What I’ve Learned During 13 Years of Federal Service

This month I am marking 13 years of federal service, and reflecting on some of the professional and personal lessons I’ve learned since coming into the federal workforce.

In December 2006, I was offered a government contractor job over hundreds of other prospective applicants.  I’d finished my masters and moved to the east coast two months prior to work in a temporary job that had just ended, and I had optimistically signed a yearlong lease for a studio apartment in Adams Morgan. I had been trying to get a more permanent job in the DC area for several months, and was determined to stay even if I had to work in retail. I felt like things were finally coming together. Then in February 2007, the position officially opened and my supervisor hired me as a federal employee, with benefits! I bought back my Peace Corps Volunteer service for retirement purposes, which wound my Service Computation Date (SCD) back to August 2005.

Since that time, I’ve done at least seven jobs across three federal agencies for nearly a dozen bosses. Between 2006 and 2015, I was part of the DC hustle. And boy, did I hustle. Long hours, drinking from a firehose, trying to stay ready. Getting promoted in turn by each of my supervisors and watching my small paycheck grow over the years, from funds that barely covered my rent and bills, to something that allowed me to eventually get out of debt, travel, and grow my savings and retirement accounts. But it wasn’t always that easy.

When I was 27, broke after four years of volunteer work, illness, and grad school, and stressed about debt, my dad told me to stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. He gave me lots of good advice on how to navigate my federal career and see my plans come to fruition while serving my country. And he would know – he’d retired from the Department of Defense after 39 years of service. So I listened, and over the years, I saw how right he was. It got easier, and choices expanded.

Cheers to independent women who grow their careers and take control of their financial futures, Summer 2008

Along the way, I have made mistakes, and I have had successes and failures. I have reflected on a few of them here in no particular order… your mileage may vary (YMMV).

My first office at the Voice of America (VOA), Summer 2007

1. Work hard. I have always been willing in my career to work hard. (“Don’t half-ass,” my dad always told me when I half-assed something.) I have worked long hours to support busy principals, to take on special projects, to research things I needed to learn more about, and to try to solve problems that needed extra attention to untangle.

Some people have the impression that feds are lazy and don’t work hard. I have seen lazy people in government and in the private sector. Yes, there are certainly areas where government could be better, and it should be held consistently accountable. But in most cases, federal employees work really hard, often for less than they could be earning outside the public sector, and with little public recognition. And yet they continue, because they are intrinsically motivated.

In my early career, I worked hard because I liked my work and was grateful to be earning money and making my own way in life. I think that my willingness to work hard directly led to my bosses repeatedly promoting me and giving me opportunities to grow. Why? Because when they needed something, they knew they could depend on me, and that meant they could do their own jobs better. Work hard = make your boss look good = opportunities for you. Except when your job is broken. (More on that later.)

Credentialing work at the DNC/RNC, Summer 2008

2. Don’t be a martyr. People who work hard have to be extra self-aware and take precautions against their workaholic tendencies. Being busy does not equal being productive.  (Read that sentence again.) Is all this busy-ness adding value? Or is it a result of a disorganized and chaotic workplace?  Is someone giving you a real opportunity to grow, or looking for a way to wiggle out of a broken task themselves? Are you willing to set boundaries with work, and what does that look like? Who can you say no to, and under what circumstances? Do you say “yes” automatically to every request without thinking it through, and then feel resentful? Is it some hero complex?

I have tried over the years to balance my penchant for working hard with not being a sucker for other people to dump (their own) work on. That can be hard, depending on your environment, and especially if you do not have anyone to delegate to. You will have to find ways to prioritize, and differentiate between “urgent and important,” “urgent but not important,” “important but not urgent,” and “neither important nor urgent.” This isn’t as easy as it sounds, but it can be done.

It has been a key struggle for me at times, because there’s something for me that works about feeling like I’m the linchpin to a situation. Being asked to stay late because I’m needed? That’s gold. But there have been times where I felt that because I didn’t have kids, my free time was perceived to be worth less than that of the parents in the office. Although this is obviously unfair, untrue, and is hopefully changing with the times, I made a conscious decision to lean in as far as I could during my 20s and 30s to speed my ascent up the ladder. It worked, but there were times that the expectation that my free time needed to be justified and was always found less valid than attending a child’s soccer practice or taking a family vacation – I admit – chapped me. My work with the Humane Society, nail appointments, going to the gym, getting together with friends (who were my family on the east coast), or just straight up doing nothing mattered to my well-being, and there are times that I should have fought harder for them. And seriously, was I the only one who could have really done the job? But I didn’t want to be one of those rigid bureaucrats that comes at 8am and leaves at 5pm, come hell or high water. (Didn’t see a lot of those succeeding, either.) So, I pushed on.

