IDYP: Career paths, leadership, and networking

Originally published September 20, 2018.

The International Development Young Professionals (IDYP) hosted a career pathways and networking event with guest speakers Bob Jensen of Strat 3 and Dr. Pedram Pirnia of AUT and UNANZ. Bob spoke about his experiences in disaster struck areas including his time in Haiti which he described vivid detail. Along his journey he came up with 10 top tips on how to excel in leadership with particular reference to international development in the US Federal system.

© 2016 Strat3 LLC - 10 Things to Help you up the Federal Leadership Ladder

Thoughts by Bob Jensen, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, DHS.

Everyone’s career path is different and there is no one way to progress to higher levels. Not everyone wants to be a senior executive or a general and that’s okay. No matter what job or position you’re in, do your very best. These are some things to consider as you look at your career path. There are hundreds of books on leadership and no guaranteed way to become a senior leader. That said, the things listed here are what leaders look for as well as what I’ve seen in my own experiences. I hope these help you in some way.

1. Learn about your boss and their boss and how they a) consume information, b) communicate and c) what their priorities are.

a. The best thing you can do is ensure that what you do helps your boss meet the priorities of their boss. What is driving priorities from higher up in the chain?

b. Everyone consumes information differently. Find out if your boss is a data/details person or a BLUF/top lines person. Provide your info to them the way they want to get it.

c. If your boss’ boss has a different style, be sure to provide the option of a version that matches that style.

2. Learn how to communicate clearly, effectively and powerfully.

a. Surprisingly, many government employees don’t communicate well. Learn how to do so both in writing and orally.

b. Read about or take courses on communication and speaking. Practice every chance you get.

3. Learn how to plan, then learn how to execute, including understanding project management.

a. Too many plans are cookie cutter and don’t really cover the key elements. Learn about the many types of plans from strategic to operational to action plans.

b. Most important is being known as a person who can translate plans into action and get things done.

c. The larger the effort, the more you need to understand project management to help ensure it stays on track, on budget and is done right. These are qualities that get rewarded.

4. Create a Career Map that lays out where you want to be 5, 10 years from now.

a. Research where the jobs are that you might want to apply for.

b. Find out what skills and experiences you need to get that job.

c. Start networking to get to know the people in those jobs and organizations to learn more.

5. Volunteer for the hardest assignments and positions.

a. Easier to do for some than for others because of family obligations and circumstances, but still, try to take jobs that stretch you and also put you on the forefront of the most important missions.

b. The broader your experiences become, the easier it will be for you to take on hard assignments.

6. Expand your skillsets, experiences and knowledge outside of government.

a. Take online or in person courses in a broad array of topics.

b. Travel overseas as well as domestically to see life from the perspective of others.

c. Read regularly, both fiction and non-fiction.

d. Watch the news daily, and use a variety of sources besides just one favorite

7. Understand what the big picture is – for the President, for Congress, for your department, for your branch or particular component and for your organization.

a. Ensure you know how your specific unit fits in, and what value it adds to the higher-levels of government.

b. Ensure you know how you fit in and always look for ways to be value-added.

8. Learn about decision-making, how the best leaders do it and integrate that into your daily management efforts.

a. Don’t be risk averse, but don’t be rash and reckless either. Get as much information as you can and make decisions based on best use of risk management and intelligent techniques.

b. Reading about leaders helps you learn about leadership style, decision-making and creating vision for organizations.

9. Seek out and ask for joint/interagency assignments.

a. As government gets more complex, leaders seek out those who can help bridge the gaps between agencies and build and maintain relationships with them.

b. The nature of war/combat as well as major humanitarian and disaster response operations (both domestically and internationally) require interagency cooperation and support. Learn about these missions and see if you can participate and gain experience in them.

10. Seek out mentors and learn from those in leadership positions.

a. Expand your network as much as you can.

b. Stay in touch with past bosses and others you admire.

c. Read key speeches and congressional testimony.

d. Ask people you admire to mentor you. Expect some to do a great job and others to just go through the motions. Drop those who aren’t committed to helping you.

On the question of Bob’s opinion of millennials and their increased mobility through their careers, he stated that this is great for personal development as it requires you to be agile and adaptable. On the question of the SDGs and what it means for the world at this point, Bob noted that it is an overdue response to addressing capacity development instead of infrastructure. An example he gave was in Afghanistan, the USAID programme build a school for a local community. However, the sustainability of this project was not considered or consulted with that community and on follow up, the community did not use the school because there was no money to pay for its operational costs and the community did not know what to do with it. Another example in Afghanistan was where Japan donated a few ambulances however, the writing in the vehicles were all in Japanese and there was no training given to the local communities on how to maintain them. Bob went on to discuss the idea behind the SDGs was this need for sustainability in order to address donor fatigue. Understanding financials is an important skill in the development landscape as well. A final tip was to note that the work is not always about paid travel – it can be unglamourous and highly politicized.

Dr. Pirnia spoke about his journey from childhood. A young Iranian born into a revolution, he had a fascination with conflict from a young age. His family moved to Canada as refugees whilst he was still young where he learned French, did a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Anthropology and then a Master Degree in Political Science. He later moved into doing field work under the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). After a near death experience, he was given an opportunity to work in New Zealand and has been here since. He has worked with the Waitangi Tribunal and has recently completed his PhD.

Dr. Pirnia stressed the importance of travel and critiquing how you “embed” yourself in different places. The driver here, he comments, is to seek to understand; the culture, peoples and places that you travel to. He also noted that it is good to have a broad range of experiences and also to be prepared for the winters that will come in a career geared towards international development. 

Danielle Kerchmar