Part of the reason why I wrote my book – Winners Don’t Cheat – is because I wanted to write to myself ten years ago. This was a time when I was turning around a ‘slow start’ out of high school, slowly improving my studies as part of an international relations degree, and thinking more about my career and building skills.
In a similar theme of reflection, I thought I’d share some advice that, looking back to my early years in the Commonwealth public service, would’ve helped me get off to a better start. Landing your first proper job is certainly a time of achievement. And it’s nice to be able to finally get your foot in the door. But it’s also a time when you’re relatively low on skills and you discover something important – knowing how much you don’t know.
The tips below helped me as a relatively junior public servant in a range of settings – from drafting national security policy briefs for Australian Prime Ministers to creating coaching presentations for Fijian swim coaches as part of the Australian aid program.
Indeed, these aren’t just tips that apply to young public servants but can be adopted by any professional, in any sector and, dare I say, at any age. Even now, a decade into my career as a young professional, I always remind myself of these habits and, perhaps most importantly, continue to use them to learn.
- Get acquainted with basic office fundamentals. I know what you’re thinking – this is an intensely boring piece of advice to start with. When I thought about life as a policy adviser I didn’t think these skills would be important. But learning how to use scheduling assistant, booking meeting rooms and how Microsoft Outlook actually works – things you can even do now – are basic skills that’ll make you much more valuable to your supervisor and your team. These are skills I wish I had when I hit the ground running at the start of my professional life.
- Keep at least one list and stay vigilant. In fact, what worked for me was keeping three lists – work tasks; non-work tasks; and a home list. This is because my mind kept skipping to other things – buy milk, send email to friend, pay bill – while trying to focus on work. If the thought emerged I’d put it on the appropriate list and keep going with work. Like most, I enjoy putting lines through tasks and ‘getting it done’. You’ll find that completing tasks and adding value to your team will motivate you to keep persisting with more work.
- We’re all (sort of) Michael Jordans. When I first started in the public service I was impressed at how often I thought my directors or executives hit the right notes in their work. But I rarely realised how many times they also got it wrong. Many often say that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time but he also missed a staggering 9,000 shots. While my workplace wasn’t the NBA, and many of my supervisors weren’t much over 5 foot, they’ve followed the same trajectory in getting good at their jobs.(A) If you dig deeper with your supervisors, or anyone you look up to, you’ll find they got it wrong even more times when they were your age. Hence experience, and actually learning from your mistakes, is so valuable in making the right calls. “Good judgment comes from experience,” as the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell reminds us, “and experience comes from bad judgment.”
- Even the most senior have done the menial tasks. I can recall a few late nights at Canberra’s Parliament House being stationed outside the Cabinet Room to assist official note takers editing Cabinet Minutes. My other task, however, was to help with kitchen duties, which left me with the odd and rather ranging responsibilities of emptying the Treasurer or Prime Minister’s dinner plate and then racing back into our small side office to continue editing sensitive Cabinet Minutes. I can remember thinking there wouldn’t be too many jobs in the country that were this contrasting. Some would’ve been offended by the latter parts of these tasks but I enjoyed it.Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, when starting out as a young public servant, recently wrote of the “essential skills for survival at the absolute bottom of the departmental food chain; photocopying, collation and, on a really exciting day, mechanically numbering cabinet submissions.” If you do these tasks with a smile on your face, too, it’ll arguably be more important in the long-term than the quality of your work.
- Give yourself feedback. Feel like you’ve challenged yourself in something? Then quickly write it down. Feel like you could’ve done better? Also write it down, including what you could’ve done better, and revisit it the next day. This forms part of what world-class performers, from musicians to fighter pilots, call ‘deliberate practice’. You don’t need to be a world-beater to apply such tools to your own capabilities as an individual. Over time, it’s pretty neat how these small feedback loops can help you in creating constructive confidence.
- Be deliberate and specific in your emails, correspondence and briefs. ‘This impacts’, for example, should read ‘the Minister’s decision impacts’ or ‘the Strategy impacts’. There are so many small tips like this that you can follow to avoid being careless with your writing. Mimicking also helps. As I write in my book, “Get hold of good memos, letters, briefs, emails, invoices or business plans and try to mimic their coherence and layout.”
