Saturday, July 1, 2023

My Best Advice for Being a Staffer

It's hard to believe I only have a few months left in my current tour as a Staff Assistant (i.e., staffer) at State Department headquarters in Washington, DC. As people transfer to their next assignments, it seemed like a great time to do a post on the best advice I have for anyone else who wants to make the most of their time as a staffer.

So in no particular order, here's my best advice - much of which I received from others but some of which I came up with after my experience:

  • Read the paper. One of the principals in my office who worked as a staffer earlier in her career recommended that I not get too lost in the rote exercise of moving paper (i.e., the policy and administrative documents behind our foreign policy decision-making, information flows, and records) but that I actually take the time to read the paper. I have learned so much about U.S. foreign policy from reading the paper, and I've learned a lot about our principals by reading their edits and comments and debates in the documents.
  • Balance professional development with supporting the team. A DC tour is a great opportunity for networking, training, and attending professional events. At the same time, being a staffer means you're part of a staff team and the staffer work pretty much never stops. So whenever someone is off attending an event or doing training or even grabbing coffee with an outside colleague, the other staffers in the office have to ensure the work goes on. Either extreme is problematic, so I recommend striking a balance: you don't want to hang your coworkers out to dry because you're more focused on special projects and your own professional development than your main job, but you also don't want to miss the unique opportunities that a DC tour brings (especially if you're going back overseas immediately afterward).
  • Talk to other offices' staffers. So much of what's billed as "standard" for staffer work actually reflects the quirks of a specific office or even a specific principal. You can learn best practices and alternative ways of doing things from other staffers. Plus, you can commiserate about the pains of staffer life with those who will truly understand.
  • Try not to take things personally. As a staffer, you often function as a go-between and a messenger. You will frequently deliver bad news or task something that ruins somebody's day (or night or weekend). Sometimes, people will take out their frustration on you. Remember that it's not about you, and if the behavior is inappropriate or abusive or unprofessional then speak up and raise it with your chain of command if necessary. I once had three different people in a row yell at me on the phone. Thankfully, someone else in my office called out the third yeller and that person apologized to me, which I appreciated. One line I heard once and love is "I can understand why you're frustrated, but I cannot understand why you are speaking to me so rudely/unprofessionally/inappropriately."
  • Be flexible on duty and shift schedules. Stuff comes up all the time, whether it's personal needs or a last-minute trip where you need to travel and staff a principal. Sometimes, a colleague gets sick or has a family emergency and you need to cover for them. You can't be married to a duty and shift schedule, so you might as well roll with the punches.
  • Get to know each principal. Every principal has their own preferences, quirks, pluses, and minuses. Don't assume just because two principals have worked closely together for a long time or come from the same office that they will all be the same.
  • Learn when to say no. It's okay to say no sometimes. I said no to multiple travel opportunities because the timing did not work for my family or even my breastfeeding goals. I also eventually learned to say no to office housework (i.e., non-promotable tasks that need to get done) that was outside the scope of my job. Most find office housework an undesirable task that disproportionately falls to women (and especially women of color) in the modern workplace.
  • Go in with a strong sense of what you want out of the staffer gig. It really helps to have a plan for where you want the staffer job to take you, something you can compare your progress against and reassess as your time in the role goes on. Whether it's a future assignment, finding mentors and sponsors, building your peer network, or deepending your subject matter expertise, your goal will help guide your focus and expand your perspective beyond the day-to-day grind.
  • Don't expect people who haven't been a staffer to get it. There's a reason folks with staffer experience have a certain amount of solidarity with one another. Most people in the Department do not understand what a staffer does or how. Some will be curious and ask, but most won't. Don't expect people to get it, and assume the folks you meet have no idea what you do as a staffer. You might have to explain if people get confused and ask you to do something that is not your job or complain about you doing your job the way it's supposed to be done.

I obviously have just one person's perspective, but I'm sure other staffers can relate to what I said. It's a tough but interesting job, and now I know why there's some professional credit for all those who have served as a staffer.

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