Discussion: May 25, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

A reader says:

I took a government job knowing the culture was not to my liking. But they said the plan was to change the culture, and I’m part of that because I’m the only “non-insider” doing this job. (The one other person who was hired along with me was an internal transfer.) Neither of us has gotten any guidance. We’re on our own. When I tried to speak up a few times, I felt I was speaking a different language. Now a few months have passed and we’re finally getting a new boss. Should I try to adapt to this culture, or am I wasting my time?

Talk about a “state” of flux! Sounds like you’re a “cultural change” guinea pig… hired as part of a new “culture policy,” but everything seems to hinge on who this new boss is.

You’ve essentially been in limbo, and your “new job” is about to start when the new boss starts. No wonder you’re disenchanted.

Should this reader stay or go? Why or why not, and what are the good options?


  1. Background: 26 year Navy vet then 15 prior years working IT in the “real world.” As an 4 year IT contractor to DoD (full time, share an office and occupy a cube just like the GS’s) my experience is this: It ain’t gonna change.

    All I’ve seen here is more of the “same ole, same ole” no matter the supervisor. The entrenched hierarchy will only move like minded people into positions of leadership who they feel won’t threaten their own positions of authority (rock the boat). Until the dinosaurs in upper and middle management retire, it’ll stay the same.

    My dos centavos.

  2. “Disinchanted” can’t be faulted for taking a government jop in a time of economic distresss, but he should crub his enthusiasm for “change.”

    In the 19th century sociologist Max Weber laid out the challenges of “change agents” in bureucracies and concluded they would always fail.

    Change comes to government agencies from the outside in the form of new legislation, law suits and court rulings, and bad/good publicity in the news media.

  3. @Mayor Bongo: I agree that in this economic climate any job’s a good job (+/-).

    In my original post I should have added that “Disenchanted” either needs to adapt to the current climate (since my gut says things will stay as they are), prepare to ingest a lot of little purple pills or seek other gainful employment.

    Change within any US Government system moves at a glacial pace, if at all.

  4. My company, a leader in its field, was purchased by a competitor. I was a senior middle manager.

    Culture shock was an understatement: I was facing the Borg, and I knew that my assimilation was not going to be successful. I held on the best I could for as long as I could, but I was severed.

    I was, and still am, a dedicated change agent. A year later, I’m still looking for the organization that needs me and wants me.

    No matter what happens to you, stay confident, keep your contacts, and stay tuned to the headhunter.

  5. The operative issue is that the reader took on the government job knowing that the culture was not to his/her liking.

    It is important to find a job in a company with a brand and culture that matches one’s own; however, not following this success rule is understandable in difficult economic times when food has to be put on the table.

    The culture in a government bureaucracy will NEVER CHANGE — not until the department has to earn its own revenue and live within its means. As long as it runs on an endless supply of other peoples’ money (the taxpayers), it doesn’t have to be sharp. Meanwhile those at the top are oozing in bureaucratic mentality — that’s how they got to the top in the first place.

    The good news is that there is a great opportunity before the reader: keep the job for now; buckle down, do a good job and accept the culture on the surface; under the surface focus on where you want to go; after 4:30 p.m. (government workers always leave work on time) focus squarely on taking the courses, attending the events and making the contacts for your dream job.

  6. I work within a small department at a huge non-profit. Like John said: The culture ain’t gonna change. At least, not until the older generation with fossilized notions of leadership retire or are replaced. I just landed this job as well, and as a recent MBA grad all I can say is hang in there till the storm of the recession passes, make quality contacts, and make sure the bills are paid. This isn’t an easy time to make radical changes, for any organization – even with the best change agents (unless it is a bottom line turnaround strategy). Organizations are very conservative right now, holding back, especially in terms of change management (unless they’re putting people in the unemployment line).

    Govt. work can be fulfilling because of the sweeping impact it can have, but it can be a drag to idealists who don’t have the right connections and work experience.

  7. What’s not clear and would be interesting to know is who the “they” is that recruited this person and said with a straight face that the plan is to change the culture. And if the new boss was told the same thing and whether that person was internal or external.
    But we don’t know that.
    Everyone’s said well that forget the culture changing..and even if “they” actually think someone’s going to actually try & do it, you have to factor in government years are way longer than dog years.
    The choice is try/adapt or flight. Given the economy I’d stick around and not just knee jerk another bad idea (of taking a job you already know has a culture you don’t like):
    * to see what kind of new boss you get
    * to see if that person actually try to make changes for the better
    * if so attempts at culture changing could be enlightening whether it succeeds or fails
    * you will get govmt experience,
    * you can ride out the down economy
    * & as someone said you’ll likely have an environment where you can find time to plan your next adventure
    * and you may have funded educational opportunities
    * & you may surprise yourself by finding that it’s not as bad as you imagine and once you understand that culture, you may find pockets within where the pros outweigh the cons

  8. Assuming that the reader can stay in the job and preserve some semblence of sanity, I’d say look for something better and jump when it is found. I don’t think changes are going to come soon and there is quite a good chance that any changes coming may be worse as this was already a somewhat inhospitable culture for the reader in the first place. I’m not saying the reader is doomed, but it could be darn close to my mind.

