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TD Magazine Article

Career Launch

Position high-potential government employees for career progression.


Mon Apr 01 2019

Career Launch

High-potential employees (HIPOs) must understand that just being a hard-working employee will not help them reach their leadership aspirations within the U.S. federal government. The Office of Personnel Management estimates that, as of 2017, the federal government comprised more than 2 million employees; I'm guessing at least 50 percent of those employees are considered "hard working." Thus, the reality is that being a hard-working government employee does not make a worker special; it makes that individual average.

Based on my more than 10 years of experience in executive leadership development and coaching, I've identified seven key strategies for employees to achieve greatness. However, due to space constraints, I will outline two strategies senior leaders and talent development professionals in the federal government can use to prepare HIPOs to successfully assume high-level leadership positions: building a strong political defense and establishing a clear career context.


Building a strong political defense

At the ripe old age of 24, I had already established a name for myself as one of the youngest federal employees to manage an executive leadership development program for a cabinet-level agency. In that role, I spent most of my time working with Senior Executive Service leaders, which resulted in many of them becoming friends and mentors. Although I had been seen as a HIPO for years, I had unknowingly developed an enemy whose goal was to bring down my career.

The harassment started out slowly—for example, always checking to ensure that I was at my desk. However, it quickly escalated and left me in a dark place. One day, as I sat at my desk, two armed security guards and an IT security professional entered my workspace. They asked if I knew where Alex Tremble was, and I responded that I was indeed Alex. After quickly glancing at the paper they had in their hands, they informed me that they were there to confiscate my laptop. My heart immediately dropped. I turned over my laptop, they left, and I began to panic.

I immediately called a few key influential leaders in the agency to see if they knew anything. Within a couple hours, they informed me that someone had reported me to IT security, accusing me of doing nonwork-related work on my government laptop. We all knew who had reported me. My laptop was returned a week later, and I was cleared of the accusations. That was not the last time I encountered such a situation, but it taught me something extremely important that I now share with my clients: I may not have successfully navigated those waters if not for my strategic relationships with influential leaders who were willing to intervene on my behalf and my trustworthy reputation that inclined others not to quickly believe negative accusations. Those two points are what I call a political defense.

You can think of a political defense like car insurance. You hope you never need it, but when something happens you are glad that you have it. As HIPOs progress in their careers, the risk of being derailed due to factors such as unpopular decisions, wrong decisions, others' jealousy, and opposing interests increases. By having a strong political defense, employees decrease the chances of one of the events completely derailing their career.

The most valuable resource for a HIPO and senior leader is their time. Thus, when building a political defense, it is extremely important for HIPOs to prioritize relationships they need to develop. When working with my clients, we first prioritize the offices that may affect them at some point (for example, HR, IT, security, office of the secretary, budget), followed by the specific people within the office, and then we develop an engagement strategy. Because that is in large part strategic relationship building and trust is not established overnight, this process requires HIPOs to invest time over several months. Also, like car insurance, a political defense is something employees must have before they need it.


The reality is that, of the few people who build strategic relationships, the majority focus on those individuals who can help them get them their next opportunity. However, just as important is employees developing strategic relationships with those individuals who can protect them.

Establish a clear career context

While coaching a senior leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we broached the topic of leadership pipelines. Specifically, my client shared that his leadership team members (four GS-15s) were all planning to retire within the next three years. To prepare for this transition, they had created a mentoring program to teach their HIPOs the leadership skills needed to perform at the senior level. However, although the HIPOs were talented, they would not be ready for senior-level positions for several years.

This would not have been a problem except the HIPOs were all fairly ambitious and wanted the leadership positions now. The leadership team had told the HIPOs numerous times that it would take years to get to senior-level positions, and the leaders were now worried that the HIPOs would seek other opportunities outside of their agency. My client was concerned that if the HIPOs left for other opportunities, the organization would have wasted much-needed time and resources on developing them.

Smiling at my client, I shared that there was a better approach. As a Millennial, I have experienced being told countless times that I could not do something, only to prove those people wrong. And, although I greatly respect the experiences and advice of those who came before me, I often question whether the way it has always been done is the best way to do it. Thus, leaders who tell HIPOs—especially Millennial HIPOs—that "You cannot do that" or "You should just wait your turn" are creating a natural friction that only encourages the employee to challenge them.

To solve this "ambition challenge," I recommended that my client and his leadership team stop telling HIPOs what they could not do and, instead, support them 100 percent in reaching their goals as soon as possible. I am sure that you are just as confused as my client was. Why would you support a HIPO in moving up faster than what you believe is safe for that employee's career? Let me explain.


Generally, HIPOs are ambitious, hard-working, and driven—and they enjoy overcoming challenges. So, how do you use all those qualities for their benefit? By challenging them to create their own strategic plan for reaching their goals and supporting them the entire way. But here's the secret: Although I recommend that my clients help with information gathering and identifying opportunities, the HIPOs must establish their own timelines using the information collected.

As the HIPOs create their strategic plans, the leader should ensure that they have what I have coined a clear career context. To have a clear career context is to explicitly understand all the external and internal variables that will affect a person's ability to achieve a goal. Although there are many ways to manage this process, I find that a facilitated meeting between senior leaders and the HIPOs is effective. To create an effective strategic plan, HIPOs must answer these questions:

  • What GS grade is the position I am seeking?

