Virginia Hill is president of Young Government Leaders, an organization that works to build a community of leadership for young public servants across the country. As her day job, Hill is the coordinator for the Presidential Management Fellows program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hill spoke about attracting young people to government and their roles as future leaders with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. What motivated you to pursue a career in public service?
A. I started as a social worker in Louisiana. About half way through my final year in graduate school, I realized that my talents might lie elsewhere. I knew I wanted to help people, so I started exploring other career paths. I applied to the Presidential Management Fellows program in 2007 and was lucky enough to be accepted. I had the opportunity to experience several different career fields and that opened my eyes to all the potential in government.
Q. What have you learned about leadership as an employee at NIH?
A. I’ve learned that there is no one-size-fits-all leader. I’ve seen so many people succeed in leadership regardless of their personality or background. Anyone can succeed in leadership if they care about the mission and care about their employees. Some of the best leaders I have observed really understand the motivations of their employees.
Q. What are your priorities as the president of Young Government Leaders?
A. Our priorities map to the issues we see in government. The first is knowledge management and training the next generation of leaders. To help do that, we have a mentoring program with the Senior Executive Association. That’s an opportunity for our members to get exposure to senior executives with whom they may never have crossed paths.
We’re also looking at opportunities for Generation X to mentor Generation Y. In addition, we’re starting YGL University to extend opportunities for training to our members across the country, in areas where they may not have access to as many agencies or as many employees to foster training and development events. We also are focused on engaging more young federal, state and local employees through the growth of our local chapters. We have a strong chapter network right now in several major cities. Chapters create a network of young public servants who can learn from and motivate each other through social, professional development and volunteer events.
Q. What do you think federal managers can do to better engage and energize young federal employees?
A. Ask your young employees about their motivations, the reasons they are in government service and their long-term goals. With young feds, I think we can expect career movement. They may not necessarily climb the ladder at the same agency, but they may still stay in public service. I think that is a great way to redefine retention. Managers can listen to their employees and act on what they hear. Mapping quality work assignments or substantive job-shadowing opportunities to the goals of young employees can make them feel engaged. That’s not easy to do, but it would be a worthwhile investment by managers and supervisors.
How can federal leaders overcome the obstacles associated with attracting recent college graduates to public service?
A. There are two major obstacles: piquing the interest of young people and helping them get into government. We have an interesting dilemma because federal government work is exciting and intimidating, but also has a reputation for slow-moving bureaucracy. We have to dispel that latter myth and show the next generation what it’s like to work in public service. I think that obstacle is being addressed by agency employees acting as ambassadors to the students and prospective employees.
Secondly, we have to help young people get into government. Applying can be daunting and time consuming. We want to help them get their foot in the door. The Pathways Programs and other internship and fellowship programs have helped, as has hiring reform.
Q. What advice do you have for emerging federal leaders on how they can be most effective?
A. Start somewhere. Looking for the perfect job or the perfect salary right off the bat is potentially a barrier. Get your foot in the door and learn as much as you can. Be a sponge. Also, pick your battles. I believe that all employees can make a positive change, but you can’t change everything. You have to choose where to invest your energy and your professional capital. You can choose your attitude. You can choose to stay positive and to stay committed to the mission regardless of things that are out of your control, including sequestration and other things that may come down the pike. A drive to serve is one of the strengths of this generation, so it’s important for young feds to be patient but determined.