With time, I’ve learned to say, “Yes, but…” and also, “I can’t,” when my assessment is that whatever I’m being asked to do will take away from my energy and distract me from my actual duties. If you know you will get no notice, no credit, and no appreciation, ask yourself what you are really saying yes to. Women should also take note of unequal assignment of office “housekeeping” chores and gender-based expectations around said chores. If it feels yuck, it probably is.

Peace Corps Panama TDY, February 2013

3. Invest early, and proactively. I have, unfortunately, seen a lot of federal employees ignore or mismanage their Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The TSP, unlike a pension or annuity, is a tax-deferred defined contribution plan. In other words, there is no guaranteed payout for those who don’t use it.

New employees are automatically enrolled with a 3% contribution deducted from their pay. Believe it or not, even though vesting only takes three years and the government matches your contributions up to 5%, some people actually cease their TSP contributions right away because they feel like they need that 3% today. It’s a serious error that will likely cost you six figures over the course of your working life. (Financial experts also say you should be saving 7-10% of your post-tax income towards retirement.)

Some younger federal employees also don’t actively manage their TSP contributions, or pay attention to which fund they’re in, adopting a “set and forget” mentality that misses opportunities to invest in the more aggressive C, S, and I funds. I was guilty of this at first, but was quickly set straight by smart people who had my back (including, of course, my dad). I put my skills to use on my husband’s dusty portfolio, and watched his annual returns grow by over 11% the first year I was managing them. “You’re hired,” he joked.

White House East Wing, July 2012

Many of us in our 20s struggle with student loan debt, living alone in high-rent districts, and working hard at the bottom of the pay scale. Retiring seems totally abstract. In reality, despite the many competing priorities for your limited funds, your 20s is an excellent time to start actively contributing to your retirement, even in small amounts, because your money will have so much longer to compound and grow. There is no way to make up for years of lost time and opportunity mismanagement; all you can do is set it right going forward.

Another common TSP mistake is treating your TSP like a rainy day fund, borrowing from it to pay for unexpected home repairs, weddings, and kids’ college expenses. How would you feel if you knew that $5K you borrowed from your TSP at age 25 could have grown to $600K or more by the time you’re 70? It’s mind-boggling and I think failure to maintain savings and open lines of credit is the usual culprit. Your TSP balances will never recover from these losses, and it’s a really expensive mistake. Other TSP mistakes involve not maxing out annual contribution limits, panicking at every market downturn and playing the short game (especially when retirement is far off), and not diversifying enough.

Honored by my boss, VOA Director Dan Austin, on my last day, October 2010

My bottom line advice is not to be afraid of proactively managing your money. You work hard for it. Don’t procrastinate or shy away from making it work hard for you. And whether you have twenty bucks or a couple of million to consider, treat your money with respect; don’t engage in behavior that wastes, mismanages, or repels money. You deserve a secure and stable financial life that you understand and can face head-on. This goes double and triple for women, whose professional longevity and retirement savings over their careers tends to be less than mens’, as women are still more likely to take part-time jobs or step back from the workforce altogether for child-rearing responsibilities.

Peace Corps Flag Night @ Washington Nationals Parade of Nations, September 2012

4. There are days where it feels like the bureaucracy is out to kill you. Don’t give up on finding efficiencies. There are days over the last 13 years where I’ve been tied in knots from infuriating loops of contradictory bureaucratic requirements that seem to serve no other purpose than to waste time or tick some obscure one-off box. Yes, institutional processes are supposed to keep needs from falling through the cracks, but some of it is really too much. Ask questions, or consult with someone outside of your hierarchy for a fresh look.

Is a particular challenge within your purview to improve? Can you convince a decision-maker to streamline a process? Congressionally-mandated requirements are probably not going to change, so choose your battles wisely. And depending on how good your organization, division, or office is at institutionalizing knowledge, you could spend a significant amount of time re-inventing the wheel and trying to gain knowledge that belongs to the office, yet lives in the email accounts of employees who have moved on. Office automation, task batching and bundling, and focusing on the big picture over the low-hanging fruit distractions will be your friends.

Presidential Inauguration, January 2009

5. The low-hanging fruit vs. “great work.” Speaking of low-hanging fruit, I’ve had a few jobs (and I suspect you have, too) that had deadly combinations of short-term, quick tasks that needed rapid response coupled with longer-term, substantive project work. You’re sitting at your desk, and you have probably ten minutes before you’re interrupted again. You have a dozen unread emails, some notes to type up for a briefing paper, a presentation to edit for someone else, and a complicated analysis project due in two weeks. What do you do? You spend four minutes on the phone answering misdirected questions while clicking through emails to see if anything’s on fire, three minutes dealing with an unexpected visitor to your desk, and the remaining three minutes trying to hit the bathroom before your next meeting. When you go home that day, you feel like you got the run-around and accomplished nothing. Sound familiar?

