Over the last couple of months, Floreat Consulting Australia was lucky enough to contribute 3 articles to the Institute for Public Administration Australia’s (IPAA) Ignite publication. Below is all 3 articles in the one spot. If you’re a public servant, we recommend you check out Ignite – and if you’re not, you’ll no doubt find a lot of this useful for your own career too.
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IPAA is the not-for-profit professional association for the public service, their mandate is to promote the relevance, integrity, reputation and intellectual rigour of the public sector. It is the professional association for people interested in strategic issues, policy, reform and innovation in public sector management.
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Networking for Public Service Success
There are three major things that struck me as I moved from the public to the private sector, back to the public service then into the not for profit sector:
- There is an underlying pattern to the experience of working in the public service that is the result of interactions between cultural norms, formal structural influences and policy. Budgetary cycles, briefings, Question Time. It’s unlike anything else.
- People are intelligent, well-read, and very politically aware.
- The towering departmental hierarchies lend themselves to a focus on formalism that is a complete shock to outsiders – the minutiae of fixing margins in minutes, agonising over the tense in a sentence etc etc etc.
What does this all mean for networking? Preparation, preparation, preparation! Don’t bother approaching people for networking reasons at high stress times – be patient. And finally, find out about the written AND unwritten rules and follow them.
Ok now for some concrete, practical tips…
- Make sure your LinkedIn profile is really, really good….or don’t bother with it at all
It’s hard to find data on the take-up of LinkedIn among the public sector, but you can be confident that it’s growing. While many public sector employees are “on LinkedIn”, many don’t use it actively. This presents a clear opportunity – to differentiate yourself from other people in the public sector by using LinkedIn really well. To start this process, something that everyone can do is make sure your LinkedIn profile is as good as it can be. And that doesn’t mean more information – it generally means less. Keep it succinct, interesting and to-the-point. Make sure what needs to be in capitals, is in capitals, that there are full-stops where they should be and that the text is consistent (but not necessarily the same as) with your resume. It should promote your strengths without being over the top. And put in a good profile photo (not one cropped from a photo at a wedding with your partner/boyfriend/girlfriend, arm around your neck, glass of chardonnay in hand). Using LinkedIn well gives you potential access to loads more people than if you go it alone – and even if you don’t use it as an out and out networking tool, you can get great data on who to talk to.
And while we’re on LinkedIn, it’s important to keep in mind that LinkedIn is a professional social networking site, rather than simply a social site (like Facebook). Your networking will be far more useful if you actually know the person first before you send a connection request, rather than using LinkedIn to build up the longest possible list of contacts! In particular, never send a request to someone you’ve never met – and that includes everyone from senior executives, to policy officers, to managers – the quality of your connections is what counts, not the number. When you do send a connection request, make sure to craft the message for the person. Firing off a connection request using the default message is a tell-tale sign of a LinkedIn user trying to get to 500 connections as quickly as possible.
- Get clear on the “direction” of your networking
If you’ve ever studied before – school, university – you would have had someone ask you, what do you want to do after you finish? For me, the answer used to change every time I was asked! And that can be the same with your career, your goals can change rapidly and can depend a lot on what opportunities you see, as well as who influences you and how you are being influenced. It’s worth thinking about though because when you’re networking for your career, people will want to know what you aim to achieve. Knowing this enables other people to help you – it makes it far easier to understand the sort of opportunities and advice that would be most useful to you.
Instead of “goals” (goal-setting itself can be a trap if you are unclear about what is really driving your goals), consider what it is about work that you really, really enjoy. Not just a bit but what are the one or two things that keep you working beyond what you really have to do. If you are clear on this, you can be flexible about what to do next. I’ll give you an example, let’s say you are currently a Policy Officer. What is it about doing this work that you enjoy above everything else? Is it the intellectual challenge? Is it about working on something meaningful? Is it about having a set routine? Is it about not having a set routine? Link all that to work and you can start talking about what you want to do in a way everyone will understand.
