When I attended the Orientation to the Public Service last year, the highlight of the whole session for me was the talk and Q&A with a senior manager from the Government. He provided a brief overview of his career, what he thought about the public service, and then took questions. I decided to use this opportunity to seek insight into something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile: What is the best way to go about your career in the PS?
Let me be more specific and provide the backstory: I joined the PS right out of university (10 days after graduating with my undergraduate degree). In my department, which is has a slightly older demographic than the average PS department, this is a bit of a rarity.
To add to this, I look a bit younger than I actually am. After working in the department for a few months, I had the following conversation with a colleague in a different group:
Colleague: So, you going back to school in the fall?
Me: Me? Nah, I graduated in May.
Colleague: Oh, are you going to go to University?
My colleague had thought that I was a high school student.
Being/looking young, a lot of people are willing to give free advice on what you ought and ought not to do during your career. The PS being a gigantic machine is an understatement — there must be thousands of ways to have a successful career, and just as many ways to make sure that you have at terrible one.
With all the advice, two consistent, and contradictory, themes seemed to emerge about how I should spend the first 10 years or so of my career:
Go Everywhere — Learn the concepts
Essentially, the advice was to try to move around, and see what the PS has to offer. Stay in departments for a decent amount of time (1-2 years), but really try to see what there is to offer. The logic being that you get a feel for how the various departments work together, and the difficulties that each department faces. Additionally, it would allow you to see what sort of environment you prefer. Large v Small department, specialized v general, etc.
Stay put — Be an expert
On the opposite end of the spectrum, was the idea that one should stay put and learn to be an expert in an area. Maybe not an entirely niched area, but at least a general area of policy (Transportation, Environment, etc), that way you have specific knowledge and will better be able to contribute to those areas. The logic being that if you move around a lot, you’ll know the concepts, but you won’t actually know any particular facts about the area you’re working in.
So…what do I do?
I posed the above question to the senior manager who was presenting to us, and while novel, I think the advice is particularly useful. My frustration with hearing the above pieces of advice is that they are total opposites, and I tend to believe that there is usually some winning combination that can be created.
He essentially that when you get a job, make sure you know every spect of it. Don’t leave right when the next opportuntity comes up, because you’ll never build any skills up. Don’t stay once you’ve learned everything, because they you can stall yourself. (I’m paraphrasing from memory — if I have misquoted, it is entirely my fault).
What does this mean?
There are a few implications that this idea brings forward. The first is the importance of learning what your job actually is, and the other is identifying your own skills and knowing what you need to learn. Learning plans are a good way to outline this, but writing it down is only step 1 — it requires a strong relationship between managers and their staff in order to make development a reality. A manager needs to know what tasks to give out to their employees, knowing that there is the opportuntity for development. Likewise, staff members need to have the courage to say to their managers that they want to take something else on.
Sometimes I think we get wrapped up in the shiny things — I myself am certainly guilty of this from time to time. We look at new technologies, interesting ways of doing things, etc, but fail to recognize that at the very basic level, all these new ideas are there to enhance our relationships with one another, allowing us to collaborate, share, innovate.
Even then, whenever we think about our careers as public servants, we have to put it all in a broader context. Probably the best way I’ve heard it expressed was by another senior manager:
For me, a career in the public service is mainly about wanting to contribute to a country that has offered me so much. It is not necessarily about specializing or not, but what is it about a job or an organization that makes you passionate. It is about getting up in the morning and going to a place where you can make a difference.
So how do we go about finding our passion(s) in the PS? Have you found yours?