We the Partnership

Four lessons that shaped my path to the Senior Executive Service

By James-Christian Blockwood
March 31, 2021 | Updated on August 5, 2021

Leaders must take responsibility for people, money and things—how they do it makes all the difference and distinguishes between less-than-great and great public servants.  I think back on my 15-year career as a civil servant, including in the Senior Executive Service, and am grateful for two things: the meaningful relationships I cultivated and the important lessons I learned. With a little planning and a whole lot of luck, these two factors helped me become a senior executive leader and will certainly continue to shape my professional journey. Here are four major lessons I learned about leadership and relationship-building over the course of my public service career.   

Work hard and plan for professional achievement. I rose from an entry-level position to a career senior executive within my first 10 years of working in government. I am often asked how I achieved such a feat so quickly. Though clichéd, my response is usually, “Hard work, prayer and perseverance.” But truthfully, there’s more to it. Not long ago, I was cleaning out some old files and came across a document titled, “My Executive Core Qualifications,” a one-page self-assessment of my experience and expertise I crafted just a few months into my civil service career. The document helped me establish a plan to grow and advance my career to become a member of the Senior Executive Service from the outset.  

Understand how to deal with disappointment, criticism and adversityWhile serving in government, I worked for—and with—outstanding members of our military who on many separate occasions reminded me that I should always strive to be better. Early in my career, I was not selected for a team-lead position for which I believed I was qualified and well-suited. Afterward, one of those outstanding military members told me, “You are a diamond in the making, but you are not there yet. You have yet to experience the kind of pressure needed to become a gem.” Those words were a revelation. They taught me that we may not view ourselves as others do, and that how you respond to disappointment, criticism and adversity is important. When I wasn’t selected for that position, I took on a less-than-positive attitude and wanted those around me to know that I was disappointed. Today, I better understand how responding the right way to setbacks can inform—and show others that you are ready to embrace—new opportunities. 

Value your (and others’) time—personally and professionally. “I couldn’t wake up and get to work on time.” Sadly, these were my own words overheard by someone in a leadership position. That person later offered me some advice: “Every decision is a choice, and every choice has a consequence.” It would be early, technically morning but still dark outside, yet that was no excuse. As a result of my choice—to arrive at work late—my colleague began picking me up every morning so I could get to the office on time. What followed was a lasting friendship, and a great deal of valuable guidance on why it is important to be early and honor other people’s time.

Lead a career (and life) that positively impacts othersDuring my time in government, I learned from one mentor who exhibited integrity and accountability, humility and humor, and competence and confidence. He knew the name of nearly every person in the organization—which had upward of 3,000 employees—appreciated cultural diversity, and embraced all leaders and the key issues they considered most valuable. This public servant taught me to lead by example and with purpose to impact others. I intend to take a similar approach as I continue my leadership journey. 

Everyone’s leadership path is different. There is no “right” path and no “better” journey. What you learn along the way and impart to others is most important. Below, I offer several recommendations on how you can grow into a senior executive leader, maybe as a member of the Senior Executive Service, in your organization:

  • Be open to all opportunities, even (or especially) those that no one else thinks they can do or wants. 
  • Know your values, share them widely and never compromise them. 
  • Plan for success, invest in yourself and self-reflect
  • Continually learn about yourself and others, both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Prioritize and work on your personal goals as much as your career.
  • Be a good person and aim to give more than you get.
  •  Learn from history and study the leader you aspire to be. 
  • And get to work on time.

Check out the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model for more lessons to help you in your public service career.


James-Christian Blockwood