Not everything you don’t feel like doing is a WOMBAT (Waste of Money, Bandwidth, and Time). But some jobs are chock-full of WOMBATS! What’s getting in the way of doing great work, work that really inspires you? Is it other people? Or is it possible that it’s also your work style, a “clearing the decks” mentality before you can concentrate for a longer period of time? Do you stay at work until well after dark just to get some uninterrupted time to finish what you REALLY need to get done? How much latitude do you have to stop the busywork, to outsource, or to block two hours a day on your calendar and take complete ownership of that time without allowing interruptions?

I think it really does depend on your particular job and boss; support staff will always struggle to be the masters of their own destinies if they’re chained to a phone, reception desk, or high maintenance principal. But with the right negotiation and a receptive manager, there is hope. But try to really analyze honestly and see what changes are in your power to make first. After all, in theory, your organization hired you to do Great Work.

Election Night at VOA, November 2008

6. It’s not always possible to fix broken jobs. I once had a job where no matter what I did, I couldn’t bring coherence and efficiency to my work. I spent every day for a year and a half in a near-constant state of irritation and stress trying to do more and be enough to “meet the challenge.” After all, when I try hard to accomplish something, I usually succeed.

My job was to assist one principal, the head of our organization. I planned his domestic and international travel, answered his phone, organized his calendar, prepared his paper, had a mirror account to his emails, attended meetings with him, spoke with him and his senior staff at length daily, and liaised around the organization on his behalf.

But, after a short time in the role, I realized that the front office also expected me to provide support to the director’s deputy and his chief of staff (including taking the lead on their schedules and responding to emails they received), answer the front office main line, respond to public inquiries, draft correspondence, do time and attendance, order office supplies, move paper, escort external guests, back up the Secretariat, attend as many meetings where the principals were present as possible, and know and be able to explain to others their current priorities and thinking on a wide variety of high-level personnel, technical, and journalistic objectives. I received nearly nine hundred daily emails through the mirror accounts, not even counting my own. I could barely leave my desk. My job required me to be in two (or more) places at once, and many of my tasks conflicted. I worked up to 15 hours a day, came in most Sundays, answered emails around the clock, and was suffering.

I analyzed my work flow, and decided I needed a receptionist. No matter how hard I worked, things were falling off left, right, and center and my bosses weren’t getting what they deserved. I needed to be free from my desk. I went to my boss and his chief of staff and shared my plan to make the office – and their work – more efficient. They accepted my recommendation, but not in the way I’d intended. They decided to hire a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) to take all the project work off my hands so I could stay at my desk more! I felt duped, and crushed.

I then spent several months training this PMF (who was smart and fun, but lacked my masters and international work experience), while as the months went by, I felt further and further removed from the important projects of the office. Then suddenly the PMF left to go to medical school, and I was right back where I started, doing two distinctly different and incongruent jobs.

In the end, the only solution was for me to find another job, a job that would utilize my skill set and qualifications for productive outcomes that I could feel passionate about.  I didn’t have the power to change my broken job, and I’m not sure even now if there’s a better way I could have advocated for myself, or convinced my bosses that there was a better way that would have made me – and them – more productive. Once I stopped beating myself up about it, I realized how close I’d been to major burnout. My dad told me, “Your federal career isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon, and you’re falling down in the fourth mile. You may not think so, but you are.” Yet again, correct.

I left that job for a great job, where I stayed until I got into the Foreign Service. I was amazed by how organized and calm my new environment was. There was time for everything, and even when it was very busy, respect for people’s time, energy, and priorities was paramount. We worked smarter, and thoughtfully. The office was an efficient, well-institutionalized place that allowed for total well-being of its employees. I reintroduced my “work hard” with joy philosophy.

With my mom the day I became a U.S. diplomat, August 2014

7. Find champions, mentors, and allies. As you launch into your federal career, find people who are senior to you – whether it’s an informal relationship or an institutionalized mentorship program – to guide you, both in terms of the organization and the federal space, as well as your own development as an entry-level professional. Seek their counsel on how your organization really works – how decisions are made, and where the power and landmines lie. Do your homework. Read their bio. Ask intelligent questions. If they are very senior, be aware that you might be perceived as a spokesperson for those in the trenches, and be ready.

