Career advice: 'Be selfish' and don't box yourself in, EPA boss says

By David Donaldson

April 6, 2018

Nial Finegan – EPA Victoria CEO

The head of Victoria’s Environmental Protection Authority has some advice for young public servants: put your own career needs first while you have the chance, and a choosing a technical background doesn’t mean you can’t be a great leader too.

Be selfish — not in a mean way — but be selfish to your own needs,” Nial Finegan tells The Mandarin.

“If you are a young graduate, extend your education as far as you can. Education is really important.

“… If I look back I’ve basically been in continuous education since graduation. I’ve been very fortunate, but I’ve also been very deliberate about that. But also you learn on the job. So seek opportunities and don’t put barriers on yourself.”

The start of your career, when you probably don’t have kids or sick parents relying on you, is the perfect time to try out new things and see what fits.

Finegan himself has tried out lots of different roles — he started out as an engineer building bridges, “then writing standards which impacted all bridges, and then I ended up as head of bridges”, before moving into a range of other policy and delivery roles.

He’s done everything from sweeping the road to cleaning toilets as a pub manager, spent some years at VicRoads, was deputy secretary at the Department of Justice, and is now in charge of Victoria’s environmental regulator. Along the way he’s collected an executive certificate in leadership from Harvard, a graduate diploma from the Australian Institute of Company Directors and an MBA from Imperial College London.

“I’ve always done delivery roles and then you get frustrated with the systems, so then you go off and you do some policy things, because you can change the world when you’re doing policy. But then when you’re doing it you realise you can’t really change the world so you come back to delivery. So if you look at my career, it’s flipped between delivery and policy, delivery and policy,” he explains:

“I actually think when we’re designing career paths for public servants, we need to be very mindful that we’re giving them the diversity of experience. You will be a better policy maker for front line delivery if you understand what it’s like to sit on a counter and deliver something. You’ll be better at doing your job on the counter if you have visibility of what the policy intent is.”

His advice for mid-career public servants is to really think about what their motivations are. “Sometimes people pursue their career and neglect their broader self, their work-life balance,” he says. You don’t want to miss out on your kids’ childhoods for the office.

As a manager, he also has an interest in encouraging staff to have a sensible work-life balance. “Happy chickens lay more eggs!” he notes.

Technical capability enhances leadership

The public service “probably needs more people with a technical capability in a leadership role”, thinks Finegan.

“I’m very proud of my engineering qualifications because I often hear people say you can’t be a technical leader and a leader, it’s one or the other. I have a view that you can be both, they’re not mutually exclusive,” he tells The Mandarin.

You don’t have to be the technical expert within the organisation, but having that kind of training gives you a certain perspective, he argues. And that’s not to say everyone should be an engineer — the key point is that there needs to be diversity.

It’s a problem many at the start of their career struggle with, he says — “am I a scientist or am I a leader, or am I a this or that?”

“You are you, so pursue what you’re interested in, because you’ll be good at what you’re interested in.”

He tells a story about speaking to some graduates about his own career path. One “started writing it down as if it was a recipe”, he remembers.

“I said no, hang on, that was me, my career and life choices suited me. And in hindsight I could have made some better ones or different ones.

“What I would say to any individual is that the better you know yourself, the better your decisions will be.

“People often end up very unhappy because they’re in the wrong role. The reason they’re in the wrong role is that they made a decision when they were 15 to do maths rather than arts in school. So don’t be unwilling to break the role.”

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