“As you go through the program, don’t worry about where you are going to end up. I always tell my students, just keep doing what interests you, what you love, and good things will happen.” Professor Patty Goodman offered this reassurance in early 2020, during an orientation Zoom call for Northeastern’s Corporate & Organizational Communication Program. I remember saying to myself, “okay, okay, that’s what I’m going to do. Just keep moving toward what draws me forward…”

I started grad school on instinct. Fifteen years into my career as an Intelligence Analyst for the FBI, I found myself increasingly drawn to the discipline of communication. I had observed first-hand how communication—good and bad—influences organizational culture, values, relationships, and the success (or failure) of the mission.  I wanted to learn more—I wanted to learn everything—so I started a graduate program in communication. I had no five-year plan, no grand design; to anyone who asked why I was pursuing a graduate degree in communication, I would raise my palms, tilt my head and reply noncommittally, “it feels right?”

Learning about the communication role of exemplary followers

And so, Dr. Goodman’s I-don’t-know-who-needs-to-hear-this-but-don’t-worry wisdom was well-received. I focused my graduate work on what interested me most: the role followers play in leading change within their organizations. I have always been fascinated by the ground-level employees who work selflessly to create progress in service of a higher purpose. Robert Kelley called these individuals exemplary followers – employees who drive organizations forward with their “credibility, courage, and honesty.” I see these exemplary followers as the quiet giants whose commitment and moral courage keep our institutions strong.

There is a gathering momentum within the FBI and the Intelligence Community for increased relationship-building, workforce diversity, and innovation. It is an exciting time to work in public service. There are more opportunities than ever for ground-level government employees to work with leaders to increase institutional effectiveness and build relationships with the communities we serve. I wanted to learn how leaders can capitalize on the wisdom and devotion of exemplary followers in service of the FBI’s mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Putting knowledge to work

Northeastern’s experiential focus on learning was ideally suited to my goal. The classes are a mix of rigorous academic work and practical problem solving, allowing students to acquire knowledge and then take action on that knowledge in their communities. I tailored my communication coursework around the study of how followers work with leaders to create change in government organizations, particularly change in organizational ethics and workforce diversity. Dr. Carl Zangerl and my professors worked with me to design course projects so I could apply my research in my work.

As Dr. Goodman predicted, good things happened. What I learned at Northeastern influenced how I communicated with my colleagues and leaders to help secure our elections, fight violent crime, and safeguard civil rights. In my leadership classes I learned how leaders motivate people to work together in pursuit of a common mission. Northeastern’s Cultural Communication Lab helped me develop skills to overcome my own biases and communicate more effectively across cultures. Mid-way through the program I saw an opportunity to further apply my learning as my office’s Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator. I used the knowledge I was gaining at Northeastern to communicate the FBI’s workforce diversity objectives to employees and identify actions to support those objectives.

The real-world application of my studies stretched beyond my job and into my community. For the capstone project I developed a social medial communication strategy for #NatSecGirlSquad, a Washington DC-based business and social network with a mission to build a more competent, diverse, equitable, and inclusive national security workforce. This project allowed me to apply the communication strategies I was learning to the business world. My work with #NatSecGirlSquad also connected me with a values-based community of extraordinary humans working to make the world better.

Continuing the learning journey

As I progressed through the program, I didn’t want it to end. Last winter I was planning to continue my studies in a PhD program when the FBI announced a one-year research fellowship opportunity at National Intelligence University. In a string of 13-hour writing marathons over the span of one week, I wrote a research proposal focused on the role exemplary followers play in driving innovation in the Intelligence Community, particularly innovation related to workforce diversity and digital capabilities. I submitted my application in December and spent every day of the next five months hoping.

In 2018, Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed success and service to others with Michael Morell (former Acting Director of the CIA) on the Intelligence Matters podcast. Dr. Fauci advised listeners to “pursue what you’re passionate about, something that really drives you…get as much training in that area as you possibly can get…and then keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities…You can try and plan the course of what your professional life will be, but more often than not…things come your way, unexpectedly…and if you’re prepared to jump on it and do something about it, that really leads to…deep involvement.”

I started my research fellowship on October 1st. I still don’t have a five-year plan. I have no idea what to expect. But I have hope. My hope is to use this year to become deeply involved in addressing some of the Intelligence Community’s biggest challenges; to learn more about how to communicate, lead, and follow; and to serve.

And I will continue to keep Dr. Goodman’s advice close.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any United States Government agency.

Posted by Julie Ferringer, CPS’21