Managing your supervisor to boost your career prospects
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Managing your supervisor to boost your career prospects

Public servants can use the APS work-level standards systematically to gain their next promotion.

In every workplace, there are 50 ways to have a performance discussion. Some possibilities include ''tick and flick'', ''blame your subordinate'' and ''thoughtfully engaged''. Based on the trouble it's gone to since the Ahead of the Game blueprint was published in 2010, we can safely assume the Public Service Commission would rather that public servants take performance discussions seriously.

If you are an executive level or APS level official, or you supervise one, you can no longer afford to be complacent about managing your performance or your teams. In an era of downsizing, the senior executive service, itself threatened with sackings, is under pressure to trim the fat from the public service pork by increasing agencies' management capability. Supervisors will be increasingly expected to coach staff, to bring underperformers up to scratch, and to retain high performers by managing them well. In terms of your own performance, promotions will be harder to get. That means you need to upskill yourself, and your supervisor, on the commission's work-level standards so you can demonstrate your hard-earned capability in language that any interview panel will understand; and so you can enlist your supervisor to help you reach your longer-term aspirations.

Illustration: Michael Fitzjames

Illustration: Michael Fitzjames

The cardinal error of not having the work-level standards within easy reach in your workspace or office is easily remedied: print them out from the Public Service Commission's website. Referring to them often will help you understand how you are performing against your own level, and give you a sense of how you can grow towards the level above you in each of the five key characteristics (leadership and accountability; stakeholder management; management diversity and span; job context and environment; and independence and decision-making).

For example, if you are an EL1 looking for promotion (and, in my experience, an EL1 not looking for promotion is a rare bird), you can self-assess against the EL1 standards; then take the further step of beginning an ongoing dialogue with your supervisor about where you are not only in your current role and level but the kinds of roles and tasks you are aiming for in the longer term.

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If you don't have a weekly or fortnightly meeting with your supervisor, make one. And be assertive about showing up or rescheduling it if your supervisor gets into the habit of breaking your appointment. (Note to supervisors: your team, and each of your direct reports, needs you to prioritise a meeting with them at least every two weeks, and preferably weekly).

So here's how your periodic meeting might look: you take out your task list, track your progress and update your supervisor. You also reach for the work-level standards that are prominently displayed on your desk, and map any task that has the potential to take your career in a direction that matters to you within that framework.

For example, let's say you are currently running an interdepartmental committee. Your supervisor has a view that EL1s don't speak at interdepartmental meetings unless prompted, and (in part because she has never seen you speak at an IDC) has taken the view that you do not have this capability. Your longer-term aspiration, however, is to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of the federal government, and you would like to test the waters by representing your agency to make a step towards that dream.

In negotiating for more scope in your role, you can refer to the EL1 standard, which authorises you to represent the agency at cross-agency meetings, and ask for your supervisor's support and feedback in beginning to take part more actively. You can also be transparent about your longer-term vision for your career, and enlist your supervisor's support as a coach to help you develop the capability to move in that direction.

In the current environment, supervisors are increasingly asked to coach staff.

So what does it mean to coach staff? I'll talk more about it in my next article, however, in brief, it means a greater emphasis on growing staff towards optimal performance. It also means a supervisor must be prepared to support a staff member to develop in areas that the staff member identifies.

If you were looking for promotion and wanted to take it further, the EL2 language around ''stakeholder skills'' adds in ''communicating the strategic direction and vision of the agency''. At your weekly discussion, you could ask your supervisor to coach you in how to communicate the strategic direction of the agency, to give you opportunities to do so, and to provide feedback afterwards. In this way, you are inviting your manager to engage with you as a coach.

If your supervisor is resistant to building a particular capability, seek out mentoring or training in that capability from elsewhere in your organisation, or find a way to learn it in a volunteer capacity, such as on an NGO board. Training opportunities in the Australian Public Service are often better than in the private sector. While you need to be prepared for a dry spell until the current fiscal environment eases, be persistent about seeking training - especially towards the end of the fiscal year, when funding can unexpectedly become available as government agencies try to spend unallocated funds in their training budgets.

If the problem is broader and your supervisor either doesn't see your potential or won't help you realise it, you may need to keep your eyes peeled for a role that comes with a supervisor committed to you and to taking a coaching approach to supervision.

A transparent, ongoing discussion with your supervisor about how your performance is tracking against the work-level standards is a powerful way to make your supervisor your key ally in career progression. You have a much higher stake in any discussion with your supervisor than they do. The work-level standards will give you a solid foundation for building the kind of discussions that will keep you on track for doing well at work, now and in future.

Jacqueline Jago is a certified executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting.