I asked Jim to give us his thoughts as an experienced Forest Service line officer on advice for new employees from non-FS backgrounds. It gave me a great deal to think about (the opaque, complex and dynamic levels of perceived legitimacy within the Forest Service) and I hope it generates discussion and some more helpful advice to these individuals, as well as discussions on hospitality to those new folks from current employees.
I. What’s Happening?
With regard to the growing phenomenon of FS hiring leaders with little or no FS experience (DoD e.g.,), or more specifically, natural resource experience… Why? A couple thoughts:
1) significant attrition with large exodus of retirees has opened many senior positions, 2) FS is still viewed as an attractive agency with a great mission, 3) FS may be waking to the idea that “outsiders” might actually be good (best?) hires, 4) veteran’s preference, of course.
Prominent examples would be Chief Vickie Christiansen, with a background as AZ and WA State Forester, and Jim Hubbard, former CO State Forester, who joined FS as S&PF Deputy Chief, and is now USDA Undersecretary.
Sour grapes? These are mine… While serving as Deputy Chief for National Forests I had the privilege to work with Chris Wood, Chief Dombeck’s policy advisor (now Pres/CEO of Trout Unlimited) and Hilda Diaz-Soltero, then Associate Chief; both substantial people. Chris and Hilda brought a raw energy and passion unmatched by most career leaders, along with some notions that seriously challenged agency dogma (good for them). Chris and Hilda both got the cold shoulder. Rather than welcoming each with open arms and doing everything to help them succeed, I observed “antibody” behaviors that sought to wall them off and minimize their impact — some overt, most subtle. I felt embarrassed at times. I hope the FS is doing better at creating an exemplary workplace for all (in light of persistent sexual harassment and misconduct), but ESPECIALLY for newcomers. Would anybody feel good about arriving on a new job eager to do their best, only to be shunned or marginalized? That would be deplorable. Yet, I experienced this even as a career professional.
III. Advice to Newcomers
Here’s my sober counsel to newcomers, especially those selected for leadership positions:
* Rejoice! You got the job you applied for, which could well be the best job you’ve ever had. The land you are responsible for bristles with opportunity, challenge, and beauty. Most people you serve, in your office and nearby communities, love this land as much as you and really want you to succeed. Ask for their help and listen to their values.
* Create your own focus group. Solicit suggestions for 12 knowledgeable, reasonable citizens and invite them to a monthly ad hoc get together. Meet for a year and ask their help in clarifying issues and defining success.
*Quickly get acquainted with your land base and resource issues. Invite key agency staff and citizens out for a one-on-one day in the woods. Listen. Ask questions. Learn!!
*The agency likely has notable adversaries. Go to them. Listen. Build bridges where possible.
*You will encounter feelings of loneliness and being “other”. Don’t ignore this, it’s real. But don’t be overwhelmed. Cultivate relationships with folks with whom you can bare your soul. A good source are peers, other leaders you trust to give you good honest counsel.
I’m hoping other readers will have good suggestions or comments. I’d like to see the FS give each new employee. especially leaders, a “1-pager” of distilled wisdom in their starter kit.