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Posted by on May 13, 2014

Bounce Up When You Can’t Bump Up: Strategies for Getting Ahead in the Federal Government

Bounce Up When You Can’t Bump Up: Strategies for Getting Ahead in the Federal Government

Business people jumping over the city

Are you ready for a promotion, but know there won’t be an opening for you until Hilary’s grandchild is old enough to run for President? Given the shrinking size of the Federal workforce, the budget constraints on filling open positions, and lack of retirements from baby boomers, opportunities for promotion in your current division or even your current agency may appear non-existent. As discussed in an earlier blog, this results in the need for members of the Federal workforce to view a career as a lattice rather than a ladder. In plain language, sometimes you need to move laterally to find an opportunity to move up. Moreover, sometimes you need to move down and laterally to find that opportunity: you need to bounce up.

The key to the bounce up is that it’s NOT a “bounce” in the Urban Dictionary sense of the word ­­- you aren’t simply existing your current component or agency. You’re moving on with a deliberate plan to move UP. The key to blazing such a career trail is having a deliberate plan, which can be much more complicated in the Federal workplace than in the private sector. To discover how to find a Federal job when you already have one, I spoke with LaVerne Rayford, a Federal human resources expert. I surmised four key recommendations from my conversation with LaVerne:

1. Have a Written Plan – This doesn’t mean that you have to put it into Microsoft Project. A Post-It™ Note could suffice, but put your plan in writing. This is especially important if you’re taking a job at the same or a lower level. Make a commitment to where you want to be and how to get there.

2. Do Your Homework – Take inventory of the skills you have and make a plan to develop any additional skills you will need to move into a new position. It’s imperative you’re honest with yourself about what your skills are. You can read more about that in this great blog by Robin Sparks. LaVerne also recommends talking with a mentor about whether it’s best to move inter- or intra-agency.

3. Invest In Yourself – A reality of public service is that there often isn’t budget to reimburse you for training outside of the needs of your current role, a professional society membership, or a professional journal in the field you want to move into. You may have to pay for these things yourself. And you are worth the investment (like L’Oreal, only with career advancement and without Beyoncé).

4. Put Your Best Foot Forward – Chris Rock observed that, during the first few months of dating, you aren’t really dating that person. You’re dating their “representative.” That is to say the best parts of them with little view into their weaknesses (like whether they wear Crocs.) You need to show your best self in the application process. This does NOT mean you should be deceptive about your weaknesses. Much like dating, you’re looking for alignment or “fit.” To do this:

  • Represent on your résumé: Always tailor your résumé to the job you want and highlight your achievements. Don’t just cut and paste from your position description. Describe your success for each responsibility and use numbers whenever possible. As they say, “In God we trust. Everybody else bring data.” The Partnership for Public Service offers some helpful government-specific résumé writing advice here.
  • Follow the instructions: Most Federal jobs involve online applications, but the instructions can vary wildly. The application’s résumé section may be in an entirely different format from your résumé. Plan to spend quality time on each application. And take the essays and assessments seriously, as they inform your ranking as a candidate. You could have a perfect fit résumé, but not be considered “Highly Qualified” due to carelessness in an assessment. Another key part of following the instructions is to understand that it could be a long hiring process – sometimes well over six months. Be patient in filling out the application, assessments, and in waiting for interviews, as well as waiting for final decisions.
  • Stalk that agency: Although finding out everything about a date is definitely stalking, finding out everything about a potential employer is smart. Check out their Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results. Set up Google Alerts for news on agencies that interest you. Use LinkedIn to connect with others who work at the agency to better understand the culture – and get the inside scoop on job openings rather than just relying on USAJobs or the agency site. Being able to talk about the agency during your interview shows you’ve given careful consideration of the position and makes a stronger case for you being a fit for the job. It also allows you to ask smarter questions about the role to determine whether it’s one you really want. LaVerne suggests treating every job is if you’re going to be there FOREVER. If that was the only job you’ll ever have, would you take it?

In addition to LaVerne’s recommendations, I’d like to offer one of my own:

5. Passion Matters – Having a clear love of what you do shows in the quality of your résumé and application – and in your interviews. Foremost, if you love something you will spend time learning more about it. Be prepared to provide examples of what you’ve just read about in your field, a training you’ve taken, or an example of how you applied an innovation in your current role. When you speak about your desired functional area, let it shine through that you will want to continue to learn and develop in that area. It also helps employers to be comfortable hiring you for a lateral or lower-level move without fearing you’ll only stay until something better comes along. Finally, passion helps prevent missteps. When you’re applying for a position, don’t forget that you should be determining the fit just as much as the employer is, too. If you can’t feel passionate about the new job, it’s better to pass.

In addition to the tips about finding a job, LaVerne and I discussed the age old question: “Should I tell my manager that I’m looking?” We agree that it’s better for you to tell your manager before he or she hears it from someone else – especially if you’re applying for positions in the same agency. Laverne also suggested that you provide your manager with a copy of the position description and your application if you’re using your manager as a reference so that the manager can speak directly to your relevant skills. This is critical when you are making a move from one function to another.

In the private sector, multiple studies have shown that job rotation programs have a positive effect on corporate growth. Moreover, CEOs who have held positions in multiple divisions perform better than those with only one functional area of expertise do. Could lateral moves increase mission performance in the Federal Government? Will making the making a lateral move make you stronger overall? Regardless, the competition for Federal jobs isn’t going to decrease any time soon. It may be time for you to bounce up.

Are you concerned about the lack of advancement opportunities in your agency? Would you be willing to move up by moving down or laterally first?

1 Comment

  1. “3. Invest In Yourself – A reality of public service is that there often isn’t budget to reimburse you for training outside of the needs of your current role, a professional society membership, or a professional journal in the field you want to move into. You may have to pay for these things yourself.”

    But this is where I’m stuck…There are courses available all the time to help employees with their careers offered by the Department of the Interior, managed by my own agency, that could really help me qualify for many positions that come open often, but not only is there not money in the budget to let me attend and achieve certifications in important areas, but I’m not allowed to “go it on my own”(own my own time and at my own expense), to get the educational credits I need for a lift up.

    Moreover, in order to obtain a dual major at the university at which I have a BSBA to help give me a boost up, I’d have to take classes during the day and during the week (the same hours in which I work, because the university does not offer night or online courses in the area I’m focused in). Neither my supervisors or my program leadership, or my region, or my agency is willing to give me time to help myself.

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