Monday, March 14, 2011

Government’s Critically Important “Employer Brand”

My wise aunt S., an occasional matchmaker and full-time educational consultant, did personal branding long before there even existed such a concept. She knew how women could best present themselves and succeed.


On balancing career and family she often repeated the well-known saying:


“You can have it all – just not at the same time.”


I was a kid. What did I know back then? She had ice cream, she had her own cosmetology chair (red leather, yes, the kind they have in the beauty salons), and she had a lot of books on holistic healing. Which I still think is so cool. So I poured on the Hershey’s Syrup, dumped in some walnuts, mixed it around and listened.


To this day, I can still see her in her living room with the lavender walls and open wooden bookshelves. I can still hear her get-to-the-point tone. 

S. loved me like a mother but boy could she sting like a bee when she opened up her mouth. (Think Joan Rivers on “Fashion Police.")

“A red prairie skirt? I don’t care how much it cost! What were you THINKING?”


Tradeoffs are a reality. Nobody, nobody in this world achieves anything without making them. And you cannot expect to have it all.


Even if you try to “have it all” at different times.


(If you eat the ice cream, you should probably forget the red prairie skirt.)


Most people recognize on some level that one must normally give up something in order to get something else. But the concept of “tradeoffs” just sounds really bad. So we are susceptible to marketers’ messages that we can somehow shortcut the rules.

  • Got a tough term paper to write and no time (or writing talent)? “Buy your essay here!”
  • Need to lose weight? You don’t have to diet – just “take this vitamin” or “get Spanx!”
  • Have too many items in your handbag? You don’t have to throw anything out – just “buy the miracle organizer!”

And so on.


That’s why it is nice to work for the government. We don’t do shortcuts. We do process. We believe in balance.


This is a good way to live and make a living. Aside from the fact that we get to work on important things that benefit the country, the fact that we all have off-duty lives is taken for granted. We don’t call it that negative word, “tradeoffs.” Instead, we make provisions for being human.


We call it, “Having a life.”


Balance is ingrained in our culture. More than once I’ve emailed someone about something after hours and gotten the “no answer” response in response, even though they probably read the message on Blackberry. Nobody wants to start that precedent unless it’s an emergency.


Sure no system is perfect. But government agencies understand balance. In branding language, it’s an “attribute they own.” This is realistic and healthy. Nobody can work 24 hours a day. Nobody even SHOULD work 24 hours a day. That just provides the illusion of productivity – not a real answer.


Children in particular are a wonderful blessing. They’re not a “tradeoff.” I love seeing both moms and dads nowadays walking into the office building, toddlers in tow, going to the daycare center. What an advance that I wish were available to all parents.


I remember as recently as the 1990s, when women had to “choose” between a serious job and full-time parenting. At that time, parenting was still mainly for women. The “choice” to stay home was only for privileged women who had money, of course – everybody else had to go out and earn it.


Back then, women were divided into those who “worked” (got paid) and those who “didn’t” (worked without pay, taking care of the kids). I remember it being extremely painful for me when I was a full-time wife, mom and doctoral student who didn’t make a dime and people asked me, “Do you work, dear?” And I had to say “Not OUTSIDE the home” because I couldn’t think of anything clever or funny to reply back.


My kids are older now. But I still like mommying. School forms, parent-teacher conferences, household errands, doctor’s appointments, and all that other good stuff. (Not chocolate chip cookies though. Because I can’t cook and I can’t eat them, either.)


I come from a long line of strong women who did it all and didn’t know any different. I don’t know if this is really true, but somebody told me that my grandmother, may she rest in peace, ran a real estate office while “Butch” the dog guarded my mother, aunts and uncles in a playpen.


(If you’re thinking that they should have called Child Protective Services, listen. It was the 1940s, OK? I know they wouldn’t put up with that today. But it was the age of Rosie the Riveter. As the poster said, “We can do it!”)


It’s not just work-family balance that the government supports. There is also diversity – of exterior things like skin color and religion and gender. And interior things, like opinion and personality. 

In government there is an understanding that we are all different kinds of animals and we each thrive in our own particular habitat. Me, I’m a creative introvert. I like to telecommute sometimes, my job allows me to do that, and I appreciate it. In return, I do better work.


In the government, there is also a comprehension that different people contribute different talents to the team, and that each one is worthwhile. 

For example, I am more likely to head out into uncharted waters and innovate. Others are skilled at transforming edgy ideas into mainstream practice. Still others are implementers, maintainers, cheerleaders and morale-booster. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something - that is really true.


Outside the government there is this tendency to want people who know, and can do, it all. Or at least, turn on a dime to get the very latest credential in the hottest new specialization. (Thus all the advertising people who feel useless because they don’t know how to code websites…as if there’s no room left in the business for actual thinking.)


Perhaps most important, in government there is a concept of balance between your rights as an individual, and your responsibilities to the government as an employer. There is an ethical code of conduct to which all federal employees are bound, as well as agency guidance. You can’t just do whatever you want, but then again the agency can’t trample all over your rights, either. There is a fairness and a structure to that. It is reassuring.


Everybody needs balance. Everybody makes tradeoffs, even if the word sounds bad. I broke two or three computers writing my dissertation. I maintained a completely inhuman schedule. My health suffered and I don’t think I was much good to the family. But that was the time to push. For better or for worse, I decided that was the time to finish it, and get it over with, once and for all.


If you think about it, even with the tradeoffs we make, we are so much better off than previous generations. They quit high school and worked two jobs so that we could get to a place where we have the luxury of choices like “graduate school or working.”


I have the luxury of time to reflect. I wouldn’t if I had a job that took all of my time away. This is a benefit of working for the government. For most people I know, real satisfaction comes from engagement with the world. From family, creativity, activism, religion, or even just a few minutes to reflect.


If you don’t have a concept of balance, then you end up missing out on (and messing up) everything that matters.


Amid all the debate about the value that public servants bring to the table, this is the one thing I would like to bring out: We have championed the value and the importance of balance.


While industry is in the business of results, and that is important and invaluable, government is in the business of process. We insist on maintaining a balance between the end result and the way we get there. We ought to value ourselves for sticking to our guns and maintaining that value in everything we do.


By insisting on balance, we legitimize it for others who do not work in the government. We have an impact on society. We serve others in this way. Even as we get more “private sector” in our thinking, it would be healthy if we stayed close to this value. For balance is a brand attribute that, properly managed, can truly take us to ever-higher levels of performance.



~All opinions (as always) are my own. With prayers for peace and healing~