I’ve spent the past year leading our agency’s Career Services function which falls under our Human Resource Directorate. I’m not an HR professional, but I volunteered to run the function because I wanted to learn something different while attempting to have a positive impact on as many agency employees as I possibly could. There have been many days (sometime weeks) when I wondered why would subject myself to so much frustration, political maneuvering and self-centered thinking. Before I got too far down that dark road, I’d have the joyful experience of seeing the right people promoted, great supervisors selflessly taking care of their troops and employees complimenting their career service representative for outstanding customer service. This roller coaster ride has been everything I volunteered for: a growth experience through which I’ve learned the intricacies of human resource work and why HR professionals become hard-hearted after too long in this field; improved my competencies in listening to understand, empathy and critical thinking; and I believe the team I’ve worked with has had a very positive impact on our colleagues across the agency.
During this experience, I’ve found myself focusing on one very specific aspect of leadership: decision-making. Part of my team’s responsibilities is running our hiring, promotion and assignment processes. Each of these decision-making processes are tremendous opportunities to make a decades-long investment in our national security mission while simultaneously fraught with the potential to pick a candidate who shines through the selection process only to become a public service parasite sucking up a salary without really contributing to the nation. (Before I continue, let me disabuse you of the prominently held notion that government servants are lazy, tax-eating bums. While I only have experience in the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, I can say that those types of employees are far outliers from the average committed civil servant.)
So how do you pick the best and the brightest when making such a significant investment? Some people insist interviews are the only way to really get to know a candidate. Others say you need to see the broader picture including resume, cover letter and interview. The more thorough assessors take all this information and add practical assessments such as critical thinking challenges, leadership labs and peer interaction exercises. Adding more and more aspects to the assessment process further refine the decision, but even with all that work we only get a snapshot of the candidate and won’t really know their true colors until they get into the job and start to unveil their protective mask donned to impress us. Yet, we often feel we have enough data to make an informed decision and select the force of the future. We convince ourselves that we know what we’re doing. We foolishly believe we are all good decision makers and can see patterns of behavior in short timeframes, but science has proven we are really poor decision makers when we don’t rely on as much data as possible to help guide us. When hiring prospective civil servants, the best approach is an internship over the course of multiple summers. This has been proven out at my agency and others.
If only we could force our politicians to serve internships so we could see their true colors before making our decision.