I started my first ever professional job last year with the government. As the new intern straight out of university, no potential pedagogical moment was spared by colleagues and superiors to show me the ropes on how to succeed in the “real world.” What I found interesting, however, was how often the advice would be related to human relations. “You have to be good with people,” I was constantly told.

By the end of my first month, I was able to boil down all the counsel I had received into four themes: strong networking skills, managing stakeholders, being a team player, and the importance of collaboration—these were apparently the keys to success. But what do these mean? How do you build a network if you’re an intern with nothing to give? What does collaboration look like in a real project? To explore this challenge, I formed a study group with the other interns in my area. Together we devised a set of questionsrelated to the four themes above and, with the help of my manager, began setting up appointments with members of the Senior Manager Team (SMT). What better way to test our hypothesis than to ask some of the most successful people in our organization?

The following is a summary of what we learned. It should go without saying that we are by no means experts on this subject matter. Indeed, as interns we still have much to learn and experience.However, we interviewed some very successful, talented, and intelligent members of the public sector. It is our hope that by sharing this others may find some value in this work as well.

1) Strong networking skills

  • Adopt the attitude that networking is more than just a way to advance your career. This way you will be inclined to network with people who you know may not be able to help you get a job, but who may play a role in building your career in a different way.
  • Networks are helpful for when you are confronting a complex task and you need some advice or help. Networks are also useful to learn about what’s going on in other areas.
  • Attend events, retirement parties, and get involved with initiatives with other colleagues that are not directly related to your work.
  • Stay in touch with people. A good way is to share an interesting article that you know is of interest to them. Or, if you have notes from a class or a course that you recently took, share the notes.
  • During an informational interview or an informal coffee chat, ask: “Who else can I speak to if I want more info on…”
  • Reputation is everything. Be respectful and professional when talking to people. But also, make sure you produce great outcomes in the projects you’ve been assigned; your biggest calling card is that you produce quality work.

2) Stakeholder management

  • Transparency is crucial. Engage in sincere and honest dialogue.
  • Never pretend to know something that you don’t. If you don’t know something, say that you will find out and get back to them.
  • Keep your stakeholder informed throughout the communication process. Leaving them in the dark for too long can seriously hamper the rapport you’re trying to build.
  • Understand the stakeholder’s interest. Make sure you are informed about their work.
  • Commit to your word. If you promise to do something by a certain date, get it done. If you know you can’t for whatever reason, communicate that immediately.
  • Be approachable and personable. Stakeholders want to know they’re dealing with a human, not a robotic mouth-piece.

3) Be a team player

  • A self-starter who takes initiative without having to be told is highly sought after by management.
  • Colleagues and senior management alike prefer working with someone who is able to identify opportunities, asks thoughtful questions, takes responsibility for the task at hand, comes up with solutions without having to be asked, and checks back with the team for understanding.
  • Self-awareness is key. When you know your strengths, limitations, and impact on others, you will know how to best fit in the team you’re working with.
  • Many jobs in government (and outside) require a diverseset of skills as well as the ability to adapt to a variety of workplace situations. Try your best to develop as flexible a skill-set as possible.
  • Share recognition when you receive credit, even if you did most of the work.

4) Collaboration between people > strong organizational structure

  • Many organizations have rigid structures and an inflexible hierarchy. The good thing about this approach is that it will ensure that the work gets done regardless of whether or not there is a good deal of collaboration between the actors. A strong organizational structure clarifies roles, establishes clear lines of accountability, and keeps everyone on the same page as to who is responsible for what .
  • But, if you want the outcome or product to be done well, you need collaboration. Good collaboration engages people and ensures that what gets done is thorough, innovative, and has lasting impact.
  • There are small steps one can take to create the conditions that will increase the chances of effective collaboration occurring. These are:
    • all parties are involved in the agenda-setting from the outset;
    • each member feels that they have a stake in the outcome;
    • leadership engenders cooperation;
    • there is flexibility to course-correct during the process; and
    • each member knows the big picture and feels valued as a team-player.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that this list is simply a summary of what we learned. You may notice that many of the bullet points express very basic and simple points. Things like: transparency, honesty, accountability, professionalism, leadership, and initiative. But if it is one thing we learned from all our respondents, it is that these simple points get overlooked too often. My fellow interns and I have greatly benefited from this study group initiative during our orientation phase. I hope that the reader finds some value as well.

– APO Blog Team