- Don’t go for the big prize straight away
Not all of us have the stomach to arrange a meeting with the Secretary of the Department. Some people can go right up to someone – no matter who they are – and just start talking. If that’s you, skip this and proceed to point no.4.
If you’re still here, you might be wanting to know, if you don’t go straight to the top, where do you go? Well, start out small. All of us have connections and everyone has, at some stage, felt “I really don’t know anyone here!” But you do – and it doesn’t matter how small your current network is, they can help you. A famous scientist once decided to study the creatures that were in her own backyard. The result was a range of completely undiscovered insects! So consider your own backyard – your current manager and every person in your team. They’re your immediate professional network and – if you haven’t brought this up with each of them yet – you are guaranteed to find one or two connections that they may offer to introduce to you.
Do you drink coffee? Most people do and find it hard to pass up someone else paying for it! Don’t underestimate the power of asking someone for a coffee. Be relaxed and flexible about it, as well as having a clear purpose (without being overly dogmatic about it).
- How can I help?
Don’t be a whiner, a pleader. Networking is about service. It’s not about you. Ok so this whole article is about you and your career. But in another way it’s not – it’s really about collaborating with others really, really well and purposefully. It helps us all if we do that a little better! So think about helping others. That’s the core of networking well. Help everyone.
Ok, enough preaching. The other good thing about helping people is you quickly build a good, positive reputation. That will open doors – maybe not this week or even this year, but it will at some stage. It will all come back and is well worth the investment.
- Get seriously up to date
Be a nerd. Read up about what’s going on – but don’t try to read everything, you will never get there. What you need to do is read purposefully – that will mean skimming a lot of things, and then diving into detail where it’s relevant. What often impresses people is familiarity with the latest discussion paper/briefing/event that the team was responsible for. Find out what that is and bring it up in conversation – but before you do that, talk to someone in the know about it first, so it doesn’t seem like you’ve just read the title.
Find out the context, why the work was done, who the likely stakeholders are, and what’s next. Who knows, it might be you involved in that next step!
Turbo Boost Your Public Service Career Potential
The focus of my last article was networking in the public sector – how the culture of the public service entails a different approach to networking, as well as some tried and tested techniques that can help anyone become a networking star. Maximising your career potential in the public service is a complex picture – effective networking will play a big part, but what else can you do to boost your career in this unique environment?
- Learn the Capability Framework NOW!
The NSW Public Sector Capability Framework is a common foundation across the public service for developing people. Essentially, the Capability Framework describes the capabilities required for different roles across the public sector. If you have recently applied for a NSW public sector position, it is highly likely the Capability Framework was in the background – a consistent marker for assessing job applications as well as for designing the role itself. It’s also the backbone of many ‘people’ systems like training and development. Within the capabilities there are 5 levels – from Foundational to Highly Advanced. A question for you and your career now: what are the capabilities and levels that apply to your current role? If you would like to progress to a role with more responsibility, what’s the scope for doing work at a level above your current role?
The advantage of knowing the Capability Framework is that you have that common yardstick in the front of your mind when you go about your day-to-day work. It’s created a language many are now familiar with, and you can use it to look for tasks that will let you demonstrate your ability to operate at a greater level of responsibility and complexity. At the very least, this gives you the basis for compelling answers to selection criteria – how can you ignore someone who demonstrates competence against the Capability Framework! (IPAA NSW courses are searchable by category and the capabilities from the NSW Public Sector Capability Framework).
2. What am I known for?
A friend of mine was very good at sport in university – which was lucky as he hated studying! He did very well, getting to the university’s first grade football team but was frustrated that he kept missing out on representative teams chosen from the best players in first grade teams. His coach at the time suggested something to him that I’ve never forgotten: grow your hair long. The problem wasn’t talent – he was about as good as he could be – it was recognition. The selectors saw many, many players, but some people were chosen among peers simply because they were memorable. Now am I saying you suddenly need a personal image consultant and that will help your career in the public service? Not at all! But I am saying to spend some time thinking about what you are good at, and what you would like to be known for.
