Political afterlife: career opportunities for ex-staffers

By Sean Sammon

November 13, 2015

Travelling all over Australia, working with the best minds and being in the room as major decisions with the potential to change the future of the nation are made, are highs only few workplaces can provide.

The life of a political staffer provides many careers highs. You experience things some people work their entire life for — job satisfaction, an enviable salary, decision-making power. Often all before the age of 30.

With the highs come the lows. Redundancies following a cabinet reshuffle, your career is hinged to your minister or MP, elections and of course, the RSI following the addiction to your blackberry/iPhone.

As a political staffer, I survived one ministerial resignation and two leadership challenges. It was the third challenge that finally got me. When Kevin version 2.1 returned to the lodge, I lost my job following a reshuffle where sport (I finished my career as the sports advisor) was shifted from my then boss, Senator Kate Lundy.

So, what is a 27-year-old with no experience in the private sector, an accounting degree but minimal practical experience and a desire to keep earning public service wages to do? Well, the first step was to get a reality check. I went for three jobs, got to the second round for one of them and got rejected on the basis of “not having the required private sector experience”.

“You’ve got a lot of experience on paper, but it doesn’t mean much in the private sector…”

The second step — a realization of the real world. Jobs that pay $150,000 with generous allowances, which allow you to talk direct to the CEO, meet new and interesting people every day and travel around Australia and the world are few and far between outside the political world.

So, I took a pay cut, bought my life back and took control of my own future. Each political afterlife professional journey is different, but the key learning remains the same: it is rare that your profession can be your passion (such as politics). Find a passion and a profession; then they can be mutually exclusive.

On sharing the lessons I learnt transitioning from serving in office to working in the private sector, I hope to help others realise the same opportunities.

Buying your life back

It sometimes takes a small step sideways before you can move upwards. Accept you may need to take a pay cut for a time in order to get your foot in the door.

The frankest piece of advice I was given on leaving office was “you’ve got a lot of experience on paper, but it doesn’t mean much in the private sector.” And this certainly applied to salary expectations.

After working with such influential people and in prestigious roles, I assumed I’d be in good stead when it came time to move on. What I learnt was that to earn the same wage in the private sector, you’d likely have been responsible for managing large teams, developing systems and delivering commercial value to the business over a number of years.

In order to earn a salary that places in you the top 5% of earners nationally, you have to be a top performer and think about how you can make a commercial difference to the business.

“You need to be able to convince potential employers that you can transform your talents into commercial outcomes.”

When I was asked to join a start-­up government strategy firm, a business that was attempting to break the government relations mould and not offer any lobbying services at all, I took a $130,000 pay cut.

Salary is only part of equation, which I discovered after joining strategic advisory firm Bastion S&GO. Growing something from nothing, developing a professional partnership and friendship with managing director Phil Martin and facing the daily struggle of making business work can all replace a wage when you are working to create something bigger. I was rewarded with equity and eventually built the business up to give myself a pay rise.

This taught me to not try and replicate the amazing highs and lows of being a political staffer, but to view that job as my first career and whatever came next as the next big opportunity to grow.

Government relations is just one area you can move into

When you’re out of a government job, it can often be the first time you’ve been required to sell your skills. You need to be able to convince potential employers that you can transform your talents into commercial outcomes.

One of the first elements you will be judged on in the private sector is how to either make or save the business money. Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is demonstrating value in both cultural and commercial ways. In public life, my role had been to manage egos and issues. In my new role, I’m now responsible for motivating a growing team whilst facilitating million dollar deals.

Many ex-staffers find their networks lend themselves to moving into government relations work, which is the path I initially took, but it can also open unexpected doors. We recently opened a China Advisory helping Chinese business come into Australia and Australian businesses develop a China strategy.

For those that are entering the private sector for the first time, I recommend asking the following questions:

  • Where do I want to be in two years?
  • Do I want to work in politics or government again?
  • What is my dream job?
  • What skills did I learn in my political office?
  • How can I use the network I developed?

Don’t be afraid to use the network you have developed. The worst thing that can happen when you email or call someone is that they say no. The best thing that can happen is that they give you a job.

As for my path, I am now happily leading a team of the country’s best minds on the other side at Bastion S&GO. I’ve been given the opportunity to put my own stamp on how businesses can best to engage with government, their community and China. I’m able to call on my established networks, understanding of government process, ability to know “a little about a lot”. And, most importantly for me, I’m surrounded by an exceptional team and that’s something that made the jump into the private sector completely worthwhile and satisfying.

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