People choose to begin or build their careers in the public sector for a variety of reasons – a commitment to a program or series of programs, a desire to serve the public interest, loyalty to a particular government, and even national pride/patriotism for some. Further, a career in the public sector typically carries with it a number of benefits – greater job stability, a more defined path to advancement, exceptional benefits and retirement plans.
However, despite the widely recognized benefits, a growing number of senior public sector executives contact us with questions about careers in the private sector. These individuals tend to feel as though they have worked hard and made their mark at their organization or agency and simply want to pursue a new challenge. Perhaps they have twenty or twenty-five years at a particular agency or military branch and can leave with a pension, but feel they are too young to retire. Others indicate they are tired of the “politics” or frustrated with the inability to move between agencies. Regardless of the reason, it is an increasingly familiar path and it is a move that often proves rewarding for individuals and organizations alike.
In the private sector, when we work with senior level executives they typically have many years of business experience and we discuss the pros and cons of leaving one company to join another. On the other hand, when we sit down with an officer from the armed forces or executive from DHS the discussion is quite different.
When considering individuals from the military, companies assess the candidate’s ability to move from a command and control structure to an environment that requires them to influence people at all levels in the organization. In business people cannot be ‘commanded’ to perform and this is where business leadership is critical. We have many examples of senior officers responsible for large commands, and most companies simply do not recognize this as applicable to their business. However, companies do recognize the value of credibility with, and access to public sector decision makers. There are many companies inside and around the beltway who recognize the value in having highly regarded military personnel carrying the corporate logo on their business cards.
Over the last twenty plus years, we have had the privilege of working with hundreds of experienced professionals who have served the public sector with distinction, but have reached the difficult decision to leave and join the private sector. As with any career move, it is important to plan ahead. The following is our short list of things to consider when developing your own personal transition plan:
- Take an honest assessment of the type of individual you are and what you enjoy doing. Do you enjoy working with and influencing people? Can you see yourself in a sales role? How well do you perform when it comes to managing and leading teams? Do you enjoy management of others or do you feel more comfortable in an individual contributor’s role? Are you an introvert or extravert? Do you really enjoy business and what issues interest you? Answers to this self-assessment will help decide what functional area will be the best fit for your personality. There are also many psychological tools available to assess your personality and then match your likes and dislikes with the appropriate job and career track.
- Industry may not fully recognize or understand the value of your experiences in the public sector. I have worked with Generals who have commanded thousands of people, yet in the view of a for-profit venture would not be qualified to lead a 200-person P&L. The measurement criterion for success in the public sector does not easily translate to industry due to weekly, monthly and quarterly financial targets that companies must reach to continue to grow. When a company misses their quarterly numbers, heads might roll. I can’t emphasize this point too much. The biggest culture shock you will experience is the drive for revenues each and every quarter. Think of this like a professional sports team. Each team and team member must perform their jobs in order to win. When you do not win team members are traded or let go. There are no long term pensions associated with this event and you will find yourself pursuing another job.
- Meet with former colleagues who have already made the move to the private sector. Have an open and honest discussion with them about how they were able to make the transition, the challenges they faced, the surprises they encountered, and their recommendations to maximize chances for success. Ask how their public service experience translates into what they are now doing. More often than not, networking will lead to your first private sector position. Don’t be shy and do not only focus on the money. For you to be successful you will need to love what you are doing. This is much more important than the financial rewards that will come as result of success.
- Understand what titles mean. Business Development means setting a strategy to pursue specific programs your new employer feels qualified to win. Program Management is exactly what it sounds like: responsibility for every detail of a customer program. This requires strong understanding not just of relevant program technologies, but also the affiliated financials. Capture involves taking what the company considers a qualified lead and closing the business. Capture opportunities are typically handed off from the Business Development team. Sales are straightforward. You have a product or service and are given a revenue quota to meet every month.
- Everything you bring to the private sector must contribute to helping your new employer succeed. Never stray too far away from this reality. It will feel different to you – faster pace, longer hours, greater accountability – and will take some time to come to grips with. It also dictates what and how people around you operate. We like to recommend that you always stay close to the revenue. Even if you are not directly responsible for bringing in deals you need to always ask yourself: what have I done today to contribute to my employer bringing in revenue?
- When a company hires an employee, regardless of seniority, they are considered a P&L investment. In other words, the company pays your salary; benefits, business expenses etc. and they need to realize a profit at the end of the year. This includes every function and not just sales. Even “general staff “have a P&L associated with them and they are regularly evaluated against their contribution to overall corporate objectives. Think of companies as entities that promote based on achievements rather than politics. Theoretically if you owned your own company, you would ask yourself daily what return you are receiving from the investment made in each employee. If you are losing money you stop investing.
- Companies will pay to gain access into, and credibility with the agencies with which they want to do business. Take a hard look and be honest with yourself. How will it feel to call upon friends and colleagues and ask them for business? If this causes trepidation in you, then consider other functional areas than BD or sales.
- Work with someone who can help you put together a professional resume that will resonate with gatekeepers in the private sector. Competition is fierce in the private sector, therefore it is important to market yourself accordingly. Find someone who can translate your public sector accomplishments into terms that are recognized and understood by industry. Help executives understand the value your skills and experience bring to them as they seek to accomplish their goals. Avoid acronyms and jargon that are commonplace in the public sector, but essentially foreign to people outside it. Resumes are what we call a “10 second event”. Unless the reader gets it within 10 seconds they will not read on.
By now, it should be clear to you that the private sector environment differs considerably from the public sector. The transition is not always an easy one. However, despite a sluggish global economy, the demand for executives from public service has not slowed. Just remember that with these jobs come new and specific expectations. Be very sure you understand how your new employer will measure your success.
Evan Scott is the CEO and a founding partner of the executive search firm ESGI. The company, based in Alexandria, Virginia specializes in working with private sector companies who sell products, services or consulting to Federal, State and Local Government. The firm assists these clients with recruiting senior level executives for their key positions. He serves as Chairman for The Membership Committee of The Homeland Security and Business Defense Council, serves on the board of The Washington Chapter-USO and is active at AFCIA, NDIA and Infraguard. Learn more about ESGI at www.esgisearch.com.