In any organisation, your currency is your reputation – this is a combination of your ability, your trustworthiness, but also how distinctive you are. The key is understanding your own abilities really well and focusing on those you really enjoy doing. This is all about differentiation so you would be well-served to focus on 2 or 3 things only. Is it developing communications for a wide range of people? Researching something rigorously in a lot of detail? Monitoring trends and conducting analysis? What could you do that shows you do this thing really well? The answer might be joining a relevant industry group, completing training in something you really enjoy, or simply getting very excited about the ‘discipline’ of your skill and how you can develop it. Think about how much better this will look when you are thinking about your next career move.
3. Borrow, beg or steal “leadership experience”
For those who are inclined to scale the dizzying heights of public sector leadership, read on…
If you have aspirations to lead a team and are currently a team-member, the pathway to leadership can seem a difficult, even unrealistic one. Remember when you first tried to join the workforce, everyone wanted experience but how to do you get it if you don’t have any? Nearly all formally advertised leadership roles ask for leadership experience – but how do you get that experience in the first place? It’s impossible isn’t it? The answer is – informally.
If you think leadership is for you, then talk to your current manager about how you can get leadership experience. Many managers are very open to providing these opportunities. And of course if it’s in yours and your team’s best interests, all managers should be open and downright enthusiastic about the conversation. Also, what do you currently do outside of work that demonstrates leadership experience? It might be your sporting team or your local community. Whatever it is, “leadership” is simply about creating and maintaining a group of people so they achieve goals over time. Opportunities to do this can pop up everywhere so get creative, and make sure to include it in your next job application!
4. Hold on to your own unique version of success
I cringe when I read career development articles that seem to assume what success means for all of us. Some people I have helped throughout their careers look very “successful” in a conventional sense, from the outside. But inside, they’re in complete turmoil, miserable with self-directed admonishments and regrets about the career path they’ve taken.
I met a lovely person once in the middle of the Pilbara – a beautiful, harsh desert environment in Western Australia. She was the executive assistant to the General Manager, in an organisation that had many difficult cultural challenges. It seemed to be a very tough place to work, but Raelene was one of the happiest people I’ve met. The reason? She was very well suited to her role, which gave her an incredible aura of calm. She didn’t compare herself to other people and was grateful for having a job that she enjoyed. Being very good at her work too puts her in my book as having one of the most “successful” careers I’ve come across.
Be stubborn about your own unique version of success, and forget about the versions other people have. If you do, you’ll be happier, more productive and an asset to the public service!
Left-field Career Development Tips that Work in the Public Service
In this article, I focus on just three things that you may not have considered – but that I think will help develop your career in the public sector. The ideas set out below are suggestions for taking calculated “risks”, as well as being the most likely to provoke some thinking and hopefully action. First of all though, a little warning. In December 2003, Patrick Weller gave a speech entitled “The Australian Public Service: Still Anonymous, Neutral and a Career Service?” in which he quoted a private sector guru of Margaret Thatcher who had this to say to a committee in Britain:
If you are running a business in the private sector, to be successful you have to be right more often than you’re wrong: if you’re right 51 per cent of the time, you’re just on the right side of that line; if you’re right 60 per cent of the time, you’re doing better; if you’re right 70 per cent of the time, you’re doing well; if you’re right 80 per cent of the time you’re doing brilliantly. However, in the public sector, if you’re right 98 per cent of the time, people are not interested in the 98 per cent—they’re interested in the 2 per cent of the time that you were wrong. Because the 2 per cent will be the instances that people are concerned about where things are not being done properly, or not being done the way people would like to see them being done.
So I put the word “risks” in inverted commas because the culture of the public service – relatively – has a low tolerance for mistakes. You might argue that this is not a good thing, that innovation and learning comes from mistakes. The fact remains however, that the public sector deals with public resources. There are therefore many, many people and communities interested in making sure we get it right! And of course your relevant Minister would no doubt be thinking “Yes please, I want an innovative public service. Just make sure you do all that mistake stuff either before or after I’m around!”
