When I entered into public service in my late twenties, I was incredibly shy and introverted.
Truth be told, I am still very much an introvert, but as I reflect on my professional life, I can safely say I’ve learned ways to occasionally “stick my neck out” in order to advance my career.
Here is my advice to people who may be like me.
Most performance management cycles reserve a couple of formal dates per year for employees to sit and discuss how things are going. These check-ins are also a great opportunity to talk through strategies for advancing your career, including acquiring a skill or working on a new project.
I have seen many employees get frustrated by the fact that they listed something like a particular “skill acquisition” on their learning plan, only to have nothing happen. Managers are there to offer you advice, but it’s your willingness to show the initiative — to help them help you — that will make all the difference in the end. You might research courses, offer names of people you’d like to shadow (asking for a connection) or plan field visits.
Keep your eyes open during the year for opportunities that arise which can help you develop new skills. This may come in the form of a volunteer opportunity or a special project. If you take on an extra project, you may learn more about the organisation and may be fortunate to stretch into skills such as leadership or events organising. You may even meet your next boss or colleague through the informal networking opportunity.
Several years ago, I put my name forward to be the champion for middle managers in my department for a two year period. Though I took this on at an incredibly busy time in my career, and was terrified about being in a leadership role in my department, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dive head first into an area that fascinated me.
I found the opportunity very enriching as I got to work, and was able to build my public speaking skills and learn how to lead my peers. The senior executive I worked with meanwhile was very supportive. I gained new skills and stretched out of my normal introvert zone, because I volunteered for a challenging assignment and did what I could to make the most of it.
Find a mentor or coach to support you
When I listen to senior executives talk about the one thing they wish they had done sooner to advance their careers, many say that they wish they had found a coach.
I have been working with mentors and coaches in many forms for more than a decade. Some have supported me through the rockiest periods of my professional (and personal) life, offering steady counsel in ways a boss or colleague I suspect never could have.
The classic approach of any mentor is to provide advice during regular check-ins from the perspective of someone with greater seniority. Some organisations will offer to pair you with a mentor, and sometimes a senior person will offer to mentor you. That said, locating a mentor has become more tricky in the last decade, as many potential mentors find themselves stretched.
But you do have other options for support. On certain issues, I have asked the people I admire for “micro-mentoring”. When on occasion I’ve witnessed someone lead a presentation on a contentious issue very skillfully, I’ve sometimes asked for 20 minutes of their time to learn how they prepared. If the money exists, you might seek a paid coach for support. Finding the right fit is key however. If you don’t feel comfortable with a particular mentor, keep looking.
Look for feedback from many sources and seek feedback as needed
I have heard some employees complain that they never get feedback, and though I do believe that we as managers can do better here, I also believe feedback is given in many forms if we are open to recognising it.
For example, the number of changes your manager makes to a document you’ve written is a form of feedback. Is the document re-written, or does it only contain minor changes? Does your boss let you give oral briefings to her boss? If so, what kinds of interventions do they make?
I would also suggest that asking for a constructive review after the completion of a staffing process is a rich source of feedback from managers. This type of feedback may not be offered, but you can ask for it, and by doing so, get a few minutes of valuable insight into how you are presenting and where you are close to hitting the mark.
I have benefitted from asking for feedback both when I succeed in a process, and when I don’t. Some feedback can be hard to hear, but it will almost always be useful.
I hope that these examples illustrate a few of the ways in which each public servant can advance their own careers in ways great and small while still honouring their personalities. For introverts in particular, I have tried to outline ways to gather and process information one-on-one, versus in larger group settings, as well as ways to follow your desire to “deep dive” into areas that have meaning for you.