I have been mentored by, protected by, and championed by a range of people throughout my career who gave me sage advice, warnings, encouragement, instructions, and who shared their own work-life lessons learned. These people, and particularly those who believed in me and let me “stretch” by taking on additional responsibilities, were tremendously inspiring. I’m also remembering several women who stood confidently in their power, didn’t apologize or ask for permission to hold space, assertively made decisions and built consensus, and provided an example of female leadership that has stuck with me. I have had some truly wonderful colleagues, bosses and non-bosses, that have helped guide and shaped the professional I’m becoming. You may have to seek out your allies, but they are there.

Ask them politely for a bit of their time, and watch what happens. And don’t you forget to reach back, and mentor the young professionals who are walking the path you walked ten years ago. Seek allies, and be an ally, up, sideways, and down. It is SO important.

Peace Corps Green Team Waste Audit, November 2012

8. Never stop developing as a professional, or looking for your next job. Take advantage of any training you can get, especially if it’s being delivered by the private sector. When I became a Foreign Service Officer, I was in training for almost a full eleven months as my full-time job. But that’s not the norm in government. More times than not, I have had to learn things I needed to know to perform my job on the fly. Less often but more memorably, I had fantastic opportunities to learn things that would help me not only in my current role, but over my long-term professional development.

In my career, I’ve taken training on the federal budget process, briefing techniques, doing great work, leadership development including Dale Carnegie Training, managing chaos, supporting multiple bosses, project management, professional assault response, bystander intervention, identifying counterfeit documents, how to implement digital immigrant visa case management, and literally dozens more. Some of the trainings were more exciting than others; however, all of them were valuable, and coveted in an environment of limited resources and the typical government mantra to “do more with less.” Best of all, I was able to turn around and back-brief these trainings across to colleagues via “lunch and learn” sessions, and I was often the beneficiary of such shared sessions, too.

My dad always told me, even when I was in a job I really liked, “Never stop looking for your next job, or a better job.” This sounded kind of cold to me at the time, but later I saw what he meant. He was talking about opportunities to grow, to take on more responsibility, to have a better work environment, and perhaps to get better remuneration. Also, with the amount of time it can take to be selected for a federal job and undergo the hiring process, this is solid advice! I waited too long to decide to leave my broken job, and it took forever to land something more suitable.

As my husband reminded me today, “There’s always something new” to do in government. While that may sound a little cliché, it’s the truth. You can’t always foresee what’s around the corner, so build your skill sets and deploy them in the directions you want to go. It may lead to your next job! And it’s OK to seek out people in fields you’re interested in, and ask for a professional consultation.

Colleagues and friends at a VOA party, August 2010

9. When thinking about your performance, focus on outcomes and not a list of things you’ve done. Sometimes when I go back and read some of my old performance evaluations, my narrative makes me cringe. If your employee statement reads like a laundry list of a million minute things you did without addressing the “So what?” you probably aren’t framing it correctly. My bosses did a better job tying my performance to the overall success of the office, but there’s a lot I could have done in the past to explain my contributions better.

Again, it’s not enough to be frantically busy from day to day. You have to be productive, too! So what that you processed requests. How many? What actual problem did you solve? Did you work as a team? Were you a good steward of taxpayer dollars? Especially for me as a detail-oriented person, it helps to step back and look at the big picture. Can you tie your daily work back to your organization’s broader objectives? What was the result? Do you understand why your work matters, and can you find a way to quantify and highlight your contributions to your agency’s mission?

After teaching Macedonian to kids at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, July 2011

10. “Fake it ’til you make it.” Don’t be arrogant, but don’t undersell yourself, either. Early on in my career, one of my colleagues told me to “Fake it ’til you make it.” At first, it came across as disingenuous. But when I got to know her better, I realized that her lesson was less about behaving arrogantly and more about taking confident ownership of an assignment. Believe in your capabilities, and continue in the pursuit of knowing more. The 10% you don’t know shouldn’t make you apologize or kow tow to others. You still know 90%, right? Or whatever. My boss soon after asked me to brief an intra-agency group on a topic I was assigned to that I was only peripherally familiar with. I said, “Meeee?” He smiled, “Absolutely you.” I said, “I can do it.” I walked into a room full of people, sat up straight next to my boss, and didn’t say I was sorry even though my stomach felt like it was full of piranhas. Afterwards, senior leadership was grinning at me and giving me the thumbs-up.

I now file this advice in the same important category as “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” and “Every day’s a school day.”

The truth is, exhibiting confidence makes you feel more confident. And while you’re faking that confidence, how do you “make it?” I have facilitated plenty of meetings where I didn’t have to be the expert; I lent what I had, and drew on the expertise of others in the room. This is leadership. And before you know it, you will have arrived.

Серебро Шишка/Silver Pinecone Award to my Russian class, December 2014

What lessons would you add, feds?

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Sarah W Gaer

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