Special Officers – What’s So Special?

I recall a time when becoming a Special Officer (SO) was the coveted job of graduates. In student body circles such as UKEC, among others, becoming a SO to a Minister or a CEO of a big company became the aspiration of its Chairman. Student leaders in Malaysia are no different.

Becoming a Special Officer is sexy – it’s a validation that a person of power acknowledges your ability over your peers, that you are smarter, more proactive, more driven. It entails an unprecedented learning access to seasoned influential individuals and as you stand at the fringes of power, you wield for yourself a degree of influence. And with influence comes power and respect.

I myself was a Special Officer for 3 years and as I reflect on my career, these are five (5) things I observed about the Special Officer job and how it has affected my career:


1. All Special Officers Differ In Job Scopes (and Usefulness)

The title may be general but from my experience meeting other SO, all are different. Not just in who they report to (e.g. a Minister or a Corporate Person) but in what the job scope entails. If a spectrum could be drawn of their job scopes, at one end would be those who are only additional hands and feet to their bosses and at the other end, owners of unassigned portfolio. So you’ll meet some SOs who do special projects that others in the organization can’t or won’t do and you’ll meet some SOs who just simply carry bags.

2. Power is Intoxicating and Damages Your Humility

SOs are often bestowed by others the respect deserving of their boss (people treat you as if you are the Minister or CEO themselves) and over time, you will fall into the trap of telling yourself that this respect is earned, that you deserve it. People who retire from positions of power often remark how the loss of people respecting you is one of the hardest thing to adjust to. SOs who leave their job without going to something bigger or have not created a reputation beyond their job may find themselves stuck with an ego of not wanting to report to a less powerful person and simply thinking I’m too good for this.

3. It’s a Ceiling Job

For most SOs, it’s a ceiling job. Some SOs are fortunate when their organisation structures their career path that becoming SO automatically becomes a stepping stone (e.g. fast track promotion). For most however, SOs are left to figure out what to do next. The ones who are strategic are able to maximise their influence and find something better as a next step, like a Ministrial SO who gets a political position and makes a career as a politician.

SOs need to be smart to be able to have sufficient influence over their boss to be able to frankly speak to them about what’s next for them. E.g. After 2 years of working 24/7, make me a HOD or CEO somewhere. The worse ones are those who make a career being a Special Officer, deliver little and can’t transition.


4. Limited Hard Skill Growth

Yes, Malaysia is a country where who you know matters more than what you know. And the job of an SO means you get to meet people of power and influence on a daily basis. I personally believe the most effective executives (political or corporate) in Malaysia are ones who have a strong network, good access to influencers and at the same time, grounded in content and ideas. As SOs mostly coordinate, they almost never go to the level of detail that enables them to develop a hard skill. If you simply know powerful people, can open doors and coordinate between working level and your boss – what skill do you sell on your CV and what are you employable as?

The more proactive SOs are the ones who are aware of this dilemma and request for a portfolio to own and deliver, who possibly takes courses and professional qualifications (PMP, CFA) to strengthen one’s skill and are perhaps smart enough to use his influence and work on an opportunity himself, may it be for private growth and gain or for social purposes. Because at the end of the day, unless you transition to become an entrepreneur, CEO or HOD somewhere, you almost always need a hard skill to bank on.

5. Understanding How the Country (and World) Works

One of the biggest personal takeaway from my SO role is understanding how the country works – how business and politics, power and influence intertwine. Some aspects of this is disappointing to realise, like why the best ideas don’t win, but the maturity gained in understanding how things work means you know how things could and should be done. Prior to becoming a SO, I was a management consultant for 4 years, fresh out of university.

As a professional, we were good at what we do: understanding global mega trends and having efficient work ethics. But more often than not, my then colleagues and I care little about how governments work, understanding why business we consider cronies are the one’s leading the change and understanding what it takes to make a difference. We were just too engrossed making Powerpoint decks.

In general, I advise fresh graduates not to take up offers to be Special Officers. Despite the glamour and power associated with the job, joining as a fresh grad is an easy way for you to be delegated to do menial transactional work as your boss (and even you) would not know your strengths and weaknesses. One should always, where able, start with a job that provides rigour in a hard skill, work at a place that provides training and feedback. Should you be considering the offer to be an SO or if you are already one, you should think of the transferable skills that you would want to develop so you may have a clearer future after your stint.

 

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