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10 Tips for Attaining a Successful Government Career

What does it take to rise to the top in the government?

For the inside scoop, we sat down with Reta Jo Lewis and Shoshana Grove—the leaders of Executive Women in Government (EWG).

Founded in 1974, EWG includes hundreds of women executives who serve in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government.

“Our mission is to prepare, promote, support, and mentor women for senior leadership positions in the federal government,” says Lewis, an attorney and EWG’s president, who by day is the special representative for global intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of State. “We do this by building a powerful network to share experiences, to enhance professional relationships, and to increase understanding among women executives in the federal government.”

EBW VP Grove adds: “We also strive to motivate women leaders in the federal government to contribute to effective succession-planning by creating a mentoring culture within their sphere of influence. As a result, our objectives include advocating for the advancement of women in senior leadership positions in the federal government, being mutually supportive of members’ professional pursuits, and providing an opportunity to become better acquainted with other professional women in an atmosphere conducive to the constructive exchange of professional ideas.”

Having spent decades in the public sector, both Lewis and Grove know firsthand how challenging it can be to move up the ranks in government. But both have accomplished their goals in a strategic, elegant manner, and their effectiveness is reflected in their impressive bios.

Prior to taking a top job at the State Department in the Obama administration, Reta Jo Lewis (pictured here) was vice president and counselor to the president at the US Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation.

She also served as a policy expert on domestic and international issues affecting small businesses. And, she worked in the Clinton White House from 1993-1995. As special assistant to the president for political affairs, she was the senior domestic political advisor for the Summit of the Americas held in Miami, Florida. In addition, she was the principal staff coordinator for the White House Task Forces on the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Paralympics Games, and the 1994 FIFA World Cup of Soccer.

Lewis also has served as a partner at an international law firm and as an attorney-advisor. She represented the City and County of Denver and Mayor Wellington Webb on international issues. She served as the city’s principal liaison to the US government when Denver hosted the 1997 G-8 Summit and the Summit of African Leaders that preceded the G-8. Since January 2010, she has been the State Department’s special representative for global intergovernmental affairs.

Shoshana Grove (pictured right) is the VP of Executive Women in Government, who by day heads the Office of Secretary & Administration for the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Prior to assuming her current role, Grove was manager of Ground Products at the US Postal Service, where she managed relationships with some of the Postal Service’s largest mailers and business partners and was instrumental in developing and marketing strategic initiatives, such as the Priority Mail Flat Rate Box, Online Notification of Carrier Pickup, and Click-N-Ship.

So how did these ladies rise to the top—and how can you take a page from their playbook? Scroll down to find out.


10 Tips for Achieving a Successful Government Career

Images by flickr: creative commons

1. Have a strategic plan for your career.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: Ask yourself on regular basis: What’s my strategy for my career growth? What’s my plan to get where I want to go? And then take it a step further, and think through the steps of how you are going to implement that plan.
  • Shoshana Grove says: Once you know what jobs you aspire to, prepare and groom yourself for those jobs by ensuring you have taken the right continuing education courses, have the proper degrees, and also have volunteered on special projects that will give you the experience you need for future job growth.

2. Have a multipurpose network.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: It’s always important to surround yourself with people whom you admire and trust, and who will guide you as you mature in your career. As you develop these relationships, be sure that your most trusted advisors are those whom you can go to for the honest truth—including advice on areas in which you need to improve and develop additional skill sets. Even if those comments are hard to hear, they are important if you are hoping to rise up in the ranks of government.
  • Shoshana Grove says: Be sure you don’t call on someone in your network only when you need a favor, either. Be helpful, and volunteer when you can. If you are seen as a go-to person and a helper, opportunities will arise for you in the future.

3. Seek out volunteer opportunities.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: I often think that volunteering is an excellent opportunity to grow your experience, especially when you go beyond the call of duty. Working weekends, nights, and on additional assignments beyond your usual work assignments is critical.
  • Shoshana Grove says: The people who get ahead are those who go above and beyond their usual assignments, and who make themselves available for projects that need to get done.

