Millennial leaders sound off about what they love and what they would change about working in government.
To gain more insight on this growing segment of employees, The Public Manager recently spoke with four young leaders—Michelle Rosa, program manager for Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division; Iris Alon, administrative specialist in the Office of Training and Development at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA); Jonathan Ludwig, communication specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Rebecca Rose, vice president of communications at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Here's what they had to say.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of being a young leader in government? Have there been any surprises?
Rosa: It's been a bittersweet experience for me, mostly sweet though. The bitter part is in the lack of support regarding my career and performance. When I worked for the private sector, I had my boss, a career manager, two mentors, and a colleague who provided sound advice and opportunities for my professional growth.
When I transitioned to the government, I quickly realized that things would be different. My boss was providing good guidance and would point me to great training opportunities, but I knew that if I wanted to take my career to the next level and ensure rapid growth, I would have to do a lot more. So, I adjusted my expectations and came up with a plan to fill in the gaps.
It's been sweet because every day I can see the impact that my work has, and that is incredibly rewarding. Seeing the difference that I am making for my organization and being able to add value for our stakeholders and customers is priceless.
Alon: For me, the biggest reward is coming home at the end of the day knowing I did something good for my country. I work at the Transportation Security Administration, and our agency's mission is critical to U.S. national security. Despite some of the negative publicity we've received, we've been very successful at doing our job because there hasn't been a U.S. passenger plane that was hijacked or that fell from the sky since September 11, 2001.
As for the challenges, it's more in the realm of navigating the maze to get things done. I'm used to moving things along efficiently, and bureaucracy in the federal government is unlike anything I've ever seen before. That can be frustrating.
Ludwig: In terms of challenges, the big one is that from a generational perspective, I think younger workers expect a great deal of flexibility and efficiency in how they work. Technology has allowed us to work very efficiently, so we tend to expect the work environment to mirror that.
The government, of course, is designed to be closely controlled and accountable to the public, which slows everything down. So there are a lot of rules and requirements that are really due to the fundamental attributes of a democratic government. As a young leader, it's very hard to adapt to what can be a slow-moving, inflexible, and highly complex environment. In some pockets of the government, you run into deeply ingrained cultures that represent obsolete management and work styles. I think this is partially due to the fact that a lot of public service workers tend to have long careers in a single agency or even a single job.
One of the most rewarding aspects is working with so many passionate people. No matter the specific job, working at the Department of Veterans Affairs is about supporting veterans and their families. It's a powerful mission that transcends the political spectrum.
Rose: Being a young leader, I often feel I have to spout off my entire resume every time I speak to a room. The positive side to that, though, is that sharing my experience helps establish my credibility.
On the flip side, the reward of being a young leader is stepping up to mentor future government leaders. I have informally mentored several people in government, offering my support through advice and informational meetings.
Do you feel valued by your more mature colleagues? How have you dealt with any misconceptions?
Rosa: I've encountered people who value what I bring to the table and people who don't think I have enough experience. Thankfully, the ones who don't think I have enough experience have been subtle in their comments. I've been able to clear up any misconceptions by asking questions like, "What critical competency that I don't have do you think I need for this job?" If the answer is something I already have, then I respond with a statement like this: "I have the skills required for this job, and I know I can do it well. Give me a chance to execute the work, and I will deliver excellent results."
Alon: All the managers, mentors, and sponsors I've worked with have been supportive of my goals and aspirations. Just recently, my initiative to launch a group dedicated to Millennials and emerging leaders within TSA was officially introduced by a number of senior leaders who also are acting as sponsors. To see a simple idea of mine get that type of support certainly makes me feel like a valued employee.
Ludwig: I have always felt valued by my more experienced and older colleagues. I think more than anything, communicating clearly and producing high-quality work in a timely and proactive manner gets you most of the way toward being valued. I tend to personally value competence to a great degree—for myself and for others—and that has helped, although that has led me to have unrealistic expectations at times.
Rose: I do feel valued because I have built a great reputation in the public affairs community, and I am not afraid to speak up or to share ideas I have. I pride myself on being a transparent leader, which I feel makes you more credible and has earned me respect. I deal with misconceptions by not playing into the stereotypes people hold around young workers by staying authentic to who I am and the work ethic I have.
What critical competencies do young leaders need to navigate working in government? Does your agency or department offer opportunities to develop them?
Rosa: Resiliency is probably the biggest one. Government is dynamic and ever-changing. Young leaders need to be able to keep up.
Another one is political savvy—not in a Democrat/Republican sense, but in the office politics sense. Bureaucracy hinders innovation, creativity, and motivation; young leaders need to be bureaucratic ninjas. I believe my agency would support training for these areas, but specific training in these areas may be difficult to identify.
Alon: Speaking for myself, I know my greatest opportunities lie with building coalitions and leading people. The competencies that fall under those two categories are gained and honed only through experience, and some of them you won't even get outside of government.
TSA offers a number of leadership and development courses as well as programs like mentoring and detailed rotations. I encourage anyone starting their government career to take advantage of similar opportunities and programs. In an era when there's so much uncertainty, the best thing you can do is to make yourself invaluable to the people who make policy decisions. One of the ways to accomplish this is to acquire as many new skills as possible and apply those to further your agency's mission.
