Civil service leaders share the career tips that helped them up the ladder

By on 22/12/2020 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Passing on the baton: leaders share their best careers advice. Credit: Braden Collum/Unsplash

There’s an awful lot of career advice around – but how to know whether it’s any good? We asked 12 leading national officials to name the tips they found most useful in their own journey to the top. After all, it worked for them: we hope you find their answers helpful in the year to come

Sometimes we all need some advice – perhaps on how to support colleagues, understand your next career move, dig yourself out of a professional rut or boost your self-confidence.

So we asked civil service leaders around the world to share the best careers advice they’ve ever received. Feel free to add your best insights by posting a comment or emailing us at [email protected].

Leadership lessons

Jeffrey Schalagenhauf

“Step up to the plate. Always give your best and most honest advice, even when there may be a perceived risk in doing so. When you manage people, delegate and empower them. You will never be better than the team you have at your side.”
Jeffrey Schlagenhauf, deputy secretary-general, OECD

“The best piece of career advice that I have been given is a simple truth about managing people: ‘It is impossible to lead people, who don’t trust you.’”
Peter Pogačar, director general, Public Sector Directorate, Ministry of Public Administration, Slovenia

“It is not career advice per se, but this leadership maxim has resonated strongly with me through the years: ‘People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’ It is a reminder that as leaders, we must focus on our people, care for them and put them first if we are to galvanise and work with them towards a common goal. Great ambitions are realised, not by machines and algorithms, but by people.”
Leo Yip, head of the Singapore Civil Service 

“Understand the ecosystem and assess the competencies and calibre of your team before trying to bring about structural changes. Our effort and commitment will not yield results unless we work in partnership with the political executive.”
Dr Sanjeev Chopra, director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India

Working life

“I have had a few mentors in my career, and I have gained valuable insights from all of them. The career advice that most influences me is: ‘Listen to others but trust your instinct and decide for yourself.’ Ultimately, you instinctively know what works best for you.”
Mario Cutajar, cabinet secretary and civil service head, Malta

Dr Iris Nehemia

“Never assume the organisation will patronise you and be responsible for your development. Always look for ways to enrich your expertise with new insights and additional knowledge in various fields.”
Dr Iris Nehemia, division head of strategic planning and policy, Office of the Prime Minister, Israel

“Do what you love, give it your all, and (almost) everything else will look after itself.”
Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary governance, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia

“‘If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are… a different game you should play.’ – Yoda”
Jürgen Müller, director of digital policy at the Federal Chancellery, Germany

Always be prepared for a worst-case scenario.“
Taimar Peterkop, secretary of state, Republic of Estonia

Tatiana Janecková

“I received one piece of advice 10 years ago. At the time, I didn’t see it as career advice, but I have remembered it since then. Someone said: ‘Tatiana, if you are too honest in politics, you will not get that far.’

“My answer was: ‘I cannot do otherwise, it´s me.’ Despite this advice, I have been working in public administration for 14 years, in the position of secretary general for eight years, during the governments of three prime ministers.”
Tatiana Janecková, secretary general, The Civil Service Office, The Slovak Republic

“When someone hires you, they take a stake in your ongoing success. If you fail, then they will equally share in that failure. Therefore don’t treat your boss as the taskmaster who is looking to catch you out, but rather as the person who has the most direct interest in enabling your achievement and future career.”
Hannah Cameron, deputy commissioner, strategy and policy, Public Service Commission, New Zealand

“The best piece of career advice I’ve been given is that innovation is a continuous process that adds new elements for improvements. Innovation improves the management, leadership and production of systems by making small improvements to all processes all the time.”
H.E. Win Thein, chairman of the Union Civil Service Board, Myanmar

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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