  • How quickly can I legally be promoted?

  • What are the HR policies that outline any creative ways I can more quickly be promoted?

  • What skills should I possess to be prepared for the job I want?

  • How can I develop those skills?

  • How long will it take me to develop those skills?

  • What strategic relationships are critical for the position I want?

  • How can I build those relationships?

  • How long will it take me to build those relationships?

  • What are the office or agency political land mines?

Once the HIPOs have a clear understanding of what it will take to reach their goals, it is up to them to create their strategic career plan outlining their own timelines. The beauty of using this approach is that the leader is no longer in a position to tell the HIPO whether a timeline is realistic because it is part of the learning process. HIPOs may ask for advice in developing their strategic plans and timelines, but the leader must be careful not to develop the timeline for the employees. Think of this process as an action learning exercise. You really want to encourage HIPOs to use this opportunity to speak with mentors and colleagues and build new relationships to develop this plan. If the process is well managed, HIPOs will develop a fairly realistic time frame and will be encouraged because they know that the leadership is fully supportive of helping them reach their goals.

Finally, I truly love this method because there are only two possible outcomes:

  • The HIPO reaches his goals within, or before, the time frame established, which is great because he must have learned a great deal.

  • The HIPO does not reach his goals within the time frame, which is not bad because he has still learned a great deal while pursuing the goal. Additionally, if coached through this correctly, the HIPO will become a more effective strategic planner and readjust his plan to continue pursuing the goal.

Current trends

The federal government seems to finally be moving in the right direction in regard to creating leadership pipelines for HIPOs. A government-wide coaching program—the Federal Coach Network—launched a few years back to help individuals at all levels perform as better leaders. But, even with the progress made, I still notice a gaping hole in those efforts.

Preparing HIPOs for leadership positions is not simply done by teaching them leadership skills (for example, building teams, negotiating, conflict resolution, and budgeting). In fact, I would wager that most people who attend leadership training, or any training for that matter, are not doing so simply because they want to be a better leader. If we are all honest with ourselves, the real reason most people attend training is so that they can get a promotion or another job. And if that is true, it brings up this question: If managers and their organizations move up the ranks, and we know HIPOs want to move up the ranks, why are we not overtly teaching them how to do so? When I ask that of my clients, I almost always get a slow nod followed by, "How did we miss that?"

Thinking of it another way, imagine teaching someone how to play chess. The first step in teaching her the game is explaining the directions each piece can move. The second step is to teach her how to strategically position herself to win the game. As a poor chess player, I can tell you that it is difficult to win a game without knowing the strategy to win.

As of this moment, most agencies have focused their efforts on teaching their HIPOs which directions the pieces can move instead of the strategy to win the game. As a result, agencies invest substantial resources into their HIPOs, only to hope that they can find a mentor who can teach them how to win. And, unfortunately, not all mentors are equipped to effectively teach the positioning skills required to thrive in today's politically sensitive and highly competitive environment.

Thus, I strongly encourage government training managers and supervisors to begin investing in development tools and opportunities that teach HIPOs how to win. Leadership development is extremely important, but it is the political savvy that will determine the winners and losers as we push through 2019 and beyond.

Seven Key Strategies to Achieving Greatness in the Workplace

More than a decade of executive leadership development and coaching experience has helped me develop a list of tactics high potentials (HIPOs) should follow to progress in their careers.

Build a strong political defense. For any sports team, having a strong defense allows the offense the space to make mistakes while pursuing challenging plays. Similarly, having a strong political defense in the workplace provides HIPOs the cover to make mistakes when pursuing challenging projects.

Establish a clear career context. To have a clear career context, HIPOs must have a strong understanding of the variables that will affect the likelihood of them reaching their career goals.

Employ an intentional learning cycle. Most leaders know that continual learning is critical to their success. However, most leaders are also extremely busy and tend to put off learning to get the job done. Given the increasingly complex society in which we live, it is more important than ever to have a consistent learning regiment. And the best way to ensure that learning is prioritized is to not rely on motivation but, instead, on automation.

Set concrete goals. Just like how our GPS cannot provide driving directions until we have supplied the destination, employees cannot create a strategic plan to reach their career goals until identifying them. However, it is not only important to define career goals; it is equally important for employees to define how they want others to perceive them. Once employees have their career and perception goals clearly defined, they can develop plans to ensure that they can be reached.

Build an influential network and reputation. Your network is who you know, and your reputation is who knows you. Both a HIPO's network and reputation are extremely critical for her success. However, as with all things, there are efficient and inefficient ways of building one's network and reputation. HIPOs must determine who, when, and how to reach particular individuals.

Establish organization political astuteness. Organization political astuteness refers to HIPOs' knowledge of the political land mines and opportunities within their organizations. HIPOs should know information such as who likes whom, the political interests of various divisions, and why particular leaders support decisions that seem to be not in their best interests.

Have perceived expertise. It does not matter whether an employee is a subject matter expert or thought leader if he cannot effectively communicate his expertise to those around him. HIPOs must use their behavior and language to influence others' perception of their expertise.

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