What is it like to Shift Sectors – Private to Public, and Public to Private?

A key feature of NGS Global’s executive search work is bringing candidates with different types of experiences to our clients for consideration. We are finding that clients are increasingly interested in diverse experiences, in transferable skills, and looking very closely at personal attributes, values, and cultural affinity. This sometimes means recruiting across sectors, not just industries, while ensuring that different types of risk are well managed.

Over the past two to three years, we have seen much greater movement of executive across sectors:  from the private to the public sector, from the public sector to the education sector, public sector into the private sector, and private sector executives into key non-for-profit executive roles.

But what does it take to move sectors – not just industries? What has been the experience of those who have transitioned, and what are the attributes required to be successful?

As part of our ongoing onboarding and embedding processes we have interviewed dozens of executives who have moved sectors. We outline below, the collective experience of those who have moved from the private sector to the public sector, and those who have moved from the public to the private sector, over the past four years.

Integrating Public and Private Sector Experiences

Some key surprises for executives moving from the private sector to the public sector:

  • The decision-making process is different: in the public sector, there is more time taken ‘up front’ to gain stakeholder buy-in; but once the decision is made there is sustained commitment.
  • The stakeholder group is much broader in the public sector: there tends to be more people who have a say in a decision or its implementation (or who think that they do).
  • The risk factor deliberations are broader and deeper, and this means decisions might take longer, or implementation is managed across more stages.
  • A high level of transparency is required.
  • There is consideration of the extent to which the policy, program or action is explainable and make sense, at say Senate Estimates?
  • At personal level, there executives have shared with us that they have a stronger sense of purpose and commitment.
  • Executives who have moved across are often surprised at this impact and the nature of the contribution they are able to make.

Some key surprises for executives moving from the public sector to the private sector:

  • There are different drivers for decision making.
  • The decision-making process is faster, and the decision makers are easier to identify. However, this does not necessarily meant deep buy-in at the start, and implementation will likely require considerable further work in regaining buy-in.
  • The stakeholder group is more defined and clearly visible - even allowing for the increasingly important social licence to operate.
  • The ‘risk – reward – speed’ inter-dependencies are different. Higher risks might be more acceptable, as long as they are clearly articulated. This can help with faster decision-making and delivery.
  • Delivery capabilities tend to be stronger and more customer-centric.
  • Operational efficiencies are easier to achieve and moving people and roles around is more acceptable.
  • The private sector experience is one of accountability to boards, shareholders and owners. While there can be a high level of scrutiny it is usually not conducted in the public domain, such as might be undertaken by the Opposition in a state or federally, or through Senate Estimates.
  • A higher percentage of private sector organisations are more likely to have a dispersed workforce or a large geographic spread, with very diverse workforces.
  • The people leadership challenges can be quite different.
  • At personal level, accountability is clearer and there might be fewer impediments to getting things done.

The COVID 19 Caveat

The way in which the public sector has moved in response to COVID19 has demonstrated a renewed focus on public policy discussions and rapid ‘ramp ups’.  We have seen multiple sectors integrating their efforts – public and private sector health services coordination, public sector stimulating the private sector for accelerate shifts in manufacturing, and multiple examples of the military working with the public and private sectors in support of supply chains, logistics and re-starting stalled trade exports and imports. There will be many learnings from these experiences – about what is possible in a crisis situation.

Some of the attributes critical to moving quickly in a crisis are reflected in the attributes that are important in moving sectors.

These experiences underline the importance of those in the private sector really understanding how governments work; and for those in the public sector, understanding both the similarities and different drivers in the private sector, and thus the implications and consequences of policies.

What are the personal attributes that enable success in other Sectors?

There are number of key attributes we look for in candidates in relation to moving into another sector. While these are important generally, their relevance is particularly acute in such moves.

  • Diversity of career experience – having worked in different organisation and industries, though having had reasonable periods in each role. This helps demonstrated the ability to adapt to various environments.
  • Curiosity – Genuine interest and engagement in continuing to learn. For example, what evidence is there of self-initiated professional development and continuing education?
  • Agility in thinking and action, with the ability to think through new problems, and diagnose different environments quickly.
  • Gaining enjoyment and stimulation from addressing challenges – as there will be plenty in what might be a quite new situation, where you are not known, and have not (yet) built credibility.

Opportunities for building personal agility and diversity

As the candidates we have placed emphasise, it can be key part of an executive career for those in the private sector so spend say three years in the public sector. If they return to the private sector they will have gained valuable insights into the demands, complexity and nuances of working in government. They will be able to interface with the public sector in a much more fluid way.

For those in the public sector, a few years in the private sector can really build a much more comprehensive understanding of different drivers, decision-cycle times, ways to deliver, and, generally more customer-centric accountabilities. These experiences would be great inputs to shaping policies and programs that can have renewed impact.

Dr Marianne Broadbent,
Managing Partner,
NGS Global &
ArbiterLeadership Technologies

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Dr Marianne Broadbent