From the private sector to public service: What ex-US corporate executives need to know

Incoming US presidents appoint up to 4,000 highly qualified individuals from a variety of backgrounds to serve on teams that will lead and execute their administrations’ priorities. Many of those individuals will come from the private sector with a strong willingness to serve their country but little to no government experience.

The differences in serving in the private and public sectors are immense. In the US government, the customers are around 330 million citizens. The stakeholders are different. Rules and laws are different. Even the language people use is different. And the media and regular congressional hearings add an additional layer of oversight and accountability: the words and decisions of public-sector leaders are scrutinized by both the public and numerous oversight bodies. In such a unique environment, US government leaders must find ways to maximize impact for all Americans—particularly the most vulnerable.

To help incoming US federal leaders (especially those coming from the private sector), we have put together four directives based on our experience in working with public-sector leaders and on in-depth interviews we conducted with former government officials who transitioned from the private to the public sector (see sidebar: “A panel of experts”).

1. Take the time to get to know your organization

I left government with an unbelievable sense of optimism about the talents of the people who were doing the work. If you can capture their hearts and minds about making a difference, they do amazing things every single day.
—Tom Allin

Start by listening

Tactically, one of the first things I did was meet with every cabinet department. I made a point to go to them. I made it clear I wanted to meet as many of them as I could and understand what they cared about and what they were doing. And when you say you’re there to listen, you have to actually listen and not pretend to listen. For me, that ultimately meant reshaping programs and adjusting our vision and agenda based on what we were hearing.
—Beth Cobert

You have to meet your team members where they are. Ask them questions and really try to understand them. I learned a lot. And I realized I needed to set the tone for who I was and help them understand why I was there. I wanted to make it clear that I was there to try and put a dent in the needs of the VA [US Department of Veterans Affairs].
—LaVerne Council

Dedicate time early in your tenure to gain a thorough understanding of government, as well as your agency, customers, and ecosystem of stakeholders. Meet with as many of them, from constituents to fellow political appointees (many of whom will also be new) to career civil-service colleagues, as possible.

In getting to know the stakeholders (civil servants, especially), come from a place of humility: many workers have been at the organization long before you and will likely remain there long after you leave. Begin by listening and asking questions about previous priorities, what the workers care about, and consistent challenges.

When you’re a high-ranking government official, people tend to come to you. Instead, get out of your office, meet with your teams where they work, and listen to what they have to say. You will learn more about your organization and the culture, build trust, and have the opportunity to introduce yourself genuinely.

Figure out what motivates your staff

In the private sector, you [may] never change your entire C-suite in four years. In the public sector, you’ll have employees who can name the last seven [cabinet] secretaries, so there is a feeling of, “I’m going to be here after you leave” and “Why should I do this [for you]?” You have to come up with a reason why the work is a benefit to the citizen, as well as the employee, so that it can be successful and accepted.
—Tom Allin

Most people are there for the mission and the service. Recognition is also important. There are far more recognition programs in government than anywhere in the private sector, and you’ll learn that those are meaningful. Try to attend all of them. People also love having the opportunity to be involved with higher-visibility special projects and learn more. Seek opportunities to offer continuous learning.
—Beth Cobert

As I was trying to understand the career people—who they were, why they were there, their backgrounds, what they care about—I found out that 56 percent of my team were veterans. So I realized that 56 percent of my team was working for themselves. For the other 44 percent, what was our incentive? To make the VA great for the other 56 percent of our colleagues.
—LaVerne Council

Spend time unpacking what truly motivates your team. You can run a survey, conduct skip-level focus groups, or spend one-on-one time with your employees. As a public-sector leader, your ability to incentivize your staff will be fundamentally different from what it was in the private sector. In the public sector, the performance pay and other financial incentives that exist throughout the private sector are almost entirely off the table. However, a number of other tools for rewarding and inspiring employees do exist, including the prioritization or publication of an employee’s passion project, increased access to leaders, professional-development opportunities, and public recognition.

