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  • Writer's pictureJames Newport

Career Strategy: Rise or Specialise

Career strategy for maximal impact: two ends of the spectrum

When considering your route to impact, it can be difficult to know how to prioritise your current work, let alone know the best route to have impact over the next 5, 10, or 15+ years. However, there is sufficient evidence and reason to believe that the more experience and more influence you get, the higher your impact will be. This reality makes long-term career planning and strategy an investment that could pay dividends!

In the civil service, where the lines between expertise versus experience are often highly blurred, there is frequent discussion between optimising for a senior role versus optimising for a role in an impactful area. 

Unlike many other career paths - such as in medicine - where you undertake years of training in increasingly narrow specialisms in order to rise the ranks; the civil service frequently rewards general experience when it comes to promotions. It’s not unusual to speak to civil servants and hear that their deputy director or director has no previous experience in the policy area they are in charge of, but rather, has held an extensive number of cross-government roles. In comparison, the highest impact roles are less common and therefore opportunities are not only often harder to secure but result in fewer avenues to progress quickly to a senior position.

This post is not to comment on the efficacy of the civil service system, but rather to provide an overview of the benefits and potential strategies you can employ if you wish to focus on trying to secure a very senior role versus a role in a high impact area. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and there is good reason to believe both paths could ultimately lead to the same desired conclusion (a very senior role in a very high impact area). Nevertheless, they each come with different trade-offs, risks, and benefits, as discussed below.

Optimise for a very senior role

Most Director Generals or Permanent Secretaries are going to have parts of their portfolio which are particularly impactful. They can then focus on making sure those areas go as well as possible (hiring good people into them etc.). So if you fully optimise for seniority and rapidly getting promotions you will probably have to broaden the opportunities you are open to, potentially those with less impact potential, but if you are successful then you can focus your attention on the impactful parts of your portfolio. Whilst the next best person who would take the role may be similarly competent to you, the hope is that you’d be more intentional about spotting particularly impactful opportunities in your portfolio.

Early career strategy if optimising for seniority

If you desire to ultimately get to a senior position you’ll need to maximise your competitive advantage but also understand it may be a long game. Below are some ways to achieve this:

  • You can seek roles which get you exposed to the most high profile parts of government. To keep up to date on these, set up keyword/departmental job alerts on Civil Service Jobs for them. Areas of government likely to have a high density of such roles include:

    • Number 10

    • The collective agreement functions of Cabinet Office (e.g. Economic & Domestic Affairs Secretariat, National Security Secretariat)

    • Ministerial private offices

    • HMT roles in spending teams, or the economics, tax, and fiscal directorates

  • Seek roles which are high profile and are going to get you opportunities to do exciting new things which will be easy for you to talk about in future job applications. Examples could be:

  • Negotiating high profile international agreements

  • Secretariat for a high profile enquiry or task force

  • Areas which are undergoing a well publicised crisis

  • Once you get a high profile role, it’s likely to be easier to get promoted or get another such role role - which compounds the potential benefits. You’ll then need to work out what the optimal length of time to stay is before moving on/seeking a promotion.

Optimise for a role in an impactful area

Some teams within the civil service have the potential for orders of magnitude with more impact than others. We’ve all likely seen the analysis that the top 10% charities are 10 to 100 times more effective than the other 90% - it’s reasonable to assume there is a similar differential when it comes to problem areas and potential impact in the civil service. 

Often the most impactful areas aren’t the most high profile or sought after, so by building your career strategy around trying to join those then you can have a reasonable chance of securing them. However, targeting an impactful area is much easier the more junior the grade you’re willing to work at, as there are many more HEO roles working on an area than there are Deputy Directors. Once you get into an impactful policy area your opportunities for promotion will be much slower if you want to stay in it given there are fewer roles that are senior to you that allow you to stay in the same area.

Early career strategy if optimising for a role in an impactful area

If you desire to work in a high impact potential area then you’ll need to investigate where you could have the most impact and target your efforts to secure such roles. Below are some ways to achieve this:

  • Work out what cause areas you think are particularly impactful. See Impactful Government Career’s list of potentially high impact hub areas here.

  • If your cause areas line up with IGC’s, you can speak to the hub leader directly who can let you know the hiring landscape and which roles/departments are likely to be the most impactful. Even if they don’t line-up, IGC may still know of people working in the area so worth reaching out.

  • If they don’t you could try and do some research on LinkedIn to see if you can get a conversation with those working in the area (people are normally up for talking to people interested in their job). 

  • Set up Civil Service Job alerts for areas you would be interested in working in and apply for them when they come up. You can utilise the IGC jobs board to find current opportunities that may be of interest (noting this doesn’t include roles that are only open to existing civil servants).

  • Even if you can’t immediately get a role working in your preferred cause area you could seek to take a role in an adjacent team/in the wider department. Lots of job hiring isn’t done on Civil Service Jobs and instead is done via less formal Expressions of Interest typically circulated within a department or part of a department.

  • If you’re in the same department as the area you want to work in, be really intentional at reaching out to the hiring managers in that area to let them know of your interest. They may even be able to ‘level transfer’ you in without advertising the role at all.

  • Once you get a role in an impactful cause area, then it’s about trying to prioritise ruthlessly, get in on the most important projects, build relationships and have a counterfactual impact.


Often, seeking to have impact by optimising for a very senior role is quite a high variance strategy. There aren’t many senior roles, and even fewer that have direct influence over high impact potential issues. Competition for such roles can also be incredibly high, but if you can succeed in getting one then your opportunity for impact may be considerably higher than if you remained in a narrow area from the beginning. 

On the other hand, whilst optimising for a role in a high impact policy area may limit your path to more senior positions,  it does provide the opportunity to have significant impact from much earlier in your career and is less risky than the climb high strategy. If you’re competent and build deep expertise in the area you may end up having significant influence in supporting Ministers to make impactful decisions in your chosen high impact specialism. 

Ultimately, the choice of strategy is an individual one and IGC’s suite of career coaches are available to discuss this and other uncertainties you may have, so that you can plan your career strategy effectively and maximise your chances of having an impactful career. 

NB. External collaborators helped draft this blog.

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