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Managing Success

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With the economy in a free fall and federal agencies set to spend billions of dollars in stimulus money to stop it, government is suddenly the hottest employer around. That makes a new guide to help applicants get hired by agencies and to teach them how to succeed once they get there, particularly timely.

In Managing Your Government Career: Success Strategies That Work (American Management Association, 2009) author Stewart Liff advises prospective federal employees to focus on the job and the career path that will bring them the most satisfaction -- and not to place too much emphasis on pay.

"I think people have to weigh pay in the context of their own core values," Liff said in an interview with Government Executive on Tuesday. "To some people, pay is everything. To other people, pay is part of an overall decision-making process. In my experience, people who just chased pay ended up in a job they were miserable in, and ended up returning to a different job."

Small differences in salary shouldn't tempt workers into roles they're not suited for, Liff cautioned, especially if it means moving from a rank-and-file job into management simply for a pay raise. In one of many anecdotes in the book, he recounted the experience of a colleague who served as an acting supervisor. During that time, she discovered she didn't like being in management. Her dilemma illustrates the danger of focusing your entire career path toward the goal of obtaining a single position, Liff said.

"You have to look at your career overall; you have to look at the big picture," he said. "I've seen people who spend so much time focusing on one job that they lose the big picture. They wait five, 10 years to get a job, and then find out it wasn't as great as they thought it would be."

Managing expectations is particularly important for private sector employees who head into government, their experience of the workplace shaped by performance-based pay, pressure imposed by the need to produce a profit, and freedom from federal regulations, Liff writes in the book. New employees will have to understand that they are operating in a different environment, Liff said in the interview, but agencies also should be prepared to harness the energy that former private sector employees bring with them, especially when they expect supervisors to reward strong performance and address underachievement.

"I think getting a greater bang for the buck per employee is one of the simplest ways to improve government," he said. "I think the systems in government are particularly good, but the implementation is particularly weak. Almost universally, people believe management does not hold employees accountable."

But Liff warned that simply saying you're rewarding the best performers isn't enough. In the book he cautions that supervisors who are embarrassed or challenged in public could use ratings systems to take revenge on employees who don't cultivate good relationships with them. Because of the risk of misuse of performance evaluations, Liff said supervisors and managers need to be held accountable as well.

"I'm a big believer in posting individual performance of employees, so people know how they do relative to other people, and so managers can't protect their favorites," he said. "What frustrates people, and what frustrates unions, is the sense that they're being treated unfairly."

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