Do you feel like you are making a difference or are you just trying to survive?
With every new administration, federal employees should take stock of their careers and decide if they need to make adjustments. Perhaps your organization is going to shrink; maybe you don’t like the philosophy or approach of the new secretary; or maybe you simply need a change. Regardless of your reasons, 200 days into the still relatively new Trump Administration is a good time to take a step back and decide what if, anything, you would like to do differently.
A good place to start is to ask yourself where do you want to be in five years? Ten years? Are you satisfied with the direction of your career? Do you feel like you are making a difference or are you just trying to survive? Do you want to remain with your current organization? Do you want to move to the private sector?
If you haven’t already asked yourself these questions, now is the time. Here are some things to consider:
Where do you want to be in five years? Ten years?
This is a question everyone should ask. The idea here is to try and envision where you want to be and then plan accordingly. Framed differently, you start with the end in mind and then work your way back by figuring out how you get to the end state.
Every move you make should be weighed against your overall career strategy. In this way your desired end state and your overall strategy will dictate the moves you make.
Are you satisfied with the direction of your career?
Perhaps a difficult supervisor has been holding you back. Maybe there is not a lot of room to grow because of your organization’s structure or because you are in a satellite office that doesn’t have many people. Or maybe your attitude is less than optimal and your performance is nothing special. The key here is to take a good, hard and honest look at you and your situation and decide what changes, if any you need to make.
Are you making a difference?
One of the great things about my career was that I spent most of it serving my heroes, America’s veterans. For the vast majority of time, I truly felt I was making a difference by helping to cut processing times, improve grant rates, increase customer satisfaction, reduce appeals, etc. As a result, although I occasionally received inquiries about moving to the private sector, I decided to stay with the government because I loved working with other dedicated people who were trying to improve the way we served veterans.
On the other hand, there were a few occasions when I felt like I was stuck in the middle of an uncaring bureaucracy that treated me like a replaceable machine part. During these times few people seemed to care about doing the right thing. Most simply wanted to hunker down and survive.
These were the times when I wondered whether the grass was greener. Fortunately, I rarely felt this way and usually looked forward to coming to work with great enthusiasm. If you feel this way most of the time, that is great. You are way ahead of the game. If not, consider other options.
What can you do to improve things?
One of the most important parts of the work experience is your attitude. Before you decide to make a change, take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if you have the right attitude. Far too often, employees become cynical and tend to blame management for all of their problems. However, only you can control your attitude, so make sure you are effectively managing yourself and focusing only on what you can control before looking elsewhere.
If that doesn’t work, and you believe the problem lies with the way you are being treated by your boss, try managing her. Get to know her as a person, learn her likes and dislikes and figure out what you need to do to become an asset from her perspective. Learning how to manage your supervisor is an important skill you must develop.
If that too fails, another option is to look for a job in a different part of your organization or in another agency.
Do you want to remain with your current organization?
Your answer depends on two things: 1) how things have been going for you in your current organization, and 2) if you are comfortable with the direction your organization is going. For example, you may be a scientist in EPA who has had a good career and would like to continue there but you may be uncomfortable with its current approach to climate change. You should carefully weigh these factors and determine if your current organization is still right for you.
At the same time if you work in the field, maybe you should consider working in headquarters. Conversely, if you work in headquarters, perhaps it is time to move out to the field. Changing your vantage point and location and doing something completely different can change your perspective on things and revitalize your career.
Another option is to go into management or, conversely, if you are already in management, to consider going back into the bargaining unit. Both have their plusses and minuses. Going into management can be empowering as you will often be more involved when key decisions are made. Whereas going back into the bargaining unit will relieve you of some of the stress that supervisors typically cope with (e.g. dealing with difficult employees, working with the union, balancing many different demands, etc.)
If you simply are not happy with your current agency, consider other agencies—ones with a culture or direction you may be more comfortable with. A good place to gather more information on an agency’s culture is OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. This will give you a good sense of the agency from the employee’s perspective, which is important.
Scour news website and get a good sense as to where the organization is going and its current challenges. Knowledge is power.
Do you want to move to the private sector?
If you are contemplating a move to the private sector, be aware of the following:
- The private sector often, but not always, offers higher pay.
- Private sector jobs usually are less stable than government jobs.
- Government employees generally have far more job protections than their private sector counterparts.
- In many cases the private sector offers less generous benefits than the government.
- The private sector is usually leaner, more innovative and less bureaucratic than the government.
Moving to the private sector, especially if you have spent a long time in government, can have major ramifications on your career and life, so carefully think things through.
The best approach is to take your time, carefully weigh all of the factors in an unemotional manner and then do what makes the most sense for you.
Stewart Liff is an HRM, visual performance management and team development expert. He is the President and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates, Inc. and the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing your Government Career, Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.