- Engage early. “Something that’s 70 per cent done and on time,” my first mentor told me, “is better than something that’s 100 per cent right but delivered late.” I never quite knew what he meant until I started to take on more responsibilities and work across agencies to tight deadlines. Even now, with tasks I don’t have much knowledge on, I complete a draft as early as possible with the aim of putting it in front of someone who has an idea of what the decision-maker wants. Engaging early will save you some serious anxiety when you’ve been asked to do something important in a short space of time.
- Seek help from a tough critic. Matt Latimer, a speechwriter for the former US President George W. Bush, wrote that his goal in the White House was to one day prepare a draft speech with no edits before passing onto the president. He finally nailed it but only after years of attempts getting this past his boss Karl Rove – an impeccably tough critic, whose red pen stencilled many of Latimer’s earlier drafts. When starting to get more confident in my written work I began to share it with people who I knew would be equally as tough. Exposing your work to critics can be hard. But good critics are good thinkers that will help you spot gaps, eliminate risks and sharpen your final product.
- Let people know what you’re doing. I’ve made a point of asking the people I’ve looked up to that I’ve worked with – what is the most important skill to have? The common answer has been ‘communication’. You’ll find a lot of your directors or supervisors are intensely busy, therefore, you need to sensibly make sure they’re aware of your work. It’ll ensure that you’re not just spending time on YouTube or working on the ‘home list’ (that’s of course if you aren’t!).
- Even the best sweat. Similar to point 3(a) above, you’ll be surprised how some people with unshakeable confidence and experience didn’t quite have the confidence when they were starting out in the workplace. This was the case with Donald Rumsfeld – former US Secretary of Defence, White House Chief of Staff, Congressman and Ambassador to NATO. “I felt like I was scrambling every day,” says Rumsfeld reflecting on his first office job working for a Congressman. “Almost every night I would go home with my stomach in knots.” It’s a nice remember that many accomplished people have been in the same position as you. The important thing is that they grew and continued to learn.
- It’s been done before. In government you’re rarely starting something brand new. There will always be previous work, or similar examples you can borrow, to produce a report, briefing note or other document to draw from. It’s important to find this out early by communicating with your colleagues rather than waste your time.
- Keep a hinterland. This was the advice that former British Prime Minister John Major said he would give to his predecessor, especially to avoid becoming too obsessed with work. Major certainly needed one. According to Jonathan Powell, Major spent 9am to 8pm each day in back to back meetings, followed by dinners and events. When you’re young you’re eager to prove your worth. But remember sometimes that things are a marathon and not a sprint (as I cover in my podcast with Enoch Li here).
- Don’t despair. There are times when you feel a small mistake is so costly your entire world might collapse because of it. Just remember another very useful pointer from Colin Powell who, in addition to serving as US Secretary of State, also commanded troops in combat – “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”
- Know you’re creating information for a decision. For steering groups, division heads, sections heads, deputy secretaries, directors-general. This is something that took me a while to learn but is a common thread at all levels of government I’ve worked. Does the decision maker really need to see this? Can this be resolved at a lower level? This is the essence of what the former Secretary of the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ian Watt called ‘the craft’.
- Know your calendar. Planning your time is something so basic but that took me a long time to properly absorb. Knowing your calendar means actually spacing out your work, anticipating what you need to get across, and knowing when deadlines are due.
- Remember who you work for. Most of these tips are about what you can do as an individual to get better in the workplace. But something I reminded myself, and still do, is that our whole system – especially the public service – pivots on people and public consent. We live in a democracy where citizens and, in turn, politicians ultimately set the tone. We might be unimpressed with many of them but politicians have, as former diplomat Phillip Flood writes, “the authority of the democratic contest.” One neat analogy I came across when I started my career – and one which has stayed with me – is from the late US President Ronald Reagan, who reflected in his farewell address, “We the people’ tell the government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. ‘We the people’ are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast.” This is as true in the United States as it is anywhere.
Sean Jacobs has worked at the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as a Senior Adviser for a Queensland State Minister and for the Lord Mayor of Brisbane. He is the author of Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian (Kindle version now only $4.99). In his spare time he consults on issues related to government and hosts The Jacobs Podcast.
 Kevin Rudd, Not For The Faint-Hearted: A Personal Reflection on Life, Politics and Purpose 1957-2007, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2017, 91.
 Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir, Sentinel, London, 2011, 57.
 Brian Michael Till, Conversations With Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011, 239
 Jonathan Powell, The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, The Bodley Head, London, 2012, 172.
 Phillip Flood, Dancing with Warriors: A Diplomatic Memoir, Arcadia, North Melbourne, 2011, 2.