| The traditional view of
career development in the government goes something like
this: Start your career as a functional apprentice. Become
a functional expert over time by exhibiting "technical
leadership " (whatever that means). Over time, seek out
positions of increasingly greater responsibility with
corresponding job titles. Make a gradual transition from
a specialty focus to a managerial focus.
Along the way submit to some vaccinations such as
getting a Masters or PhD degree, attending some prestige
courses, accepting a Headquarters assignment, and working
at two or more field locations. Show some significant
persistence and heaps of personal sacrifice. Avoid the
big mistake. Burn no bridges.
We have the perfect model for career development,
right? Senior Executive Service is virtually in the
bag. Not quite. In fact, what we have is the perfect
formula for a federal bureaucrat: great resume, no beef.
I propose an alternate approach that I call "sink
or swim. " Let me illustrate with a story. Lorene worked
for me as a program manager. She was about 50 and had
begun her career as a secretary, gradually working her
way up to a GS-13; she had been a GS-13 about ten years
even though she had filled all the squares for promotion.
I liked her work. She was a better-than-average manager,
but admitted to being intimidated by engineers because
she didn't have "a technical degree. "
Confronted with any technical issue she would invariably
defer to the judgment of a government engineer, even when
she understood the technical issue well enough to develop
her own conviction. The unfortunate byproduct was that
her program usually had cost and schedule difficulty because
she was always pushing to reduce risk and develop the
career development path is one that never leads
to getting into water over our heads.
One day she came to me and said that she was going
to have to find another job. She told me that her husband
had prostate cancer and that she wanted to spend more
time with him. She said she couldn't continue to travel
extensively. After thinking about the situation I suggested
to her that she become my financial manager. I knew
she was well-organized, disciplined, and caring -- traits
my financial manager at the time lacked. She would also
not have to travel in that job. She demurred, declaring,
"I don't have a financial background. I will get you
into trouble. "
I listened. When she finished, I told her that she
was going into that job whether she liked it or not.
Her getting me into trouble would be my problem, not
hers. Making a long story short, she did an absolutely
superb job turning the entire financial management operation
around in less than six months. I was able to get her
promoted to GS-14 and later supported her for a program
manager position in another organization as a GS-15.
She again excelled. I have since lost track of her,
but have heard that she was recently promoted to the
Senior Executive Service.
How did all this happen? Basically she jumped (or
more properly, allowed herself to be pushed) into water
that was way over her head. She could have drowned,
but she didn't. It was an enormous personal and career
risk for her, but she came up a swimmer -- a powerful,
purposeful swimmer. The normal career development path
is one that never leads to getting into water over our
heads. But, wading comfortably around doesn't produce