‘Be prepared for hard feedback’: dep secs’ graduate career advice

By David Donaldson

Wednesday October 3, 2018

Panelists Katherine Whetton, Miriam Slattery and Tony Bates.

Ask for feedback and remember to be nice to people, a panel of senior public servants tell VPS graduates.

He may have been an executive for the best part of two decades, but Tony Bates still remembers the most exciting moment of his placement at the Department of Premier and Cabinet as a graduate. He wrote a brief for the premier, before “watching the news that night and him saying what I’d written”.

Now lead deputy secretary at the Department of Justice and Regulation, Bates urged the audience at the 35th anniversary of the VPS graduate scheme to “follow things you’re passionate about”.

“I just wandered around looking for issues I found interesting and by working on those sort of things it opens up the path to future jobs,” he said.

Bates recommended actively cultivating networks — it makes life easier when you need to pick up the phone to another agency.

“You’ve got to put conscious effort into it,” he thinks.

“As you keep going along, as things get busier, it’s making the time to keep up with people when it’s not just transactions. You don’t want to just hear from someone when they want something.”

The event, hosted by the Victorian Public Sector Commission and the Graduate Recruit Alumni Society, attracted attendees from all 35 years of the scheme’s operation. More than 2000 people have used it to launch their careers since its inception in 1982.

Fellow panellist and Department of Education and Training Deputy Secretary Katherine Whetton recommended seeking out feedback.

“You want people to really support you and pump you up and give you advice, but I also had really hard feedback from people about the way you present in meetings and things like this, how you talk,” she said.

“I got some really quite personal feedback, but it also helped immeasurably. So ask for feedback, get feedback, be prepared to take sometimes hard feedback.”

Whetton also reflected on her time as a graduate doing the relatively unglamorous task of calling people who had incorrectly filled out local sports grant applications to gain the information she needed. “I didn’t think I’d hear from the government!” went one response.

“You’re in a really privileged position, even if you’re talking about a $5000 grant for a regional sports club,” she noted.

Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings.

Always be nice to people — whether because you’re a nice person or because it’s useful for your career, recommended DPC Deputy Secretary Simon Phemister.

And don’t be afraid to move around, whether within government or outside. Phemister himself has been in and out of DPC four times.

“If you’re not working with great people and you’re not learning, move on,” he counsels.

Also on the panel was Miriam Slattery, manager of strategy and partnerships in the CEO’s Office at the City of Melbourne.

After starting as a VPS grad, Slattery has moved between being the ministerial office, Netball Australia, and now local government.

“Follow good people around” is her advice.

“So it’s not necessarily the subject matter, but once you find a good boss, stick with them.”

Slattery also noted the importance of networks.

“I think every job I’ve had since the grad program has involved someone connected to someone I met on the grad program,” she said.

The event included a speech by Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings, who spoke about his mistaken belief earlier in his career that Canberra was where the important decisions happened.

“This is a jurisdiction that makes a difference to people each and every day,” he said.

“The public sector and public service play a very important role in stabilising the political environment.

“… We are so grateful in terms of the citizenry of recognising what you bring.”

Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Paul Grimes announced the launch of a dedicated disability pathway for the 2020 cohort of the graduate program. This will increase opportunities for high potential graduates with disability to gain ongoing employment with the VPS.

The VPSC is also conducting a rethink of the graduate program, with the aim of taking a more strategic approach to the skills bases it is attracting.

Main image: panelists Katherine Whetton, Miriam Slattery and Tony Bates. 

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