Career Thinking for Twenty-Plus

In response to your letter: You will be a highly valuable asset to any company that appreciates hard work and determination.

You asked for advice, and mine is based on making a few mistakes, mentoring several 20-somethings, and vetting many resumes.

First, keep a healthy attitude. Make sure you are dedicated to being the person who makes work a great experience for others. Employers need employees with integrity, grit, and kindness. Do what you commit to do. Overcome barriers. Treat people well.

Second, always innovate. You don’t have to invent something new, just try to gain deep awareness of the work structure, and earn the discretion to make it better. Care about the outcomes, and think clearly about the creation of those outcomes.

Third, educate wisely. Throughout your career you need general knowledge about government, economics, business, and behavior; and you need a tool box of skills that you perfect over time. Too many school topics seem to add no value to work.

Fourth, show leadership of your own life. Your career is made up of proof points about how you managed resources – time, money, and relationships. Concentrate your time. Avoid debt. Do not take people for granted. Career growth is based on leading with increasing responsibility of these resources.

Fifth, don’t fool yourself. If your career plan is based on ideas of saving people, traveling the world, or getting praise from others, you are fooling yourself. These may happen in your life, but they are merely self-tempting illusions. A career is based on the value you bring to others in very practical terms.

Sixth, pick a team you like. Your career is basically a team of people who trust you, enjoy working with you, and appreciate the value you bring. Start seeing your current and future network as your career team – help them and they will help you.

So, build on your strengths and find those who appreciate them.

[Reader: Jay Saunders’s profile is at

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Future of Federal Government

I guarantee that the Federal Government will be different in the future. Besides the fight for ideological direction and political power, there are 6 trends that will change this landscape. They are systemic challenges that at 8,000 Federal Executives will respond to in the near future–and their response will change the Government.

Budget Reduction. Regardless of the policies or methods employed to downsize the budget, all programs are on notice to reduce spending. Budgets will be smaller, and offices will have to perform their mission at the levels expected of them by their stakeholders. Leaders will have to be prudent about how they use contractors, consultants, equipment, and training.

Performance Accountability. Since the passing of the Government Performance and Reporting Act of 1993, agencies have sought streamlined ways to plan, organize, execute, and report performance within and across programs. Now, with the 2010 Modernization Act to GPRA, 152 changes are in the pipeline and it will affect the information tied to performance analysis and public awareness.

Workforce Development. A third of the Federal workforce is eligible to retire. Talent, information, and know-how can walk out the door, and the existing workforce is in desperate need of a reemergence of performance leadership, where every individual is aware and motivated to enhance the organizations’ performance–not more bureaucracy by the numbers.

Cost Controls. The many costs of doing business are not visible, and yet the total cost of running government offices is driving up the total operational expenses. Offices need routine ways of examining the policies and behaviors that affect costs in energy, property, transportation, and outsourcing–as the budgets shrink, the pressure to account for every penny rises.

Mobile Productivity. Telework is encouraged in the laws and agency policies, and many government functions require mobility; however, nobody knows how to keep productivity in workers who are out of sight. The pressure is on to find technological means of increasing productivity, regardless of where the worker is located, including means of concentration, engagement, computing convenience, and rapid communications.

Localized Innovation. The Federal government is a very large enterprise, with desperate expertise; and yet, we have few means of normalizing conditions for innovation. The entire workforce is held back by the difficulties of sharing insights, testing enhancements, and learning from each other and how we redesign our work structures. A discipline for innovation is necessary–very necessary.

The future of the Federal Government is in the hands of a few leaders. As they respond to these systemic challenges, we will see the trajectory of the bureaucracy–will it become a heavy or light structure–a growth or stagnation of performance capability?


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Does POTUS make Better Government?

A colleague raised this question when we were discussing an online group called Better Government and the associated PASS Discipline. Naturally, we discussed politics first. Why not? It is the most advertised and hyped aspect of government. It is where citizens trust government to begin, with some thought to where it all ends. But how much of the quality of government is a result of the President’s actions, and how much is the responsibility of those who make government their careers?

Knowing better than to over think the question, we eventually turned to the subject of operating government–the realities of effectiveness and efficiency among a large workforce, and its vast shadow of contractors.

As we tossed the operations of government around, we concluded that, for the most part, the nature of government is bureaucratization, thickening of friction and fat, and that this “nature” drives out the potential in government operations–potential for human growth, innovation, and enhancements, and overall transparency.

Not wanting to leave the discussion on a negative, we considered the concepts of what might be a better government, if we can ever overcome this organizational “nature.”

Here’s our list of 3 Better Government characteristics:


1. Collegial Media – the digital work experience improves access and concentration on value, awareness of opportunity, and empowers their discretion to make enhancements.

2. Adaptive Analytics – the culture is evidence-driven, updated to affect behavior and create deep awareness, and aligned between emerging individual development and organizational capability.

3. Reliable Reporting – the architecture of information is effective at attributing courage, commitment, and creativity to employees, forecasting alternative actions, and facilitating teams’ performance leadership.

This may be the same list that affects any large organization. Given that government is one of the largest and most complicated to manage, maybe our list of 3 should be the subject of political debates.

Can government employees lead Better Government?

How will the Executive Branch of Government create these characteristics?  

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Governments’ Innovation Barrier

It seems true that what we think about defines what we are capable of.