Acknowledge the drive and talent of your government employees

People in government are unbelievably talented, and there is an underappreciation for how hard their operating environment is because of the bureaucracy, regulations, and added process steps. I compared private-sector and public-sector efforts to one group running a sprint and another running an obstacle course. They’re heading to the same place, but it’s a lot harder to get there [for the obstacle-course runner].
—Suzette Kent

If you have any assumptions about the private sector attracting the most talented employees, cast them aside. Every former government leader we spoke with lauded their government employees’ talent, dedication, and drive. What’s more, each underlined that nearly every case of subpar output was the result of inefficient (albeit usually necessary) processes, not people. Take time to get to know your staff. Find ways to remove barriers—for example, by aligning stakeholders and working with the CFO to adjust budgets so that staff can do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

2. Learn how to navigate rules and processes effectively

If you think stakes are high in the private sector, they’re really high in the public sector because every single thing you do is on display. This is a culture where people don’t try because they fear failure. It’s a tough place to make a mistake.
—Suzette Kent

Understand that rules and processes are optimized for fairness

You can’t hire in the same way that you can in the private sector. Work takes longer, and you don’t necessarily have all the people you need. So you have to be very strategic.
—LaVerne Council

What I could do in a day or month in the private sector takes months or years in the public sector due to the bureaucracy, funding cycles, and process steps that have been layered in over time. There are reasons for some pieces, but the timeline to deliver results can get elongated.
—Suzette Kent

It’s a terribly difficult process to go through, hiring people. And it’s the same when you’re trying to hire a resource. The rules in government were not designed for effectiveness or efficiency. They were designed for fairness and to prevent fraud [and] eliminate conflicts of interest.
—Tom Allin

A federal government, with its immense size and specific purpose, can’t and shouldn’t operate like a private company does. In government, your focus should be on fairness rather than efficiency. The private sector often focuses on the bottom line and the maximization of shareholder returns, with efficiency as the watchword. In the public sector, however, the mission is fairness—maximizing impact for all Americans, paying special attention to which Americans may need the most help.

Government work significantly differs from private-sector work in three specific areas: budgeting, hiring, and procurement. Funding is relatively easy to realign in the private sector. However, in the US public sector, it’s proposed by the president and appropriated by Congress, and any significant potential changes must be approved by both. In the private sector, you may choose, for example, to hire an individual with whom you have worked previously and not always go through a lengthy interview period that casts a wide net, but in the public sector, many jobs are highly coveted, come with a level of access, and must be competed for according to a specific process, with fairness the top priority. The procurement process in the public sector is different, too: you must use a contracting officer and remain “vendor agnostic,” and your requirements are crisp, clear, and specific.

The litany of government rules and formal processes may be frustrating to you in your initial transition from the private sector, but accepting that the rules, regulations, and processes are in place for a reason is the first step toward effectively navigating them. Find out who in your office is well versed in the regulations relevant for your work and leverage that knowledge. Or you could bring someone onto your team who can help you learn to navigate the processes properly and quickly.

Bureaucratic processes exist to ensure that issues are well considered. The decisions that federal leaders make are big and complicated, and they may have implications that you don’t realize. You can move through the decision-making process smartly and more quickly, but you will have to remain focused on the issues that will have an impact. The private sector, by comparison, tends to have a shorter and slimmer decision-making process. What you can bring in from the private sector, among other capabilities, is the ability to navigate processes efficiently while considering all the steps and rules.

Build a problem-solving culture for quick, effective navigation of the rules and regulations

Process matters, but it’s about going back to the root cause of why this process is here. It’s important to understand the point of this process, why it exists, and how to be creative and innovative to hold to these principles but execute in a way that gets us there faster.
—Beth Cobert

Success is a result of determination, persistence, and resilience. Don’t let barriers stop you—and there will be plenty .... When I started, there was a rules-based culture rather than a values-based culture. I often talked about the courage of common sense because, many times, people knew what the right thing to do was, but they wouldn't do it, because of a rule that was in place, even if it didn’t make sense .... There’s a story of a veteran who shows up to the VA with a broken foot and called the hospital for help getting inside and was told he had to call 911 for help because the person just inside the door wasn’t supposed to go outside.1 Rules like that—that block one’s ability to do the right thing—can be frustrating.
—Tom Allin

Once you understand the rules, regulations, and processes of working in the federal government, the next step is to learn to navigate them quickly and effectively. As a leader, foster a problem-solving culture that focuses on creative and innovative execution. You can build such an organizational culture by shifting from statements like “we can’t solve this, because of XYZ,” to those like “we can solve this if ABC.”

