The transition from the private sector into an executive role in the federal public service is not easy. Though generally accepted estimates suggest that only five to seven percent of the executives (EX level) currently in the public service came from outside the federal government, by one account, 25 to 40 percent of the individuals who made the transition departed within the first two years on the job.
This is perhaps surprising, given that there is an increasing recognition within the public service of the demographic need for, and the value delivered by, executives from outside. They bring not only new ideas and fresh thinking, but also outside perspectives from the communities, industries and groups the federal government services through its 140 departments and agencies.
Odgers Berndtson asked 35 executives in the public service to discuss the difficulties and risks associated with executives making the transition into the public sector. Twenty-five of these individuals had arrived in their EX-level roles from “outside.” The remaining ten executives were senior level career public servants (most were assistant deputy ministers) who had observed these transitions from within the public service. They were uniquely positioned to discuss the skills and attributes needed to succeed and to impart knowledge gained from witnessing successful – and failed – transitions.
The lessons learned and proposed coping strategies are useful for managers from outside as well as existing and recently promoted members of the EX group.
Skills and attributes
The research showed that the competencies needed to excel in the public service are similar to those needed in the private sector. There were, however, some key differences. Below are the top essential skills and attributes needed to fit and succeed in the public service culture:
Given that the public service lacks some of the management levers available in the private sector, it is essential to have well-developed abilities and a personal interest in leadership best practices. Firing under-performers, for example, is very difficult and essentially not an option. Top performers can choose to leave poor managers by moving to new positions elsewhere in the public service. Combine these two factors with the rigid compensation structure and a limited “pay at risk” component and you have a recipe that makes inspiring leadership the first ingredient in finding success in your executive role in the public service.
Communication and people skills
Decisions and workflow occur through consensus and collaboration, not command and control. For an initiative to progress and succeed, you need to achieve buy-in from individuals and groups within your department and elsewhere in the public service. To achieve that, you need to possess outstanding and adaptable communication and influencing skills.
An open mind
While it might seem trite, this attribute was by far the top answer when we asked executives, “What does it take to make the transition a success?” Part of the challenge is that people lacking an open mind have difficulty realizing this shortcoming. You will need to leave your preconceptions and ego at the door, embrace your ignorance and open yourself up to accept, understand and work within the system as it is.
An open mind will allow you to ask the right questions, avoid excessive frustration, and understand the processes and rules in order to work with colleagues to achieve change. Sentences starting with, “In the private sector we…” should be reconsidered.
Patience and discipline
The timeframes in the public service are typically much longer than the horizons in the private sector. Inserted between the massive, long-term projects are intermittent, adrenalin-inducing sprints created by issues demanding immediate attention from all those involved. The sense of urgency around issues is heightened due to the “public accountability” nature of the public service and the very real potential for your challenge to land on the front page of The Globe & Mail.
You must be able to ramp-up and deal with urgent issues as needed but continue to have the patience and discipline to return and focus on your long-term priorities. Human resources, procurement and administration take much longer than what you are accustomed to in the private sector. Accept it, be patient and work with the system to advance your agenda and obtain what is needed.
Differences that trip the unprepared
Inherent differences between the private and public sectors do exist. Executives looking to make the leap from one to the other will have a better chance of success if they acknowledge and understand the four main differences that became apparent from the results of our conversations.
1. The fundamental driver
In the private sector, profit is the driver. In the public service, the fundamental driver is to advise and answer to the elected government and together serve Canadians. Consequently, you must have a strong desire to serve and make a difference to our country. Also, this is not a transition you make for the money. Many of the executives involved in our study experienced a 40 to 50 percent compensation reduction when they made the switch.
The communication style in the public service differs slightly from that found in the private sector. This was cited often by executives who have experience in both environments. Communication within the public service can be less directive. The private sector’s “Do this and get it back to me by Wednesday,” could sound more like “Have you considered….” The need for consensus and collaboration highlights the need for less directive-centered communications. Respect, relationships, avoiding confrontation, protracted timeframes and a desire to never burn bridges were cited as potential reasons to explain this difference.
3. Public accountability
In the private sector there is very little concern that an email you write to a co-worker will end up in a newspaper through an access to information request. Funded by the taxpayers, the public service is accountable to Canadians and as such needs to operate transparently. Working in an environment open to public scrutiny takes some getting used to. Everything is recorded. Details of meetings, contracts, projects and initiatives could be requested by anyone at anytime under the Access to Information Act.
4. Process and administration
A common complaint of the public service by executives with experience in both worlds is the amount of red tape, rules and bureaucracy that exists. However, when people complain about the processes they are often failing to take into consideration the many necessary reasons for the existence of the rules and structure. The accountability and transparency that the public demands makes these rules, processes and administration necessary. It is fair to say that most processes in general could be improved and streamlined, but given the sheer size and complexity of the public service it is not an easy endeavor. The executive who enjoys success in this environment does so because he or she has accepted, rather than become disheartened by, this reality.
Is it for you?
The size, scope and diversity of the federal government have always caused private sector executives to consider the public service in times of transition. The recent economic times, the predictability of remuneration packages and relative job security in government institutions has increased this interest.