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3 Skills the Private Sector Can Learn From Government

Public sector managers are hard-wired to handle complex demands.

Ask private sector managers what the public sector could learn from them, and the response is fairly consistent: rigor, delivery and focus. But when asked what they could learn from the public sector, the answer may not be so clear -- particularly after observing the frustrations wrought by the government shutdown.

The public sector is quick to adopt private sector ideas, vocabulary and even people, but rarely is the opposite true. This is odd because managing in the public sector not only requires a unique set of skills, but in many respects it’s more challenging. The lack of simple metrics and the demands of accountability make the key tasks of setting strategies, delivering efficiency and motivating people exponentially harder to achieve in government. Private sector managers should be looking at ways to bring model agency approaches into their workplaces, just as good public sector managers do the reverse.

Here are a few lessons private sector leaders could be missing out on:

1. The art of persuasion. Public sector managers typically spend more time than their private sector counterparts seeking to persuade diverse groups of people, including the public, other government officials and the media. They must work within a structure that often lacks clear command and control, and they frequently handle complex issues that require coordinated responses. In addition, they have to play the hand they are dealt. Government managers have far less discretion about who they work with, whether those people are citizens, politicians or counterparts at other agencies.  
These circumstances force public sector managers to be quick at identifying the strengths, weaknesses and objectives of colleagues. The exceptional leaders are adept at working with a variety of stakeholders, knowing when to compromise, and when not to, and getting things done in uncertain environments --  all skills that are vital in the private sector.

2. Complex decision-making. Public sector managers invest considerable time making complex and far-reaching decisions in the course of their careers, whether its making fine judgments about foreign policy or anticipating the federal assistance needs of diverse groups. So what does this say about the skills of public sector managers? Many are well-versed in identifying the stakeholders whom their decisions might affect as well as the long-term external factors that must be taken into account. Government managers are accustomed to consulting with a variety of people -- internally as well as externally. Instinctively they seek out experts and interested parties to test their ideas, listen to input and adapt their strategy accordingly. All these factors increase the chances of making good decisions.

By contrast, in many private sector organizations the default process is to make important decisions on the say-so of a tiny number of individuals. This is useful for straightforward, operational decisions but reduces the chances of getting complex decisions right.  

3. Crisis management. Government managers spend more time managing crises than their private sector counterparts, partly because they face more life-altering situations, and partly because they are subject to greater media scrutiny. The standard work week for many public sector leaders involves responding to negative publicity about their organizations’ actions. A major crisis, such as a terrorist attack or a virus outbreak, requires swift decision-making as well as careful media handling. Public managers are likely to be good at prioritizing, making sensible decisions and communicating effectively.

Of course, many private sector jobs involve crisis management and partnership as well.  It would be silly to suggest that all industry managers lack the persuasion and complex decision-making skills that are readily found in government. But it would be equally silly not to take advantage of this expertise in the public sector.

According to one highly successful businessman turned public servant, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sharing best practices is a two-way street. “The private sector does not think highly of public sector management -- they think they’re not smart, flexible or decisive,” he said. “The public sector thinks the private sector is corrupt.  Neither is right.”

Alexander Stevenson has worked with a variety of public and private entities as a management consultant in the United Kingdom and is author of Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable (Kogan Page, 2013).

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