Don’t assume that innovative ways of working are restricted by law. What may be preventing change are inertia and an attitude along the lines of “this is how we have always done these things.” One interviewee shared that their idea was turned down based on an outdated memo written nearly two decades ago. The interviewee updated the memo, with leadership sign-off, and then was able to move forward with their idea.

Encourage your teams to anchor on the outcomes they’re trying to achieve and to present what needs to change for those to become a reality. A change in law—which you may also strategize on making happen—may be required. But in many cases, the solution may be more straightforward: you may need to get stakeholders aligned on a new approach or ask a cabinet secretary to update guidance.

3. Map your stakeholders and build a ‘coalition of the willing’

Understanding the different levels of who cares about things and why they care is far more complicated in government. You have to ask, “Which voter or citizen cares about this?” And getting down to what they actually care about is very hard and complex. It’s not as straightforward as in the private sector. Always ask your teams to tell you who cares [about a particular issue]. If they can’t tell you, then why are we focused on it?
—Suzette Kent

Don’t hide things from or take an adversarial position with the stakeholders. Don’t wait for them to come to you when things are bad. I had my team meet with our auditors; they had never met with their auditors. I needed the team to understand the risks they were trying to avoid. Then we started to make progress on the risks because we all started to understand what everyone’s role was and recognize that [the basis was] not “everyone’s out to get you.”
—LaVerne Council

Be mindful of your organization’s relationship to the rest of the government. The US federal government isn’t centrally concentrated, unlike many private-sector scenarios, and it’s subject to a variety of oversight bodies, including congressional committees, media, and advocacy groups. Your role will likely require coordination with other parts of the federal government, including Congress and other departments and agencies within the executive branch, as well as with state, local, tribal, and territory governments and stakeholders.

Each stakeholder will likely have different incentives and standards for success. A member of Congress, for example, will likely prioritize what is important for constituents in their state, while you, as a member of the executive branch, will be expected to consider every American.

Try to reinforce that you’re all on the same team. Proactively work to establish trust and transparency within your organization, as well as among your team, other agencies, and oversight bodies. To build a sense that you’re all working to serve the nation better, anchor interactions and conversations in your common objective of serving the American people. Establish a positive and transparent relationship (prior to meeting out of necessity) by taking the time to understand what each person you’re meeting with cares about and sharing information about your own work as transparently as possible. If and when your agency or department comes under scrutiny, take personal responsibility and protect your team’s ability to do its work without fear of harsh judgment. Make it clear that you are ultimately responsible for your team’s outcomes.

4. Adjust how you measure success and recognize your work’s impact

When I was offered this role, it took me about 15 seconds to decide that this was something I wanted to do. I wanted to help create a country and a government that works for people. It was a massive professional challenge … and I knew that if we got it right, we could make an enormous difference.
—Beth Cobert

Pay attention to the outliers

If you’re going to close a Social Security [Administration] office, for example, it’s not like a bank or store, where people can choose to go to another bank or store. In government, you have to answer: For whom is this service a life necessity? What is the mechanism by which you’re going to provide service to them? What if they don’t have a computer? What if they are disabled and can’t get around? What if they don’t have money for transportation?
—Beth Cobert

There is a real need to deliver solutions that fix large problems without adding complexity. I always worked with the team to develop solutions that solved difficult problems by breaking the problem down into smaller parts and solving for the key parts first to bring change and relief to the stakeholders.
—LaVerne Council

