Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Good working relationships can boost your reputation

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Just as the mantra of real estate is “location, location, location,” the mantra of the federal sector should be “relationships, relationships, relationships.”

Here are some ways to strengthen your business relationships and reputation:

Treat everyone well. No matter where in the hierarchy you are, and no matter how much you dislike or disrespect other individuals, treat everyone with courtesy and respect. You will look best by taking the high road, and you never know if another professional has the ear of a manager whose support you may need.

For example, I am aware of numerous job hunters who either sabotaged or improved their prospects depending on the way they treated their interviewer’s secretary.

Carve out time daily to improve your professional relationships. As one Senior Executive Service member advises, “Take time every day to interact more than superficially with supervisors and colleagues within and outside of your agency. Promote the free flow of information and always tell the truth — even if it is painful.”

He continues: “Executives always have tough decisions to make. If your relationships are not strong when you make them, you will be dead in the water.”

Focus on your strengths. Even while you build skills, your priority should be to keep improving the skills that distinguish you from others and that provide the foundation for your reputation. It will be easier for you to sell yourself, and leaders will be more likely to tap you, if you emphasize particular strengths that are not possessed by others.

Seek opportunities to lead. Volunteer to lead projects, organize training or other events, and bring in speakers. Also, broaden your reputation by pursuing opportunities to work with others at your own or higher levels in other organizations and agencies.

I know an employee who, when a midlevel fed, was assigned to be her agency’s Combined Federal Campaign representative. At first, she resented it because it took time away from her other assignments. But once she realized that the CFC assignment was helping her cultivate high-level contacts that she otherwise would not have generated, she came to appreciate it.

Learn about the federal budget. This is a must if you hope to one day join the SES. Gain a full, 360-degree perspective — both that of managers of federal agencies and of legislators on Capitol Hill.

As one executive says, “SESers need an overarching knowledge of how the federal government works and to be intellectually nimble enough to move from agency to agency and manage agencies that address varied issues. Doing so requires a basic knowledge of how federal budgets are set.”

You may learn about the federal budget by landing detail assignments that address budget issues in your agency or in Congress. Also, consider taking courses on federal budgeting at the USDA Graduate School, the Federal Executive Institute and local universities.

Exit gracefully. Last impressions often leave lasting impressions. If you leave your job with loose ends, unfinished assignments and unfulfilled commitments, your last-minute irresponsibility — no matter how time-pressured you may be — may overshadow the years of hard work and dedication that preceded it.

So, before you give notice on a job, list obligations that need your attention and list documents that should be handed over to your successor. Shortly after you give notice, review the list with your supervisor. If you won’t have time to complete the list, prioritize and devise a plan B with your supervisor. On your last day, give a copy of the to-do list to your supervisor, with each item checked off or alternative provisions for it notated.

Relationship with mentor requires work on both sides

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Like most things in life, the more you put into a relationship, the more likely you are to get what you want out of it. Here are some tips on how to make the most of a relationship with a mentor:

Consider recruiting a team of mentors, something akin to your own personal board of directors. If you want to develop the broad range of skills required in most leadership positions, you will probably need assistance from a group of individuals that offers those skills, not just from one individual with limited skills.

Mentors do not have to be in the same field as you. The broader the types of experience your mentoring team can offer, the more you will learn. For example, if you want to be successful in the Senior Executive Service, your skills will need to include knowledge of budgeting, contract management, human resources, project management and supervising. You would be wise to recruit mentors with those skills, as well as managers who would give you strategic advice about how to qualify for and land SES jobs.

Find mentors through people you know. Ask your current contacts for leads, applying the rule of six degrees of separation. Use alumni ties. Participate in mentoring or leadership training programs sponsored by your agency. Contact strangers in and out of your workplace who have relevant experience. Join educational organizations, like Toastmasters International. Find mentors through mentoring groups, such as the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which offers entrepreneurs free advice from successful business people.

These types of professional and educational organizations may be particularly helpful if you are confronting gender, age, racial or other barriers. They may introduce you to kindred spirits who have already conquered such challenges.

If you can’t get, or don’t want, person-to-person mentoring, consider instruction and advice from online communities and discussion boards, online classes, online discussions with distinguished individuals such as those sponsored by the International Mentoring Network Organization, and web searches for articles and columns on work-related issues.

Make a good first impression. Show up to your first meeting on time and prepared. Research your mentor’s background, think about why you admire him, identify your short-term and long-term goals and how your mentor can help you achieve them, and practice articulating this information.

Come to your meeting ready to receive negative as well as positive feedback, and mention your readiness to your mentor. In addition, show self-development by explaining what you have done thus far to meet your goals — for example, training, relevant assignments and previous mentoring.

Maintain your good reputation. Start each mentoring session or phone call by asking, “Is this a good time for you to talk?” Again, come to each meeting on time and prepared. Before each meeting, do any homework you and your mentor have agreed on, or else have a good excuse for not doing so. At the start of each meeting, identify your goals for the meeting. Explain how your mentor’s previous advice or the advice of others has helped you, or tactfully explain why you decided not to take your mentor’s advice or why you think your application of his advice didn’t work out. Also, have insightful questions in which you broach new issues. And end each meeting by thanking your mentor for his time.

Exit gracefully. If you decide to end your mentoring relationship for any reason, don’t just disappear. Gently tell your mentor about your decision, and thank him for some specific ways that he has helped you advance.

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