Photo Credit to Michael C. Lawyer
The Office of Career Advancement (OCA) Alumni Spotlight Series features interviews with Harvard Kennedy School Alumni, who share details of their career journeys. Spotlight interviews are published on the school intranet site. In this installment of the series, Jason Stayanovich MPA/ID 2007 shares his thoughts
Tell us about your current job.
Currently, I am working as a senior advisor to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Housing Operations within the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, Federal Housing Administration. This is the office that has primary responsibility for the internal business functions of the FHA (human resources, procurement, IT modernization, and general administration). I am working on developing a plan to help the organization transform its service delivery model to the point that we have clearly defined our value proposition and are executing against it.
There are two key projects that I am focusing on right now as part of this transformation. The first is bringing greater transparency to the federal hiring process for managers within the agency, who are working to bring new employees aboard. This includes structuring our office’s approach in a way that prioritizes giving a clear picture of where hiring managers’ actions are within the process, in addition to serving as expert facilitators for helping managers navigate the various bureaucratic processes.
The second key initiative is one that is focused on changing the mindset within the organization to move individuals toward developing more well-rounded careers. It is easy to get comfortable in a particular role either in the public or private sector. However, the public sector lacks some of the more aggressive incentives that exist in other fields that encourage movement across different lines of business. In order to create an environment that develops leaders capable of flourishing in a variety of settings, we’re working on establishing a more engaged approach towards career management and cultivating an environment where it is expected that people will build a diverse set of experiences as they progress through their professional lives.
Tell us about the journey you’ve taken to get to where you are.
Honestly, I don’t think that you could have convinced 17-year-old Jason that one day, down the line, he would have been studying the economics of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School. I enlisted in the Marine Corps at the beginning of my senior year of high school and shipped off to boot camp the summer after graduation knowing that at some point in time, I would probably go to college, but the idea of grad school was completely foreign to me.
The Marines helped me establish my independence and let me take a step back to think about what I actually wanted to do with the rest of my life—while also affording me the opportunity to dangle beneath helicopters, jump out of airplanes, and experience life at sea. Perhaps most of all though, the Marines gave me the opportunity to study Arabic at the Defense Language Institute. This was the most intense academic experience of my life. That foundation in Arabic opened up a whole host of new opportunities to me in college that I would not have had, had I attended directly after high school.
Following my time in the Marines, college (including the requisite backpacking wanderer phase), and then grad school at the Harvard Kennedy School, I ended up being the first person hired to be part of what was, at the time, the Director of the Secret Service’s newly created Special Advisor Program. This was a fascinating experience that let me peek behind the curtain of one our nation’s most renowned agencies and provided me the opportunity to have an actual impact on an organization as soon as I walked through the door. Although I wasn’t expecting it, I was able to directly employ the skills that I built in the MPA/ID program almost immediately. While at the Secret Service I was mainly focused on helping them rethink some of their budget and finance issues. One of the first projects that they gave me was to help them develop a better approach toward understanding and tracking expenditures associated with providing protection to presidential candidates (this was heading into the 2008 election). This meant aggregating data from a multitude of sources and using previous election travel patterns to build a model that we could use to illustrate to Congress what our true needs were for the remainder of the upcoming election year.
After two years at the Secret Service, I decided to try my hand at a new organization and found a truly interesting opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The new administration was starting up an Office of Strategic Planning and Management and I ended up being the first person hired with any previous federal experience. There I was able to play a significant role in helping start up the office and make it a permanent part of HUD. Beyond my role in the strategic planning office, I also had the opportunity to lead the execution of a nationwide transformation effort for the FHA’s Office of Multifamily Housing Programs, solidifying a risk-based approach to asset management within the organization’s $70 billion multifamily housing portfolio.
Is what you are doing now what you thought you would be doing when you entered HKS?
Not even close. The opportunity at the Secret Service was one that I couldn’t have imagined; their mission wasn’t even on my radar walking into grad school. What attracted me to taking that role coming out of the Harvard Kennedy School, instead of something else closer to the international development field, was that the Director himself was coming up and doing the recruiting. (Actually, my first interview for the job was with the Director of the Secret Service.) It was an opportunity to work at the highest level of an organization and see how it functions; regardless of the mission. That is what attracted me to the opportunity.
As for HUD, again, prior to me walking through their doors, I would never have predicted working at this organization. In fact, when the strategic planning opportunity was first presented to me, I sort of cringed. I really didn’t know anything about the agency; and for some reason, just the mention of it conjured up this image of the stereotypical entrenched government bureaucracy. But as I sat back and thought about the opportunity, it not only grew on me, I became truly excited about it. This was 2009 as we were coming out of the housing market crash. That really spoke to the marine inside of me as I began to see HUD as the ‘tip of the spear’ when it came to being a part of repairing our nation’s economy. That, combined with the thrill of being able to help stand up a new organization, sold me. Honestly, HUD has been a very fulfilling experience; I’ve been at the agency for over four years now. And although I’m not necessarily working in international development, I am working at a domestic development agency with a $40 billion-a-year budget that manages a $1 trillion portfolio of underwritten loans to low- and moderate- income families. So, there is a strong connection between what I studied and where I now work.
Is there anything you might have done differently knowing what you know now?
Prior to coming to the Kennedy School, my main work experience was in a very technical role in the military. I did not really have much experience in a business environment or thinking through how to construct qualitative analytical frameworks. There were one or two time periods (summer internships, etc…) where I could have pushed harder to get some more diverse experience, perhaps spending a brief time in consulting.
What do you think has been the greatest professional benefit to you from your time at the Harvard Kennedy School?
The greatest professional benefit to me from studying at HKS was embarking on a job search from a place where high profile employers actively recruit talent. The best example of this is the first role that I took after graduation at the Secret Service. The Director was standing up a new program and he only came to one place to recruit, HKS. Had I been at any other school, that opportunity would not have been available to me. The school provides a concentration of high- quality talent that attracts the best organizations. It is a great place from which to launch your career.
What course(s) or HKS experience do you feel best prepared you for what you are doing now?
The key element of being at HKS that best prepared me for what I am doing now was just the experience of being in an MPA/ID classroom during any type of policy-related discussion. The program has such a diverse collection of people; the classroom discussions are absolutely fascinating. I remember sitting in class listening to other students from completely different economic and cultural backgrounds thinking: “that person didn’t just express a different point of view; they expressed a completely different framework for understanding the world”. Even with all the previous travel and study I’d done, the HKS experience was very eye-opening. With all the organizational transformation work that I’ve been doing at both the Secret Service and HUD, it is essential to be able to understand when you’re stuck looking at a set of conflicting points of view that are all framing a problem up in the same way so that you can try to move the group forward by completely re-framing the issue.
What specific career advice do you have for students interested in pursuing opportunities in your area? What are the most important factors to consider?
If you are interested in certain policy areas, particularly those that relate to being in the federal government, build strong relationships with the HKS professors working in those fields. Chances are they are either going to be pulled into an upcoming administration or have close ties to the senior leaders of an agency. That can be absolutely invaluable when it comes to finding a role in D.C., especially if you’re looking for a political appointment. If you’re more interested in the career civil servant opportunities, you need to apply for the Presidential Management Fellowship. I cannot stress that enough. Given the way that our hiring processes are set up, it is very difficult to get hired in the federal government without some sort of preference eligibility (e.g., veteran). The PMF is one of the key ways that those without any type of hiring preference are brought into the federal government.