The manager's guide to switching sectors

25 February 2015 -


Nobody said it would be easy. But with a bit of guidance, switching between the public, private and voluntary sectors can equip leaders with a strong personal development plan

Ben Walker

When Nahid Majid tried to turn the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) into a private sector body, she hit trouble. The commission’s government funding had been withdrawn and it had become a self-sustaining business under the umbrella of the Design Council. “It is easier said than done when you are under the control of a public body,” says Majid. “Commercial enterprise is not normal in the public sector.” By that time, the Design Council had notionally been transformed into a charity as part of the government’s Bonfire of the Quangos, yet it still received much of its funding from government and continued to be driven by public policy initiatives. Culturally, at least, it was still part of the public sector. Majid’s tenure at Cabe was cut short, ending after just 10 months. “I would have loved to have stayed,” she says. “But the culture clash made it impossible.”

As a manager and leader with a private sector background, Majid is the first to admit that she found it a struggle to overcome the cultural opposition to installing a private sector ethos: “Without the right leadership, understanding of the sector and the right relationships, it was a battle that could not be won,” she says.

Bad neighbours

Majid’s story is alarmingly typical. Despite the talent in all three sectors of the economy, cultural differences, alien working practices and even mutual suspicion mean moving between the private, public and voluntary sectors can be a bumpy ride - even for those with an impressively streamlined and focused personal development plan. Upon moving, some even find the basics of what is considered good leadership can be at odds with their experience. In a study of attitudes to leadership in a stalling economy, the Cranfield School of Management found that while individual, charismatic leadership is prized in the private sector, collective, consensus-based approaches are favoured in the public sector during difficult times – even at the expense of individual verve. “

The style of leadership is really very different,” says a senior source in the civil service, who moved into the public sector after a long career in business and does not wish to be named. “In the public sector, leadership is based much more around friendships and mutual respect than on getting things done. Have you ever done that Myers-Briggs personality test? If you are in the middle ground between introvert and extrovert, then you can do well in either sector. But I’m well out there on the extrovert end. It causes my personality lots of stress, working in an environment where that just isn’t welcome. I am very challenging: I tell it how it is, I don’t do morning chitchats. So they put me on training courses to try to change me. But they don’t work, because I am just not one of them.”

While this withering assessment may give pause to the most extroverted leaders considering a move to the public sector, it leaves the door open for the many thousands of managers who sit elsewhere on the scale.

Mike Gregson, a senior HR practitioner at Birmingham City Council who joined the local authority from the banking sector, made the switch – and is thriving. Yet he warns that there are fundamental differences between the two sectors, beyond which management styles they favour. A key one is the financial dynamic: the need to react to the granting of funds in the public sector, rather than going out and generating revenue, as in the private, leads to different management emphases, he says.

“In the private sector, there is more of a strategic focus,” he says. “In the public sector, at least when looking internally, it is much more about the here and now: it’s a more short-term view.”

While strategic approaches do occur, these are largely when managers are working on external projects, says Gregson. “For example, when a local authority is working out what it can do for the city,” he explains. “But when they are looking at how employees can be developed to align with those strategies, there is very little long-term thinking around things like skillsets.”

Does he think it matters? “It’s a lost opportunity,” he says. “You find that there are a lot of issues that could have been avoided with forethought, and opportunities that could have been driven forward.”

Perhaps this difference in outlook is partly to blame for the public sector’s reputation among businesspeople. The government is encouraging business to absorb many of the employees offloaded by a scythed public sector, yet The challenges of transition: from public to private, a report by Hays for the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, found that nine in 10 private sector employers would be unlikely to take any such workers on. “The extent to which these views are coloured by perceptions of the skills offered by public sector workers is cause for concern,” says the report.

More than seven in 10 private sector employers considered their public sector counterparts to be less commercially aware, while less than 30% thought them skilled at working in large or complex, organisations – even though public bodies are often larger and more complex than those in the private sector. Perhaps even more worryingly for public sector managers, less than two in 10 private sector employers think their peers from the state sector will offer new skills, despite the fact that many public sector managers have experience of handling multimillion-pound budgets, compliance with complex regulatory regimes and risk management. “There is certainly no lack of skills on offer from the coming wave of public sector jobseekers,” says the report. “The problem rests more on perceived mismatches between the expectations of employees and their prospective employers.”

