When It’s Time for You to Go

The decision to leave public service isn’t easy. Two former federal executives offer five lessons before making the leap.

The decision to leave public service can be a difficult one. You took an oath to serve. You honored that oath. You lost weekends and holidays to the demands of the job. You endured shutdowns. You made many friends along the way, working on issues vital to the nation’s health and safety. And every two weeks, your check has been deposited into your bank account. You’ve had life insurance, disability protection, health care coverage, annual vacation time, sick leave. Perhaps you’ve taken some of these things for granted—not everyone in the private sector receives such benefits. But something has changed. You’re reconsidering your career prospects. What should you do next?

We know what you’re experiencing—we’ve been there. We overlapped for a time in government and have maintained a personal and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, over many years now. While we took different paths after we left public service, we share similar views about what federal executives should consider as they eye retirement or just moving on from government service. 

Both of us have been surprised to see “govies” who have worked for years in high-pressure, demanding jobs leave their government job on a Friday and begin working in a new private sector role on Monday. We have some advice for you.

Lesson No. 1: Plan to take some time off. Relax. Do some of those things you’ve put off. Enjoy yourself. Decompress and think about some of those options you considered before you left government. Even better, before you leave government or commit to something new, think seriously about what you really want out of this upcoming adventure. Your work in government probably gave you exceptional experiences, lessons, managerial insights, and entrepreneurial opportunities. You have so much more to offer than your Rolodex. 

Lesson No. 2: Start this process while you are still in government. Do your research. Learn how companies operate. Where would you best fit, both organizationally and culturally? Companies have their own cultures, just as government agencies do. Where would you be most comfortable? Meet with some friends or colleagues from industry that you know and respect—not to talk about specific opportunities, but rather fit, process, what to do and not do, and who else it might be wise to speak with. It is important that you understand you are interviewing your next employer at the same time they are interviewing you. You bring value, insights, wisdom, experience, a knowledge of the inner-workings of government. These are unique capabilities—your ace in the hole—and they differentiate you from others. 

Lesson No. 3: It’s not enough to know what you don’t want to do. So often, when we’ve asked about plans after leaving government, we hear “I don’t want to be in business development! I don’t want to be a door opener.” Business development is so much more than that. But regardless, one needs to be able to articulate clearly and directly “This is what I’m interested in and here’s what value I could add.” It is paramount that you can summarize your many years in government in a succinct way, that you can tell a story. But it is equally important that you can say what you want to do—and be—next. Know your value, how to express it and how it aligns with the mission and business strategy of the company you are meeting with. 

Lesson No. 4: Begin with the right questions. Sit down and start the winnowing process. Do you want to work full-time or part-time? Big company or small? One of us used to joke that if he wanted to work in a big company, he would have just stayed in government. It is after all, the Fortune One Firm. Would you prefer a non-profit, a university, a think tank, or an industry association? We’re not trying to compile a complete list, only enough to get you started. One of the former colleagues we saw make the happiest transition cobbled together a mix of consulting roles that would pay the rent with volunteer positions that gave him personal satisfaction. Everyone’s situation is different. You now have a rare opportunity to decide who you want to work with, how you want to work and where you want to work. You are a sought-after commodity, with valuable knowledge and insight about how government works, how to get things done. Study how all this might benefit an organization you would value. 

Lesson No. 5: Security comes from you, not from the job. Leaving public service and joining a firm provides a degree of assurance and a sense of security. Paychecks come regularly, the benefits can be generous. But don’t rule out striking out on your own. Believe in your talents, connections, and abilities. Talk to a financial advisor, a tax accountant. While the process of weighing all these options might feel overwhelming, just remember: you have options. That’s a good problem to have.

Alan P. Balutis is a senior director and distinguished fellow in Cisco Systems’ U.S. Public Sector. Pete Tseronis is founder and chief executive officer of the consulting firm Dots and Bridges.