By Anna Dickinson, Consultant in Odgers Berndtson’s Central Government Practice, explains why private sector executives should incorporate the public sector into their career plan
For private sector leaders, moving to the public sector is typically viewed as an opportunity to ‘give back’. Often, it’s the role they take before retirement, or after achieving their career goals in the private sector and want new challenges and experiences. Both are viable career choices and will provide a greater sense of purpose. However, incorporating the public sector into a career plan at an earlier stage can offer even greater benefits. Serving for a fixed period before transitioning back into the private sector, provides the opportunity to nurture a distinct skillset and gain the sort of experience which can significantly enhance an executive’s career trajectory upon returning to the private sector.
If you are a private sector leader, these are some of the reasons why you should consider making a move into the public sector:
Develop systems leadership
Public sector leaders might be running large scale healthcare services, sports trusts, regulatory bodies, commercial or trade entities, or critical infrastructure programmes. Their responsibilities can range from leading critical national initiatives and operations to overseeing programmes providing care for an ageing community or addressing children’s mental health. The challenges can be far more expansive and complex than a narrow set of commercial objectives – often the focus in the private sector – and requires rigorous governance, complex problem solving, and the ability to lead through influence rather than direct action.
Combined, this is large scale systems leadership, wherein leaders effectively navigate networks of stakeholders, each with their own interests and agendas, while improving collaboration and alignment between all. Leading through influence becomes paramount, as direct control over all aspects is not feasible. Building alliances, collaborating with diverse groups, and leveraging relationships are essential for driving these types of large-scale and complex operations. The experience and skills developed are unique to the public sector, and directly translate into leading organisation-wide transformation programmes in the private sector.
Manage scale and complexity
Public sector leadership can involve a level of responsibility and complexity that surpasses even the most demanding roles in major global corporations. The scope of these positions often means handling substantial budgets and overseeing contracts of immense value, elevating the stakes of every decision. The repercussions of these choices extend beyond individual entities; they profoundly impact entire communities and the well-being of thousands of people residing within them. With this responsibility can come great reward; often the very tangible impact senior leaders have in the public sector can be extremely motivating and leads to career defining moments of achievement.
Setting these leadership positions apart is the need to effectively manage a diverse array of stakeholders, each with their own vested interests. Additionally, leaders must navigate through intricate regulatory frameworks while tackling multifaceted challenges that demand versatility and adaptability. The opportunities for professional growth and development within this domain are unparalleled. Having experience in spearheading country-wide initiatives and overseeing multi-billion dollar budgets equips individuals with the capability to bring disparate and conflicting parts of large organisations together and achieve successful transformations.
Know what not to change
While markets grow and decline, business trends change from year to year, and the FTSE 100 looks unrecognisable from what it was twenty years ago, the public sector, in many ways, remains a constant. Government institutions, while they may evolve, endure for decades (sometimes even centuries), remaining impartial through differing political landscapes and changes of administrations. For private sector executives it means joining an organisation steeped in tradition and a culture that understands there are aspects that need to change and evolve, and aspects that don’t.
The private sector on the other hand, can often be transient and disruption-led. Leaders increasingly embrace a disrupt or be disrupted mindset that maintains driving change can only be a good thing. The more permanent and steady environment of the public sector can therefore be challenging for private sector leaders. But it can also be beneficial; change for the sake of change does not always deliver positive outcomes.
The allure of the public sector lies in the potential to work on initiatives with tangible impact and that truly matter. Public sector leadership roles enable an individual to contribute to society’s well-being, work on projects of national importance, and directly impact the lives of millions.
Although the sense of fulfilment in achieving such meaningful outcomes is undeniable, conversations with executives who have made the transition reveal the true reward often lies in leveraging skills honed in the private sector to address public sector challenges. The profound satisfaction that arises from applying a distinctive skill set and fresh perspectives to drive positive change sets this experience apart from anything encountered in the private sector.