The prejudices run both ways – the same report found that many public sector workers assumed that the private sector was subject to the laws of the jungle, with those surveyed using phrases such as “dog-eat-dog”, “back-stabbing” and “in it for the money” to describe their counterparts from the business world. “There is a misconception about how the private sector works,” says Majid, who argues that a core business’ need to retain the best workers means that the image of an inequitable, cut-throat bearpit is off the mark. “The private sector has changed,” she says. “It’s not private sector bad, public sector good. You need to keep staff so they don’t go to rival companies, so you have to treat them with respect and drive their learning. The best training I have had is in the private sector. The private sector has been very strong, too, in the corporate social responsibility agenda – they recognise that their staff like it and that it’s an incentive for people to stay.”

Changing teams

Despite the private sector’s best retention efforts, not all its stars linger. Rebecca Burke, an MBA who has spent much of her career in the private sector, now works in Whitehall as group portfolio manager for the Department of Energy & Climate Change, after entering the public sector as a consultant to the Department of Health. Burke is a relative rarity among senior managers, in that she has worked in all three sectors. For her, the biggest division is not between the public and private sectors, but between them both and the voluntary sector, where she spent the early part of her career. “It is the third sector that is the outlier,” she says. “If you do take the step into it from either of the two big sectors, you need to be prepared for a major culture shock. Charity leaders are almost entirely outward-looking, focusing on the meat-and-drink of the third sector: finding new sources of funding. This means that, internally at least, the organisations are often quite chaotic and reactive.”

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations seems to agree. In the pilot report of its Leadership 20:20 group, the third-sector umbrella group admits to “inconvenient truths” about standards of leadership in the sector. These included administrative inefficiencies and dishonesty with donors about the true costs of staffing and the back-office functions needed to run a business. “We have got away with being the sector of great anecdotes,” social entrepreneur Craig Dearden-Phillips admits in the report. “We offer improbable statistics that would do a Soviet-era government proud – ‘our two staff provide services for 267,000 people’.”

Keen to professionalise, the voluntary sector is seeking leaders from the two big sectors who may have tired of monolithic organisations. “This is the time,” Save the Children recruiting adviser Quinton Seemann tells the report, “to try to pinch people from the corporate world who have had enough of the rat race.”

Some will move, some won’t. But, whether it is into the voluntary, public or private sectors, switching should be encouraged. Diversity of experience improves managers and leaders. The economy will benefi t, as the national stock of management skills is distributed where it is most needed.

What of Nahid Majid? Would she urge more leaders to make the switch? Given her travails, her answer may come as a surprise. “There is a lot to learn from both sectors I’ve worked in,” she says. “So, definitely, yes. Do it.”

Making moves: managing your expectations

Three bosses explain how they shifted sectors, and how you could do it too...

1. Rebecca Burke MBA, Group Portfolio Manager

Voluntary sector - Private sector - Public sector

Rebecca’s key tips about moving into the voluntary sector

Don’t expect clear hierarchies The senior echelons tend to be very handsoff and detached when it comes to internal management and administration. It is pretty rare for direct reporting lines to go up to the directors.

Focus on your skills, not your interests I have been for a few jobs in the sector over the years and there are remarkably few questions about your passions and the subject matter of the charity. Interviewers are more likely to focus on your core competencies.

Realise that it’s not all about altruism Remember that work in the sector can still be just a job for the top brass, who are as likely to be careerists as in any other sector.

The lower ranks are often much more into the cause – and are typically the ones who get their hands dirty.

2. Nahid Majid OBE CCMI, Consultant

Private sector – Public sector – Private sector

Nahid’s key tips about moving into the public sector

Be outward looking That really works! Be externally focused. Ministers were really supportive because people were saying good things about government projects rather than bad things.

Accept that you will need support You cannot serve in the civil service unless you have support. In the private sector, you are more likely to be told just to get on with it. But in the public sector, you really need to know about HR or you will be in the next tribunal.

Understand the speed of the process Managers from other sectors often don’t realise that a letter might go from one permanent secretary to another, and that a minister might not even see it until the very end of the process.

3. Mike Gregson MA FCIPD Cmgr FCMI CSSBB, Senior HR Consultant

Private sector – Public sector

Mike’s key tips about moving into the private sector

Make use of your newfound freedom You will have a lot more freedom, and there’s a lot to recommend being bold and more confident.

Try things out You’ve got more opportunity to play in the sand and explore the capabilities of your team.

Be innovative in financial roles Managers in a financial role will need to be much more part of the business than they were in the public sector, so come up with ideas on how the organisation can be more profitable.

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