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The Federal Coach

Managing your young guns

Lately, I've noticed a lot more young professionals with federal agency badges commuting to and from work.

It made me wonder: Am I just getting older or is there something to this trend?

I asked the Partnership's research team for some data. They said the federal government has been hiring increased numbers of young people for the past five years and will need to fill more than 50,000 entry-level jobs in the next year alone, which is great news for the public sector.

The influx of the new generation has no doubt brought a fresh perspective and a new set of ideas to the important work of our government. But it also has brought a sense of impatience-- a desire by many young feds to quickly move up the career ladder.

This is only natural, of course, but it can be frustrating for experienced managers. Some federal leaders have shared that after hearing a young person's desire to be a deputy secretary following a short stint on the job, they rolled their eyes, walked away, and muttered, "Whatever happened to paying your dues?"

While this reaction is completely understandable, the best leaders recognize that potential talent is nurtured by developing expertise, executive skills and solid judgment, along with providing constant feedback and opportunities for personal growth.

Here's some advice on how you can manage your young guns' expectations, maximize their learning opportunities and lead them on the long path from new hire to deputy secretary:

Connect the dots between now and the future - While entry-level jobs can be less than glamorous, they undoubtedly contribute to the agency's mission and to an individuals' professional development. I spent the early part of my career answering phones on Capitol Hill when I really wanted to be drafting legislation. I now realize that this job allowed me to learn the issues while also teaching me patience, customer service and to be calm under pressure - skills I frequently draw upon now. Help your folks understand that the experience and skills they're building today will be invaluable later in their careers.

Encourage an apprenticeship mindset - Some of my best learning has come from observing those around me. I've learned more about nonprofit management working at the Partnership for Public Service than I could ever learn from a set of courses or workshops - although my education has certainly come in handy. Encourage your folks to look for learning opportunities in their daily interactions with colleagues, functional experts (e.g., knowledge of the federal budgeting process is golden), or senior leaders.

Reinforce lessons learned through constant feedback -
Regularly sit down with your young employees to process their experience and other on-the-job learning to ensure that they're mining the opportunities around them. Ask provocative questions about how they're learning to be a leader based on the examples in the agency. See whether they would act differently if confronted with similar issues to those of the leaders in your agency. Recognize that their experience will help position them to be a better leader when their time comes.

How are you preparing your Millennials to take on future leadership opportunities? If you're one of those up-and-comers ready to make a difference, how are you maximizing the learning opportunities you have working in our federal government? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment or emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday, when I interview David T. Ellwood, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Government leaders, mark your calendars for September 1st! In just three weeks the Partnership for Public Service will be releasing its highly-anticipated 2010 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. An important tool for federal leaders, the rankings are the most comprehensive and authoritative rating and analysis of employee satisfaction and commitment in the federal government. Agency leaders use the BPTW rankings in their recruitment and retention efforts, as well as to provide managers and leaders with a road-map for boosting employee engagement. To learn more, visit bestplacestowork.org.

By Tom Fox

 |  August 6, 2010; 3:57 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Delegating authority: Learn to let go | Next: Teaching humility and service at the Kennedy School


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Everything that I want to say has already been said and I don't care too much for redundancy. However, I will add that before judgment begins and generalizations take place, people should get to know individuals first and realize that not everyone is exactly the same. To stereotype a group of young professionals with those that base their position on entitlement is unfair and juvenile in itself.

Posted by: Anon315 | August 11, 2010 1:23 PM

As one of the Millennial employees in question here, I feel compelled to respond to the frequent negative reactions by older workers (including those commenting here) to my generation.

I know it's always easy to point fingers at the bad apples; however, please try not to look at your young employees and assume we will all be spoiled, whiny, entitled liabilities who sit around and send texts all day.

I'd like to share a personal example of how managing in a way that Millennials prefer can be a positive experience for supervisors, too:
My senior manager frequently takes a few minutes to sit with me and discuss my drafts of deliverables that aren't quite right. He tries to help me understand how he would do it, or gives me the name of a contact who could offer another point of view. After these meetings, he often walks away with new ideas for his own work, because we've been talking through general concepts. And I get to hear firsthand the thought processes of an industry veteran and learn how to improve my work.

The end result is that the final deliverable is more polished, new ideas have been born, and I've learned something. He wins; I win. I don't want coddling, and I don't want to be told that I did a wonderful job when I actually missed the mark -- I don't gain anything from that.

Giving consideration to the real personalities and needs of Millennial employees (as opposed to falling prey to negative stereotypes like those expressed in the comments above) can go a long way towards fostering a great and productive working relationship for both parties.

Posted by: ls00221 | August 10, 2010 2:07 PM

It's unfortunate that many of the comments have described young professionals' attempts at advancement as simply a generational trend toward self-entitlement and whining, rather than personal aspiration. There are certainly examples of entitlement, but I'd say that a sense of self-grandeur is not exclusive to Generation X or Y. This is DC; it's an occupational hazard of being here, for ANY peer group. And such comments, in my opinion, say less about the generation than the commentators.

As a young professional, my perspective is that many individuals enter the DC workforce with strong academic backgrounds--surprisingly many of us have learned to write above a 9th-grade proficiency--but accept jobs below their full capabilities, because DC is so saturated with credentials and you have to "get your foot in the door somehow." So, exhibiting a desire to advance and to accept greater responsibility is not always a matter of power hunger, self-entitlement, or whining. Sometimes it's simply an expression of a need to be fully and appropriately utilized. If you spend 8 hours a day collating reports, you begin to develop the impression that the only way to find more substantial work is to move up the career ladder (apparently "deputy secretary" is the next rung).

I accept that respect has to be earned, and that most young professionals have too short of a track record to justify large responsibilities. But it can be incredibly frustrating to such workers when their managers do not bother to find tasks intermediate of photocopying and "drafting legislation"; especially when private sector counterparts move through the company hierarchy with comparative ease. Some of my best supervisors found the time to assign tasks that drew on my skills and grew my limited experience, and that still contributed to the mission of the organization. The products of those tasks frequently needed revision and improvement, but that was how I learned, and it kept me engaged. Perhaps as important, these accomplishments reminded me of how much I still had to learn. As such I could realize that, even if my job title was not changing, my career was still going somewhere.

Posted by: snhw | August 10, 2010 2:00 PM

I've noticed this trend of young workers demanding quick elevation in rank and pay. I just tell them that once they can show, by objective evidence, that they can do FAR more than their current job, they will be promoted when there is an opening.

Until then, shut up and get your work done or you're fired. Pretty simple to handle whiners. The writer of this column needs a lot more exec experience before tackling management issues.

Posted by: illogicbuster | August 10, 2010 10:49 AM

My recommendation to young workers is to make sure they get experience. Some jobs provide 1 year of experience over 5 years, and others provide 5 years in 1 year. Do the latter until your life style cannot accommodate it. It will payoff in the end.

Posted by: MHawke | August 10, 2010 10:11 AM

America, get used to young workers who take absolutely no pride whatsoever in their written work products; whose basic English skills are at the 9th grade level; and who need constant coddling and positive reinforcement.

Generation Whiny has arrived...

Posted by: john_bruckner | August 10, 2010 9:55 AM

I wonder if the attitude of some of these youngsters is the byproduct of an upbringing in which parents defended and overprotected them at every adversity, thereby fostering entitlement, and didn't teach them to deal with setbacks, losing occasionally, and the realization that there are others more competent and experienced? (My nice way of saying they're spoiled.)

Posted by: bucinka8 | August 10, 2010 9:10 AM

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