Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce  series highlighting members of the Department of Commerce and their contributions to an Economy Built to Last.
Guest blog post by Denise Yaag, Director, Office of Executive Resources
Having been born and raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, it could perhaps seem unsurprising that I ended up working for the federal government. In fact, I made a very deliberate choice 26 years ago to dedicate my career to serving my country and I do not regret that decision to this day.
As Director of the Office of Executive Resources, I support the Secretary in managing executive and senior professional employment throughout the Department of Commerce. I’ve helped to ensure alignment and cascading of Departmental and organizational goals with performance goals of the executive and senior professional cadre in order to enhance organizational and individual performance, accountability, and results. One of the most enjoyable and satisfying responsibilities of my position is working with the Office of White House Liaison to coordinate bringing new political appointees on our rolls. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to get to know some truly brilliant and accomplished individuals who have served our president and our nation, helping execute the administration’s agenda and the programs that help America compete in the global economy.
While government service always seemed appealing, the field of human resources was not always part of the plan. I have had a lifelong interest in science. In elementary school, when given the choice of an elective course to take, I chose geology, finding myself the only girl in a classroom full of boys. In high school, I was one of only a few female students in the Chemistry Club. And at the risk of dating myself, this trend continued into college, where I was regularly one of a just a small number of women in labs. I was on track to enter what we now call a “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) career field.
While working to put myself through the University of Maryland, through an unexpected chain of events, I reestablished contact with a longtime family friend, W.J. “Bill” Usery. Mr. Usery was President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Labor and headed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service under President Richard Nixon. He helped write and implement the Executive Order that gave union organizing rights to Federal government workers and established collective bargaining, grievance and dispute resolution procedures. When we reconnected, he was working to establish a labor-management partnership between General Motors, Toyota, and the United Auto Workers. I became fascinated with his work and saw the tremendous good he accomplished for businesses and their workforces. At that point, I knew I wanted to change my game plan. I still took science courses, but graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Personnel and Labor Relations.
I believe in the work world, there’s little worthwhile that comes without effort. It’s critically important to work hard and don’t wait for opportunity to knock. Put yourself out there, make sure your attributes and competencies are known and continue to develop new ones. Because I’ve ensured management has been familiar with my background, I’ve gotten to do a great deal of high impact and exciting work over the years, while applying my full educational background and continuing learning. At the Agriculture Department, I got to travel to laboratories all over the south to audit chemists overseeing aflatoxin testing and to establish the Commodities Scientific Support Division. Because I programmed in my engineering calculus class, I was one of the first human resources staff chosen to get to learn how to write code to create reports from NFC’s mainframe.
Always remember that progress is not just vertical, meaning a promotion or increase in grade, but it is also horizontal, meaning an enrichment of experience. I’ve worked at five different agencies and three of the moves I made did not involve promotions, but they did involve very different work. Our careers can be as rich and fulfilling as we decide to make them, and the better we work, the better our nation is for our efforts.