We were not trying to create an “average” or “one-size-fits-all” experience at the VA that applied to the majority of veterans. From our conversations with veterans, we realized that veterans who were younger women, for example, had very different expectations and experiences at the VA than older, Vietnam-era [male] veterans. We created persona cards as a way to understand the needs of specific groups. We tried to understand the mainstream as well as the extreme. We learned insights from the outliers that we applied to others as well.
—Tom Allin

Taking an 80/20 approach (80 percent of the answer comes from 20 percent of the cause, according to the Pareto principle) doesn’t work in the public sector. In the public sector, you must think about that 20 percent—about the issue that is an outlier or not perceived as normal. A solution that works for only 80 percent of people will not work in government. As a public servant, it’s part of your job and mission to think about how to take care of the individuals who are often overlooked and who may well be in that 20 percent: the homeless, those who struggle regularly with mental-health issues, and other vulnerable people.

Get creative about how you measure success

In the private sector, you’re taking human capital and financial capital, and you’re creating a product or service, and you have an outcome of sales and profits. In the government, there is no outcome; you only have output. You get a budget, and your goal is to produce output. We came up with a proxy for sales—effectiveness, as defined by the customer—and the profit was efficiency, as defined by the taxpayer.
—Tom Allin

Government work tends to measure outputs (the length of a hospital stay, for example) rather than outcomes (the health of its citizens, for example). As a leader, work to identify the outcomes and seek the data that allow you to measure their success. This task can be challenging. In the private sector, the goal is typically to make things happen (sell more products, for example), while in the public sector, the goal is often to avoid something from happening (for example, preventing a major infra­structure breach or a terrorist attack). Figure out how to measure successful deterrence and avoidance, as well as the more tangible results.

The ability to measure success is so important because it motivates the team, provides stakeholders with insight on progress, and adds perspective to what matters.
—LaVerne Council

Pivot and prioritize

Time has a different meaning in government versus the private sector, and your relationship to it will also be different. Your days will be filled with congressional hearings, as well as meetings with the press and events with various stakeholders. You will need to balance managing those appointments with making time to accomplish what you want to get done.

One interviewee recommended defining what success means to you personally for the duration of your appointment and in increments of six or 12 months at a time. Then develop one plan for your organization to ensure that everyone—lawyers, the procurement team, technical colleagues, and the press office—is all working toward that definition of success, not getting distracted by lower-priority items. Regularly review your calendar to assess whether you’re spending time in a way that supports the achievement of those goals. Be deliberate with your time, making sure you have enough of it to push the priorities that brought you to government work and will ultimately be your legacy. Finally, it’s crucial to prioritize. You won’t be able to accomplish everything: some issues will fall, and new issues will arise.

Focus on the goals that are important by allowing your team to stop activities that no longer bring value, and work together to create ways to do the things that are repeatable and consistent through well-understood, efficient processes.
—LaVerne Council

Delivering results takes tenacity and relentless focus. Communicate goals and priorities clearly, often, and in simple terms. When you com­municate about your goals, include those who influence actions, including other discipline areas in an agency, vendor partners, service providers, special-interest groups, good govern­ment groups, and congressional staff.
—Suzette Kent

Remember what brings you energy

I was always inspired by the VA’s strong mission. I embraced that mission. Sixty percent of the men in my family are veterans. So for me, this was about the opportunity to serve and a chance to make a difference for our veterans, working with a great group of people who felt the same way.
—LaVerne Council

Government service can be draining. Everyone’s source of energy is different; make sure that you find and tap into yours. One interviewee told us that what energized them was meeting with different veteran groups at events both in and outside of Washington, DC, and then incorporating stories from those visits and trips into their daily meetings and communications.

Spending time with frontline employees always reinforced my mission, and I would return from these trips humbled by my responsibility to support them. The privilege of service and the passion for the mission drove us every day to find solutions for an improved veteran experience. We drew energy from the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life.
—Tom Allin

Transitioning from the private to the public sector in the United States is an exciting opportunity for leaders to use their unique skill sets to advance the mission of serving the American people. To have the best and most positive impact on the country, take the time to get to know your organization, learn how to navigate the new rules and regulations effectively, map your stakeholders and build a coalition of the willing, and adjust how you measure success.

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