Moving between the public and private sectors … and succeeding in either direction

By Alistair Mitchell

Thursday March 11, 2021

glass skyscraper buildings are common in the moce from public sector to private
What is it like in the private sector? Image: Adobe/ nuchao)

Telstra’s Nicole McKechnie and NBN Co.’s Felicity Ross speak with former public servant Alistair Mitchell about how to transition a career between the public and private sectors, or vice versa.

After spending nearly 14 years on the government payroll, I took the leap and started my own business. In the months that followed I was struck by the number of former colleagues who curiously asked: what was it like in the private sector?

Many revealed they were pondering a career move into, or back into, the private sector, but doubted whether their skills would be recognised as transferrable; or worried they might have been typecast by long public service careers and denied entry to the business world.

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Exploring this topic further, I recently hosted a webinar for Commtract, the marketplace for communications and marketing talent, focused on the career transitions between the public and private sectors by two senior executives who have done it several times over: Nicole McKechnie, Head of Communications at Telstra, and Felicity Ross, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at NBN Co.

Their five gems of advice are food for thought for anybody working in a public sector role and considering a move into the corporate world, or vice versa.

1. The public sector is a wonderful proving ground

Both Felicity and Nicole are huge advocates for the value of public sector experience in the corporate world, having both made the switch to corporate roles after earning their spurs in the public sector.

Felicity joined the press office of the London Metropolitan Police as an Aussie abroad in her mid-20s primarily because she needed a job to pay her London rent. She ended up staying eight years and getting promoted to Head of the Corporate Press Office.

Not only did she “absolutely love it” but the experience was invaluable, she says: “I really cut my teeth on issues management and crisis management. It was the best learning I’ve ever had regardless of sector, it really set me up for life in issues management, so I am eternally grateful.”

“There is no better place to build resiliency and cut your cloth than in government or political roles” – Nicole McKechnie

Nicole left her early career in regional journalism to join the police force in Victoria, where she would eventually return — after her own stint in the UK mainly in politics — to reach Director Media & Corporate Communications.

She says, “Like Felicity, the police force is absolutely where I cut my teeth in issues management and crisis management, there was a lot of it and it was a really interesting time. I look back on it really fondly and it set my career up including on how to talk truth at the top tables.”

The pair also both worked as advisers to the UK government, and in Nicole’s opinion, “There is no better place to build resiliency and cut your cloth than in government or political roles. I think corporates only benefit from having people from that environment and I feel pretty strongly about it. Understanding government is one aspect but the other is pace and the resiliency you build.”

2. Your skills are transferrable between public and private sectors — if you are agile and resilient

There are plenty of skills in common between the public and private sectors but it your direct comparable experience is less important than your willingness and ability to adapt and learn, agree Felicity and Nicole.

Felicity says, “An HR director whom I admire once said to me: ‘I always hire executives on the basis of their change resilience and learning agility’. I think it’s so true, you should be able to take your skillset across the sectors — they are common in terms of large complex organisations: leading diverse teams of people, drawing on that diverse thought.”

Nicole concurs but says you may be surprised once you get inside a corporate role at some of the differences, particular with listed entities. “I think as communicators we think we are pretty adept at being able to get into an organisation and quickly understand it, but you need to give yourself a bit of time to learn.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you get in there — things like continuous disclosure and reporting of financial results apply to some extent at organisations like NBN Co but they certainly don’t in a lot of government departments and certainly don’t in politics. Like any role, make sure you learn the rules of engagement.”

3. Develop a commercial mindset

A vital way to prepare yourself for some of the inevitable differences is to develop a commercial and financial mindset, say both executives. Nicole, for instance, went back to study in 2008, at Monash University, and got a Masters of Public Administration (ANZSOG), and Felicity has recently undertaken the AICD Company Directors Course.

“It is a complete misunderstanding to suggest that people in the public sector don’t have a commercial mindset” – Felicity Ross

But you can also refine your commercial acumen on the job in a public sector role, according to Felicity, who goes so far as to say, “It is a complete misunderstanding to suggest that people in the public sector don’t have a commercial mindset.

“You have the same reputation management issues. It may be that you get judged on your revenues [in the corporate sector] more than the focus on public perception or service delivery in the public sector but if you don’t plan for and understand them and your customers — which everyone has — then you won’t succeed [wherever you are]. They interplay constantly with each other”

4. Don’t get hung up on your job title

They were common audience questions at the webinar: “If you are transitioning between public and private sectors, should you expect to transfer at the same level?” And: “How do you identify seniority in the corporate world and how does it correlate to government titles and levels?”

Felicity and Nicole’s response is unanimous: “These days if you could get hung up on titles you may miss a really good opportunity.”

“Focus on the job you are doing rather than the seniority because, depending on the size of the company or department, or the span of responsibility of that role, titles are often not comparable,” says Felicity. She found that to be the case between federal and state government and then again at NBN Co which is Government Business Enterprise, and therefore a blend of public and private.

Telstra, like several top ASX businesses, has made a big push to do away with titles, says Nicole. Nicole is known as “an executive” internally and says it is all about breaking down hierarchy. She understands that for people looking at the organisation from the outside, it can be hard to understand the seniority of a role but it is up to the organisation to help ensure the right level and fit.

She also advises being prepared to take a drop in title to advance in the corporate world. “I had a head of comms role at Victoria Police and moved to a deputy role at Telstra, which some people thought was not at the same level — but Telstra is a huge organisation with a large team and a different environment, and I needed to cut my cloth first before I was able to move through the ranks.”

5. Use the Marie Kondo method, and choose a job that brings you joy

Both Nicole and Felicity admit to being classic Gen-Xers who grew up with the mantra that “you’re lucky to have a job, however horrific it might be” and that” it is your responsibility to get in front of the right person and win that job — and if you do, you are super lucky”.

They have both since shaken off that baggage and recommend you do not work for anyone who doesn’t appreciate the skills you bring from the public sector that will add diversity in the corporate sector. Both are passionate about choosing your employer and your leader wisely and not being afraid to ask frank questions about such things in interviews.

Nicole says, “Really think hard about who you are going to report into, their values and leadership style (along with the culture of the company) and how you feel about that and how it is going to work for you.

“Over my career it has become more important for me to ask myself: ‘How do I feel about that person, can I work for them, can I represent them, can I provide them with a strategy and help them show up publicly in a way that is going to work for them?’”.

Felicity even suggests asking yourself the key question from Marie Kondo’s best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: “It sounds cheesy but [ask yourself] “does it bring me joy?’,” she says. “When someone approached me about the NBN job the thought of it brought me immediate joy. I thought ‘this is the best job in Australia, I am so excited to be considered’.

“So, don’t got for a job just because you think other people will be happy or it will look good under your name because you will get over that very quickly and you’ll be miserable. You have got to be true to yourself and know what motivates you and where your skills will be valued most.”


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