Having come to the end of my eight week governance placement with Invest NI, it is now time to reflect on what I have experienced over the last two months, and what I think I have learned in the way of new skills, or how I’ve developed old ones.
It quickly became obvious to me that one of the most valuable skills you can learn and develop while working in the public sector is networking. The sheer volume of phone calls, emails, and face-to-face introductions that I was required to initiate during my first week alone was phenomenal. Far from decreasing as time went on, I made literally hundreds of contacts over the eight week period. It was stressed to me from the start that this was one of the fundamental steps in establishing a solid project base as good ideas, guidance and inspiration can come from anyone and anywhere. Sure enough, even though I received more assistance from my team than I ever could have hoped for, help also came from other more unlikely channels, which were created by my constant networking.
In my opinion, the key to good networking isn’t just confidence, but also having an easy-going manner that people can relate to. This is especially important on the phone, or in an email, when your facial expressions and body language aren’t expressed as part of the conversation. This places more importance on the words and phrases you choose, which out of context, might be wrongly perceived. Confidence wasn’t too much of a problem for me, but I did find myself proof reading my emails before sending them out and finding many things that needed to be re-written so as not to be misunderstood. Also, before each phone call, I found it helpful to write down absolutely everything to do with the person I was calling and the issue that I was calling them about. Often, the majority of this wouldn’t be mentioned during the conversation, but the things that did come up were sometimes surprising and being able to display a depth of knowledge was decisive in establishing a trusting relationship with the person on the other side of the phone.
Another skill that became valuable during my time with Invest NI was persistence. I would be the first to admit that I am not normally a very persistent person. Usually, I find it awkward to ask someone a question that I’ve asked them already, or to chase up an email or phone call that I may have made the week before. In the past I’ve assumed that they will get back to me in due course and that if I pester them, they will be less likely to react favourably to whatever my aim or pursuit might be. I’ve since discovered, however, that while at times this might indeed be the case, it is equally possible that they have simply forgotten to respond to the call or email, that they have been busy with something else, or that they are waiting for someone else to get back to them before they can contact me with a satisfactory reply. In these cases, a follow up isn’t necessarily viewed as being overzealous, but a welcome reminder to your case or query. Some contacts may even consider this sort of persistence a virtue in the governance sector and will therefore be more likely to continue dealing with you in the future.
Something else I became better at doing over the two month period was saying “No.” There have been times in my life when I have been eager to please and only to happy to nod my head in agreement to anything that is asked of me. I definitely started my placement like that, accepting lots of ideas, leads and projects, keen to show that I would be a hard working asset to the organisation. However, I soon realised that if I continued like that, I would have a desk overloaded with paperwork and very little promise of anything by way of a tangible project coming out of any of it. As time went on, saying “No” became much easier, and I was able to streamline the ideas already presented into those that I thought might work, and those that wouldn’t. This allowed me to focus on a few key leads that I could manage effectively in terms of time and resources.
Had I had longer with the organisation, I have no doubt I would have been able to juggle more projects simultaneously, but with only two months available, I felt that I did the best job with the time I had. Most of my early project leads came to nothing, but towards the end this allowed me to concentrate on the idea that had looked the most promising from the start. Unfortunately, even this didn’t work out as planned.
As mentioned above, my project wasn’t a complete success, which leads me on to another important skill that I was able to develop. My ability to deal with failure. I know that my project wasn’t a failure per se, but I still failed to meet my own expectations, which for me is at times just as bad. Fortunately, I have recently become much better at coping with these scenarios, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let my team down a little bit in not bringing something more tangible back to the table prior to my departure. I wanted to give them a reward for taking the risk of bringing me into their team and doing so much to help me during my time with them. I wanted them to look forward to the next student placed with them and perhaps even pity them slightly for having such big shoes to fill. But that’s just my vanity talking.
Being able to sit back now and look at the bigger picture, I am still proud of what I achieved. Furthermore, I was able to leave my project supervisor a few recommendations on what I felt might make the project a little bit easier in the future. All things considered, even if the only outcome of the placement was my development of the above skills and the experience of working within the governance sector, then I would still be in a fortunate position and much better off for having done it.
Freddie Harris is currently studying for a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His undergrad is in Tropical Environmental Science. Freddie writes about his current experiences as a sustainability student, giving others an insight into what is perhaps one of the most interdisciplinary subjects out there. He hopes to remain optimistic about the future!