Ludwig: I'm not sure that patience, humility, and persistence are competencies or really something that can be taught as a skill, but they are crucial for long-term success. You need patience because you're working in a highly complex and tightly controlled system where at times things do not move quickly. If you are patient and are willing to work at it persistently over time, it is possible to accomplish a great deal, but you have to play the long game.
The other thing is humility and the ability to be deferential and respectful to more experienced staff members. I think younger workers are sometimes perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being frustrated with how their careers are moving, impatient with workers who aren't as technologically savvy, and dismissive of ingrained organizational cultures. Asking questions, listening, and learning from more experienced colleagues is a great way to show respect and gain their trust—and will help you build a network of people who want to help you succeed.
Rose: You need to understand the politics of an organization and its unwritten "rules." Every time I enter a new organization, I make it a point to find a legacy person (someone who has been there 10-plus years) to learn who the key players are and about the dynamics between offices.
My agency offers training to develop leadership skills and mentorship opportunities. I recommend taking advantage of every opportunity for free training and using your individual development plan to get career-enriching trainings.
If you could change one thing about your workplace, what would it be?
Rosa: I would love to change our workspaces! Cube farms don't inspire or enable collaboration and creativity. I'd love to see more open, colorful spaces that stimulate people to collaborate. I also would like to see more team-building events to create and foster stronger team relationships. I'd like it if training budgets were more important when it comes down to budget cuts. Unfortunately, training budgets are the first to be cut, and this hinders our ability to grow and learn.
Alon: My choice will be to change the stagnant and hierarchical culture into one that embraces innovation and inclusion. I have to say, though, that since I started working for TSA, I've seen significant efforts to move toward that culture of innovation and inclusion. Our former administrator created an Innovation Task Force within the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis that looks into the latest technologies to improve screening capabilities at airports and other mass transit locations. The agency also has a departmentally recognized employee advocacy group called Women Executives at TSA that aims to retain and cultivate female talent.
Ludwig: Increased workplace flexibility is for me the number-one area where the government could improve—for example, where you have core hours you work, but time on the beginning and end of your schedule is flexible. To me, as long as you're responsive to email and phone calls and getting excellent work done in a timely manner, it shouldn't matter whether you're at your desk precisely at a certain time each day. The world doesn't work like that anymore. What matters is value and results.
Rose: I would want more resources: larger budget, more staff, and so forth. Outside of that, I would want to continue to improve on the culture in the workplace in general. I think the culture of an organization can make or break its potential to keep top talent.
Do you have any advice for agencies on how to recruit, motivate, and manage young workers?
Rosa: My advice is to really understand what makes us tick. We can help your organization move forward, but if we are faced with the "that's not the way we do business here" attitude, we are going to get discouraged. Give us the opportunity to experiment with new processes and technologies—so long as it doesn't compromise the mission and security—and allow us to use our skills 100 percent. Empower us, and let us make recommendations to better the organization. Provide us training and development opportunities. Give us flexibility when possible, and finally, allow us to be ourselves in the workplace.
Alon: Create an environment that supports innovation, fosters relationships among employees, and focuses on developing the workforce. If you look at the agencies within the federal government that have the highest FEVS scores, you'll find that they all excel in these three categories.
Ludwig: Focus on the strong sense of purpose that one can get from working in public service—keeping water clean, keeping roads safe, promoting U.S. interests abroad—all these things have an important universal value to the public. That is a strong motivator for younger workers who want to make a difference—the government is a great place to do just that.
Rose: Create a fun, engaging workplace with development opportunities. I personally have made it a goal to have an outside team-building event once a month, such as a happy hour or pizza lunch, to encourage staff to socialize and break down silos. Also, don't be afraid to give young workers opportunities to expand their skills and lead projects. I think sometimes as leaders we say, "I'll just do it myself," instead of creating a valuable learning or growth opportunity for a junior staff member.
Meet the Leaders
Michelle Rosa began her career in the federal government as a program manager in June of 2015, after working as a federal contractor for more than six years. She also serves as the chief diversity and inclusion officer for Young Government Leaders (YGL). In this role, she leads efforts to conceptualize, define, assess, nurture, and cultivate diversity and inclusion as an institutional and educational resource. Contact her at [email protected].
Iris Alon is an administrative specialist in the Office of Training and Development at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). She also is the chair of the Millennial Change Makers Group, a committee under the Women Executives at TSA, whose mission is to develop the talent of TSA’s Millennial population. Iris serves as the managing editor for YGL. Contact her at [email protected].
Jonathan Ludwig has served more than nine years in the federal government at the U.S. Departments of State, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs. He specializes in strategic communications and program management. Jonathan joined the YGL leadership team as marketing director in July 2016. Contact him at [email protected].
Rebecca Rose is the vice president of communications at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. She has more than 10 years of experience at an array of federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Drug Enforcement Administration. Rebecca joined the executive board of YGL in November 2015 as the strategic communications director. Contact her at [email protected].
Michelle Rosa, Iris Alon, Jonathan Ludwig, and Rebecca Rose each hold leadership positions with YGL (Young Government Leaders). YGL is a nonprofit professional association that hosts a variety of events and programs designed to help young leaders gain an edge on their professional development, build lasting relationships with other aspiring government leaders, and develop potential solutions to the significant challenges facing government today. YGL provides chapters throughout the United States. YGL University offers training classes on leadership development, soft skills, personal branding, networking, team building, and a mentoring program that is conducted in partnership with the Senior Executives Association. Visit the YGL website to learn more.