“Crabbed age and youth cannot live together,” Shakespeare wrote.
The “generation gap” isn’t a new phenomenon. So how are Generations X and Y doing in the public service?
We’ve seen various dire predictions and numerous prescriptions from experts who study these things, but have heard very little from the people involved. What do young professionals think of public service? Why did they join? What needs to be improved? We interviewed several young public servants, from across the country, to get their advice, and learn who they are. Here is a profile of some of them, and an integration of what they and others have to say.
Teplova, age 30, came as a student from Russia, obtained a Ph.D. in public policy from Carleton University, has published or co-published several papers, and is multi-lingual. Even with that profile, it took her a year and a half to get permanent status. Hired as a junior analyst in the values and ethics sector, she is already a senior analyst, supervising junior analysts. Her job is to work with departments to assess their values and ethics performance, through designing tools to help diagnosis and improvement, and to support workplace wellbeing.
She joined the public service because it provides an opportunity to follow ideas through: do the research, build the evidence-based policy, then implement it and see the changes. She wants an opportunity to make a difference, and appreciates the potential to work with people from a diversity of professional backgrounds and to have a variety of career path options. “I like the people I work with. Contrary to the media images, I find the level of honesty, integrity, hard work, dedication and quality very impressive.” Work/life balance is not a problem: “I am able to concentrate outside of work on things I enjoy doing, spending time with my son, teaching and writing.”
She’s preparing for the transition into management because “you can make more of a difference higher up in an organization, working with a team.” One of her best learning experiences has been when executives have taken her to management meetings, where she sits as an observer. “You can’t learn this stuff in school,” she’s found. Another is stretch assignments. She networks, seeking advice from several mentors. And she studies others: “Those that frustrate me, I try to avoid those behaviours. Those that inspire me, I try to model those things.”
Her advice for busy executives: “Find out what makes each young professional tick, why they are in public service, how you can fully engage them. Don’t treat us as a homogeneous group, we have differences, how do each of us want to contribute?”
“Those who are not quickly given responsibility and stretch assignments may not become engaged in their work. Development isn’t about the promotions, but the opportunity to contribute more. I believe in learning by doing, but we also need leadership development, presentation skills, and how to handle difficult conversations.”
Both Cuenco’s parents were public servants, but he took an international business degree, seeking fame and fortune. Age 25, he is featured in Made In Canada Leadership, for his leadership in the NGO sector. He is quoted there: “Becoming an effective leader is like building a house. You start with the foundations and add on progressively. The basis of my leadership not only rests on my own choices, but stands on the shoulders of people who came before me. My parents passed down values and ideals to me, forming a leadership chain that I will continue with my children and others.”
He joined the public service because, on a Junior Team Canada mission to China, he met the Ambassador, and decided Foreign Affairs and International Trade sounded interesting – besides, they were supportive of him pursuing a master’s degree, which his private sector employer wasn’t. It fit with his passion to be involved in improving things, an individual as part of the whole. His work/life balance includes being involved in the community, where he volunteers with the Canada-Philippines Business Association. In his year at DFAIT he has worked on investment marketing research, and trade negotiations.
His advice to managers: “The ‘don’t trust’ dynamic is changing, management is being forced to trust young people. Assign projects with value, so young professionals feel they are contributing.” He has seen colleagues who did not have management support jump ship. But for him, he sees many opportunities: “It is easy to move, and I’m appreciated, respected, and challenged.”
“Performance feedback should be two-way, but don’t leave it hanging,” he advises, “When you get feedback, follow up on it.” While developmental programs are great, he cautions against ignoring those not in the programs – everyone needs developmental opportunities.
Centofanti, fluently trilingual, began work at 16 under the Federal Student Work Employment Program. At 23, she continues to go to school full time (B.Comm) while working full time in the summers and 20 hours a week in the school year. We caught her for the photo shoot dashing from office to classroom.
Her mother was a public servant. The concept of a generation gap doesn’t fit well: “My parents are boomers, we get along well. There is a misconception of a generation gap – we come from a similar school of thought, we both value hard work, honesty, thinking of others, caring, being responsible, giving. We know the importance of close-knit family (from our Italian-Canadian roots). We enjoy travel, diversity, and multicultural neighbourhoods.”
She joined the public service because her early experiences were positive. She saw vast opportunities, both for herself and to serve the people of Canada. So far, “I’ve really enjoyed it – more than most. My father taught me to learn from experience, to improve things, and that even bad experiences can be learned from.” (Frustration tolerance may be a key survival skill – it was frequently mentioned by interviewees).
With the leadership and talent management section of the Accelerated Executive Development Program, part of her work has been researching intergenerational issues to examine stereotypes, differences, and similarities. She represents the agency’s Youth Network at Senior Management Committee meetings. She’s still preparing for her career: “University is more theoretical, so I need on-the-job training, to get involved. For example, observing executives at their work, interviewing them, job shadowing, sitting in on senior management committee as a young professionals’ representative.”
She thinks young people can advance to management positions, if you “use open communication, contribute to the relationships within your team, not just contribute to the task. Reach for and earn things. Government doesn’t come easily.”
Centofanti, like her colleagues, is frustrated with the public perception that this is easy work.
Her advice to managers: “Be open minded. We’re more competent than you think. Give young people respect, give them a chance, talk with them, let them know what you expect. Clear expectations and open communication are key –