4. Be comfortable with the idea of moving—between agencies, and to another city, state, or country.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: Historically, government employees would spend their entire careers in one agency. I have a lot of respect for them, because they had tremendous knowledge of that agency and were effective leaders as they moved up the ranks. But in this new job market, that has changed. More demands are being placed on agencies and administrations. In the work I’m doing now at the State Department, people are moving around during their careers—and you can’t be afraid to move. That goes for moving to other states and countries.
  • Shoshana Grove says: Several times in my career I got to a point where I was stuck, and I knew that I wouldn’t get any higher unless I changed jobs and departments. Being flexible, and being willing to move around, was one of the keys to moving up in my career.

5. Look ahead. What skills are currently the most sought-after when it comes to hiring someone for a government job? And what are the growth areas in government? Which agencies will be biggest, and most effective, in the years to come?

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: Social media is one of the hottest areas in terms of communications. Those who can use technology and the new social media tools will be sought after. I’m always looking for those skills when I hire a young person in my department. I’m also looking for people who are innovative, and this will continue to be a focus in the years to come as we continue to re-engineer our organizations. And in this 21st century world, cyber security is and will continue to be a growing field in the government. So many organizations are focused on this, so for those who are skilled with these tools and are drawn to the field, cyber security is definitely a good area to focus on.
  • Shoshana Grove says: Many government agencies are looking for job candidates who have a strong background in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Of course, a strong liberal arts background is also valuable, for there is always a place for employees with strong basic skills: someone who is level-headed, can use today’s technology well, and can communicate articulately.

6. Always do your homework before asking for a meeting.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: When you talk with someone you want to partner with, market yourself for a new job, and are looking for a mentor—be sure to do research on that person and learn as much as you can about them, and their organization. Also, make sure the conversation is relevant to them, and their organization. You never want to waste anyone’s time. So before you ask for a meeting, know what outcome you hope to attain; then guide the conversation in that direction.
  • Shoshana Grove says: Knowledge is power. Especially when so much information is available on the Internet, there’s no reason that you wouldn’t come into an interview fully prepared.

7. Teamwork is the key to success.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: There’s no “I” in teamwork, and while that’s a trite saying—it’s true. In the government, we joke that we are in meetings all day long, but the reason is that we need to know what each other is doing so that we can move forward the goals of the department and agency we are working for. That’s why we’re here, and working together to bring out the best in each other will always be the key to success for any organization—public or private.
  • Shoshana Grove says: I think there’s a sports analogy here, where the coach’s job is to bring out the best in all of her (or his) players. Managers in government agencies are the same—the key to success is team cohesion. People who don’t thrive in that environment tend to be disruptive, and that’s another reason why we look for people who are level-headed, good communicators, and also those who want to play on a “team.”

8. Develop strong relationships with trusted colleagues.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: I have been very fortunate to have worked in the Clinton administration and the Obama administration. One of the things that has helped me is having developed relationships with people whom I respect the most, and as it turns out, the people I worked with 20 years ago are many of the people I’m working with today. So you have to have a long-term approach to your professional development, because while people move around a lot in government—they have long memories.
  • Shoshana Grove says: I couldn’t agree more. Especially in government, people look to surround themselves with people they trust, people who are loyal, and of course people who are good at what they do. Building those relationships over a period of time is one of the best tips we can offer, because those connections are they key to career advancement. You never know who is going to be your colleague, your employee—or your boss—in the future.

9. Know that every day is an interview.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: You never know who you are going to come into contact with. You need to know the rules of your business, and be sensitive and clear about where everyone fits in the organization. But the truth is that everyone you meet is important—from those who have lesser jobs than you, to the president of the United States. And as women are in positions of managerial responsibility, we are not only interviewing others each day—they are interviewing us. Upward mobility is the goal for almost everyone in government, so it’s important always to do your best, and to be on your best behavior.
  • Shoshana Grove says: I have long known that how you present yourself every day is important. You never know whom you are going to meet, or what relationship you make today—as insignificant as it may seem—will be important to you later in your career. My tip is to take every opportunity you can to put your best foot forward.

10. Dress for success.

  • Reta Jo Lewis says: People see you before they hear you. Is it bad that people form an impression based on your attire? Well, yes. But in today’s competitive work environment, make sure you have an edge. Don’t let your appearance keep you from moving forward in your career. Even in environments where dressing casual is encouraged, be sure to be careful to present yourself well.

For more information about Executive Women in Government, visit www.execwomeningov.org.

Are you one of the nearly 3,000 women in government who is eligible to be part of this growing organization? For details about membership, click here.

For a listing of EWG’s upcoming events and activities, click here.

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