So if you are considering implementing any of these, run them past your manager first – the last thing you want is written material that, for valid reasons, your leader doesn’t want to see made public. Your written work could become the subject of a request for information or an inquiry of some kind, so be careful that the result is something that will make a positive impact among your stakeholders.
- Discover and Communicate the Systemic Drivers that Will Impact Your Area
We can all get caught up in the minutiae of policy development and programme delivery – what’s often missing is the time and space to take a big step back and look at the systemic drivers that impact on your area of work. You can then feed this information back to your team in a presentation – a great development opportunity for you and a very useful piece of work for your team.
For example, say you work in an area that is responsible for workers compensation reform. The interaction between current policy settings and current stakeholders are probably well-known to you and your team, but what are the key international trends in workers compensation reform? How might changing demographics interact with policy development going forward? What impact will Australia’s changing economy have on workers compensation policy settings? There will almost certainly be work being done somewhere about this already, so your job is to find it, build on it and filter it so it’s useful for your team to use. The next time your team is asked to work on future policy, then you will have made a great start on the intellectual work required to provide the best possible response.
- Get Serious About Stakeholder Engagement
Every area in the public service has stakeholders. The relationship between stakeholders and the public sector is a dynamic, complex one that often takes years to fully master. Leaving mastery to one side, knowledge about stakeholders is an easier thing to gain and can be shared relatively easily with your team. Why do this? Stakeholder attitudes and behaviours are vital in the success of any approach that makes it out of your team. Good predictions about how different groups might respond, is crucial to the success or failure of any initiative.
I once asked a colleague about the success of a young, newly promoted deputy secretary when I was working for the APS in Canberra. How did she do it? I asked. He said that – above all her other talents – the individual had an excellent grasp of the stakeholders – she could almost read their thoughts and could confidently predict how each might respond to a given set of circumstances.
We’re not all like this of course, but a very useful thing to do for your team is to examine and record all your stakeholders and do some analysis on their attitudes, what action you could expect each to take in respect of various policy changes and decisions, as well as your team’s current relationship with each, and their attitude towards each other, your team and the government. A succinct matrix document often helps to present this – and it’s likely to bring to light where work needs to focus in order to improve relationships. What you are really doing is a mini-risk assessment of the social and community dynamics of policy and service delivery development in your area. Because many of us tend to focus primarily on getting the technical aspects right, the data from this type of analysis is a rare and valuable commodity, enabling better decision-making.
- Add Value to the Third Sector
This won’t make sense for everyone but you would be surprised at how ‘in demand’ government skills and knowledge are in the not-for-profit sector. There are many challenges faced by the not-for-profit sector – a dwindling public purse, complex regulatory obligations and greater demands on NFPs by those organisations that fund them. Australia’s not-for-profit sector contributes at least $29.6 billion or 4.7 per cent to Australia’s GDP making it one of our largest ‘industries’ – it is likely there is a not-for-profit of some variety that would greatly value your skills and experience.
Many public servants are put off by exploring skilled volunteering opportunities because of concerns about conflicts of interest – the concern is a valid one, but conflicts are easily managed by making judicious decisions about who you might approach to help out. If you are working on social housing policy then you would of course avoid any NFP that could be funded by your organisation. But if you do know how funding works in government, those same skills are likely to be very useful to any organisation that needs money from government to survive. What is always needed is to be clear on your offering – what are the (3-4) key skills that you have that will be useful. You don’t need to go it alone though – some intermediary organisations match your skills to a NFP in need. And if you do have a particular burning passion or favourite NFP, go for a direct approach – just make sure you have your offering down-pat and be prepared to be flexible. This is a great way to contribute directly to your community, an excuse to dust off your resume and add to your skills, and an opportunity to expand your thinking and perspectives about those who are greatly affected by government decisions.
And for anyone who is a little jaded (it happens to the best of us!), sometimes the best way to re-kindle love for your work is to step outside of it for a while and discover a different perspective.