you’ve now got two feet out the door), you will take on a bit of risk. Rest easier knowing that you can, at the federal level, go back to being a govie. No seriously… you can leave then go back - it's called reinstatement rights. Reinstatement allows you to have "Status" and compete for jobs with other Federal Employees - not with the General Public. Serve three years in an organization, develop your skills, get your certifications, lead some projects, meet some people, then leave. If leaving doesn't work for whatever reason, you can reenter the federal work force at that same grade level, This does three important things as far as I can tell:

  1. It allows you to re-enter at a higher grade level than the general public. (You won't have to restart at a GS-9 unless you left as a GS-9.)

  2. It narrows the competitive field just a bit. I would argue further that the combination of your previous federal experience and now private experience makes you a stronger candidate depending on how much time you invested and what sort of work you pursued in the private world.

  3. Finally, it's small but something you value as a parent (I’m a parent and I value it) - you get all your sick time back. When you first leave, you will get compensated for your annual and compensatory time but the government will hold your sick leave (just in case you decide to come back).


While this doesn't guarantee you'll get a job when you re-enter the federal workforce, it does mitigate some of the risks of leaving. I know some good folks who have JDs, MBAs, programming experience, and a wealth of knowledge outside of their job duties who are investing some time now so that they can avoid risks down the road when they feel comfortable leaving (playing the long game). They have one foot out the door.


I hope that if you don’t already have one foot out the door, then this post has at least made you reconsider. Having one foot out the door helps you routinely self-assess and self-evaluate your own knowledge, skills, abilities, AND weaknesses.

I will roll out the other principles in the coming weeks so be on the lookout. If you haven’t signed up on the email list, please do. Share and comment on this article on Facebook and Twitter. I’m interested in your experiences in and out of government and would love to hear your story.

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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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