Performance, Potential, and Promotion… Oh My!

How can you achieve your full potential in your federal career? The author provides some inspirational advice.

By this point we’ve all figured out that promotions are based on lots of things beyond past performance. There’s time-in-grade, networking, and, to be honest, sometimes there’s also a little bit of luck.

But what can you do to get that luck flowing your direction a little more?

In the early stages of your government career, it is true, promotions tend to be largely based on performance. However, as you approach the more senior levels, suddenly past performance takes a back seat to growth potential.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a lack-luster performer is not the way to demonstrate that there is more you could be doing. But if you are investing your time and energy to read articles on enhancing your leadership and professional growth, lack of initiative and capability is probably not your issue.

What is Your Potential?

So let’s talk about this “potential” thing.

As humans in the professional world, there is a natural tendency to define ourselves by past accomplishments then wait for someone else to see us in our next highest iteration before we begin to identify ourselves as that.

The problem here is not that we claim our past accomplishments, but rather that we LIMIT ourselves to them until someone else bequeaths us the new identity or new challenge. 

And things just go downhill from there…someone else gives us the “wrong” new identity, or maybe they give us the “right” identity, but now we’re playing catch-up to grow into it, or maybe – and this is the most common — they never even see us at all and everything grinds to a halt.

The career bogs down, the passion drains out, and the internal pressure builds as part of you is silently screaming, “I know I’m better than this! What happened?!?”

Achieving Your Full Potential

Now for some good news: The key to turning on your full potential is in your hands, AND it happens in an instant. It all depends on how YOU identify YOURSELF.

When I say, “identify yourself,” I mean that very literally. How do you speak about yourself to yourself and to others?

Let me give you an example, as I was transitioning into my role as CEO of a thriving coaching practice (my dream job, by the way), I was attending vendor fairs, speaking on stages, and attending networking events. One day I was feeling particularly off-kilter because I’d just come out of a challenging (albeit awesome) client session and rushed to get to a networking event in time. 

As I stood up at the event to introduce myself, what I heard come out of my mouth was, “I am a RETIRED CIA case officer and FORMER first Chief Security Officer for a global live entertainment company…blah blah blah.”

Bearing in mind that I am a coach and helping people (specifically government employees) step into the next greatest version of themselves is what I do, I was stunned to hear myself. I was identifying myself by past accomplishments as opposed to embodying my present and future role. I was essentially saying I have a past, but no present, and no future. OUCH!

To make matters worse, as I reflected on the incident while driving home, I realized I was making decisions and taking (or not taking) specific actions in my business AS IF I were the retired, former, past version of me as opposed to making decisions and taking actions as the CEO that I have become.

Applying to Your Federal Career

So how does this apply to your government job?

Let’s say you are a line employee working on a team and you’ve been assigned a task or project that really doesn’t light you up. (Because we all know that even in the most awesome job, there will be one of those occasionally.) 

Notice how you currently approach this task. As a line employee at GS-fill in the blank level, what kinds of thoughts go through your head? What do you say to your teammates about the project? How do you get yourself to take action toward the completion of that project?

There are no right or wrong answers here. There is also NO assumption that you weren’t already doing a great job from the perspective of your old identity. Simply notice yourself. 

Now imagine that you are in exactly the same situation with the same people and the same uninspiring task or project in front of you. But this time, imagine that the next highest version of you is in the role. (What’s the next highest version? You decide. Maybe it’s the next GS grade you aspire to. Maybe it’s the position title that’s driving you. Maybe it’s a corporate executive role.) How would THAT person approach this project? How would THAT person react to the current you? How would that person speak of themselves? This project? 

This is the first step to embodying your new identity. (In my old spy days we called this embodiment “living your cover”.) It’s also the first step in demonstrating your potential. Curiously, you may or may not actually DO anything differently. But you are BEING different. And that changes everything.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.