  9. @MBA Vince

    There was a time when an MBA degree was greatly coveted. Over the past ten to fifteen years there has been a distinct and noticeable paradigm shift.

    Large organizations are brimming at the waist with middle-management MBA’s — all vying against one another, not wanting to let go of the idea of that top job they think they deserve.

    Here’s the reality:

    Some MBA’s are brilliant, logical and strategic thinkers — leaders loaded with guts. Most of those are in extremely high pressure financial services positions, where they are on the hook for billions of dollars a day.

    The only thing the rest of them are loaded with is arrogance. The older fossilized managers, with years of on-the-job and industry experience, listen to them in meetings and wonder what on earth they spent their time doing during the two years it took them to get the degree. They are a dime a dozen — too many of them, and they don’t have what it takes to land one of the few jobs at the top. They will for ever be in the middle, complaining about old managers with perceived fossilized notions of leadership.

    If you are a leader, it’s time for you to act: get out and lead.

  10. @Neva – okay, so what you say is certainly true. I have met my share of whippersnappers who were in the MBA program with little or zero experience. I imagine that during their first job – their analysis occasionally exasperated their managers. I’ve certainly been training myself to recognize good leadership. It happens all the time, but so does spotty leadership. I don’t see all older managers as “fossilized,” I was just pointing out that in a rigid hierarchy, like one finds in govt. work, the MO is often one of creating as much red tape as possible which can prevent great strides forward in the day-to-day work.

    It is true – degrees and certificates are over rated in our day, but it helps to know the vocabulary of a given field, which one acquires during their stint in school.

    I suppose the assumption is that I am an upstart who complains and doesn’t respect seasoned and veteran leadership in the field. Maybe, fifteen years ago or so before I knew better and lacked any sort of discrimination. It’s up to the individual to decide if their being led by the least among us or someone who is truly visionary.

    PS: Sure, the MBA Vince moniker does seem pretentious. I’ll live, learn, and change things up. Not sure if any of this helps the guinea pig question…

  11. One thing not mentioned is the level of authority the poster was given. I got an interview once, through a former colleague, for a company who said they wanted to streamline their processes. They flew me out first class, and talking to a variety of engineers I soon saw they really needed to. But I found at the end of the day that the job was a grunt engineer job (I was a manager at the time in my company) so I told them no thanks. I could just imagine how well the new guy was going to do herding six or seven cats with no authority.

    Now, it might be fun for the poster to just do it without fear of the consequences – it is a government job after all. But he or she must enjoy banging his head against the wall also. Who knows, something might change. But it might lead to some good stories after the economy improves and the poster can find a job that doesn’t ask the impossible. Who knows, the reader might be able to write a book about what doesn’t work.

  12. I have worked for the federal government for 10+ years and am a “first level supervisor”. I can tell you that the government agencies can change. Been through it successfully. It takes the right circumstances such as commitment from leadership and the ability to bring in the right people and eliminate the dead-weight. We were in a position to do that. Don’t know if the the organization of the reader who originally posed the question is in that position. Or if leadership is willing to fight to put the proper conditions in place. It takes hard work on the part of the supervisor and a willingness to stand up to the heat that will come down.

    Personally, I don’t know you can expect a major change by bringing in one new employee. It needs to start from leadership.

    It also isn’t clear what aspects of the culture need to be changed. Some aspects are deeply ingrained. Others aren’t. What are the goals of the change initiative?

  13. I took a government job knowing the culture was not to my liking. But they said the plan was to change the culture
    oh my… is the word gullable or stupid?

  14. This can happen even in the non-government space. I moved six months ago from a large public, financial services company to a smaller, private company – in a middle management position, but in a function that was identical to my earlier function. I knew that the culture was very different, and was even warned about the difficulty of adjusting to it – but was told that it was changing. I thought I’d take the chance any way – motivated partly by the money but mainly as a way to get out of the earlier dead-end job.

    Six months later, I am barely hanging on, desperately trying to find something else before I completely lose – both this job, and my sanity! The killer was taking the position as a contractor, without a very clearly defined role that was sufficiently empowered – and although there are some signs that the ‘culture’ is actually changing – that may be too late for me. My missteps in adjusting to the culture actually made more enemies than friends, and I can’t even say that I achieved anything significant in this period.

    ‘Culture’ is a huge issue that I think many people may tend to neglect, especially in this economy where any job is better than no job. But it should definitely be up there along with other factors like pay and location when you make a decision to take up a new job!

  15. @SP: Sounds like you swallowed a broken job. This might be useful: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/crocs13canalwater.htm

  16. @Nick – you are 100% correct – I still have the taste of canal water in my throat! I could say I wish I had read this earlier, but I may have still taken that broken job. Some lessons have to be learnt the hard way.

    Coincidentally, I wrote that comment on the day that things came to a head, and we finally decided to part ways. They paid me for 2 weeks of notice, and I was happy for the chance to regain my morale and self-respect elsewhere.

    Now – the hard work of job-hunting begins – starting with some of the stuff in your archives, I think, is a good idea!