I often hear that athletes, musicians, orators, and many others must see themselves accomplishing their goals in order to perform at their best.

What is it that government employees think about, and how does that thinking shape their capabilities?

In my observations, government employees can’t help but think a lot about short cycles, many of which seem to be distractions from organizational performance: political processing, short executive tenures, acquisition processes, and “solution” hype cycles. The mix of short cycles seems to discourage fresh thinking.

To be innovative, one needs an opportunity to re-think and re-design.

If the short cycles in government keep employees focused on merely managing their overlaying chaos, then when would they have an opportunity to be innovative?

Not only is the nature of government structure a mix of short cycles, but it seems that executive leaders reinforce these in their attempts at achieving notable results. The popular concepts for getting work done include hard-grinds, one-offs, big-spends, tiger-teams, and off-sites. Again, these seem to be short-cycle efforts that require tremendous effort, but not much room for innovation.

Innovation is enabled, culturally. There is a norm for thinking through the possibility of enhancements.

If many short cycles interfere with innovation, then maybe it is time to normalize a long cycle dedicated to re-thinking and re-design. A long cycle could concentrate on how the organization causes outcomes across time and space. The effort of looking at patterns in a long cycle many help ready the minds of government employees to be innovative.

What are other ways of fostering innovation in environments where many short cycles distract or derail re-thinking?

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The Performance Leadership Goal

We often forget that the essence of an organization is its people. Public sector organizations are notorious for this oversight. If we expect them to be successful, innovative, and improve the organization, we need to focus on how we produce leaders and what we expect from the process. That being said, we should ask ourselves what kind of leadership matters?

From an organizational perspective, the most valuable leadership is “performance leadership,” the human skills and motivation that is continuously supported and reinforced by the organizational design. Its components include the individual’s commitment to understand organizational performance, the motivation to develop skills that align to organizational goals, and the choice to pursue performance improvement. When we see successful organizations in sports, civics, and business, we also see those who provide performance leadership—those with “skin in the game.” It is not just their dedication that causes the “wins,” it is the dedication of the organization to their performance leadership.

If public agencies ignore the responsibility to develop performance leaders, we are allowing the ugliness of bureaucracy to take over, the dehumanizing practices that make each person a “Cog in the Wheel.” Take a hard look at your agency….while most organizations have managers for routine activities, and some have leaders for future initiatives, few have leaders for lasting performance capabilities.

Are you a Performance Leader?

Is your agency developing performance leadership?

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Following Management Fads

The leaders of government programs are just as likely as the leaders of industry to follow management fads. These are the messages that suggest there is an easy path towards organizational success–if they only apply themselves to learning X-number of steps, X-kind of actions, X concepts, etc., etc.

A little known study was performed and published in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance in 1997. The researchers, Brickley, Smith, and Zimmerman, demonstrated how many of the popular management fads resulted in insufficient results, poor return on investment, or even unwanted consequences. The common thread of failure was a lack of discipline in the methods. They lacked the ability to be comprehensive, given the complexity of the organizations, and they lacked the adaptability to fit changes in people, technology, and operational opportunities.

The worse part of these fads is their psychological effect on employees. When leaders attempt fads and fail, the results can demoralize employees, especially if they feel bounded to operational distortions and that their leaders misplaced their efforts. It is a human calcification that has no organizational value.

I suggest that emerging, successful leaders of organization will avoid the partial, quick, fad-based attempts at fixing symptoms of problems; instead, they will apply a discipline for sustaining maturity of the capabilities that drive performance.

In practice, such disciplines lead to the notable solutions, such as the customer engagements. These are Performance Architectures. It is the merging of advanced engagement media, embedded operational analyses, and on-the-job employee training. The result is a work environment where the leaders can sustain improvements in performance capabilities and outcomes.

Can you resist the fads and develop an alternative discipline?

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Managing Bureaucratization

Controlling an organization is difficult. The larger the organization, the more complex is the process of control. We don’t think about it too much, but what we are trying to control are changes that naturally occur.

The drivers of changes are many and can be hidden in the layers of the organization. The internal drivers include missing expertise, emerging expertise, rule changes, quality of work life, staff shortages, new staff, staff exodus, self-management, miss-fitted management, process ambiguity, process choke points, and disjointed communications. The external drivers of change include increased customers, customer ambivalence, increased demands, divergent demands, product diversity, market diversity, diffused locations, miss-fitted services, laggard services, austere budget reviews, contextual dependencies, and mission shifts. How we react to change drivers affects the organizational health, innovative, and employees’ satisfaction with work conditions.

In large organizations, especially those without an organizational architect, we end up with many dispersed efforts at controlling change, and in some cases, an over control of changes that has negative consequences. The process is bureaucratization–codifying structure.

The challenge for current and future leaders is in how to manage bureaucratization while avoiding problems of operational friction, underutilized employees, and unnecessary costs.

When we respond to change factors, we want to optimize the operational and personnel development, including the awareness and discretion employees need to be performance leaders. If bureaucratization restricts employees’ information needs, it can, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard argues, inject “systemic organizational weaknesses by creating subtle sabotage through the resistance of employees that believe they are powerless in the bureaucracy that manages them.”

Do you recognize bureaucratization when it is happening?

How have you or could you managed bureaucratization better?

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