Professional baseball manager Leo Durocher once said that “Nice guys finish last.”
Perhaps that is generally true but it isn’t always the case. Here’s one example.
The first time I heard of Pembina, North Dakota was from a young woman working in a Department of Labor office in downtown Washington, DC. There were no computers that would fit on less than one floor of a government building so I looked in an atlas to see where Pembina was located (and whether it really existed). It does exist; a town of about 600 people on the Canadian border. Most of the residents are descended from Norwegians or Germans. The Swedes and Irish descendants are a small minority. And it is cold there in the winter. Very cold.
Perhaps it was the cold winter weather or the limited opportunities of working in a small town that led her to Washington, DC. But for whatever reasons she may have had, she landed in the in the heart of the nation’s capitol working in a small office at an entry level position on the government’s general schedule.
She fit the classic favorable profile of a Midwesterner: Outgoing, friendly to everyone, willing to take on any work-related task and smart. Working in and around government culture in Washington, DC, it doesn’t take long for some to develop a veneer of sophistication—or at least the attitude of a person who has a lot of information. Even if one does not possess a lot of information, the right image makes people feel more important. If you don’t ask questions, people might think you are smart. And, when trying to get ahead in government, one doesn’t want to look like a person who is not “on the inside” with important office information. That is sometimes the approach taken by some who want to get ahead in government.
This young woman lacked that air of sophistication. She reflected an attitude probably more common at North Dakota State than Harvard, Yale or Cornell. She was more concerned with learning her job than what others thought of her. She always asked questions. I probably had a little more experience in the federal labor relations program than she did at that time but I learned a lot from being around her. She was always asking questions about the labor relations cases those of us in the office were assigned to investigate. She always smiled, laughed a lot and cajoled the supervisor and had no hesitation about directly engaging higher ranking employees who may have more information. She kept asking questions until she knew she understood the concept underlying a case.
To some, she may have appeared naive. Why would a supervisor promote a person who had to ask questions all the time? But her persistence paid off. Before long, she was being given harder, more complex cases. The answers she received to all those questions she kept asking were popping up in her case write-ups.
She started talking about going to law school. But, with a full-time job and with a young baby, it is unlikely anyone took her expression of interest in law school that seriously.
I left the job (which was now with the Federal Labor Relations Authority) and went to work at the Office of Personnel Management. I had not seen or heard about the young woman since leaving the FLRA shortly after it was created in the 1970’s.
In a routine search for information for news for FedSmith.com, a name popped up that sounded familiar. A woman was being nominated for a political appointment as General Counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. “Colleen Duffy” isn’t a common name combination. With the help of a computer database, it didn’t take long to figure out that the young woman from Pembina with a degree from North Dakota State and who worked in the entry level position at the Department of Labor had indeed gone to law school. And she used the degree. She compiled an impressive legal resume. She had gone back to work at the Department of Labor. The GS-5 entry level position was long behind her—she now had an appointment as an Employees’ Compensation Appeals Judge.
She obviously stayed in the Washington, DC area having graduated from George Mason University Law School in Northern Virginia and had worked on Capitol Hill and with the Justice Department using her law degree in various positions.
She was recently confirmed by the Senate to be the General Counsel of the FLRA. There is no mention of Pembina on the official bio for the FLRA General Counsel but I am certain Colleen Duffy Kiko is still inquisitive, still learning, and will still be asking the people working in the office a lot of hard, direct questions about their cases.
Sometimes nice guys do come out on top. The federal labor relations program is likely to be the beneficiary of her hard work and success.