We should be looking to the public sector for our private sector leaders

August 4, 2010

By Dr. Rebecca Schalm
HR Columnist
Troy Media

CALGARY, AB, Aug. 4, 2010/ Troy Media/ – Many baby boomers who have been successful in the private sector actively seek ways to bring ‘meaning’ to their lives by translating their skills into other sectors, such as non-profits.

In fact, there has been a definite trend in the upsurge in corporate executives pursuing significant leadership roles in the not-for-profit sector. There are even a number of organizations which are dedicated to helping them make a successful transition into the not-for-profit world.

I have spent time with these leaders and, while their desire to make a difference in the world is genuine, they often find the transition between sectors to be challenging or downright frustrating.

I recently had the privilege of spending a couple of days with a few senior public-sector executives who were in competition for a CEO role in a venerable and critical institution.  To say I was left with the acute impression that I am an under-achiever in life would be an understatement.  At the end of the two days I couldn’t help thinking that we should forget how to get private sector leaders into the not-for-profit sector and look at how to get public sector leaders into the private sector.”  What did these leaders have that left me so awestruck?

Motivation to serve the greater good

Most private-sector executives are motivated by power or commercial interests.  They like to be in charge and they want to make money for themselves and the organizations they serve.  Public-sector leaders have a completely different set of drivers.  They are motivated by altruistic concerns – the desire to make the world and their community a better place.  The desire to serve is a core, enduring value that governs these leaders.

Managing competing and inter-related priorities

It is hard to find a private-sector executive who has the breadth and skill set required to address the myriad challenges facing an organization.  Top-drawer leaders in the public sector understand the multiple dimensions by which an organization is measured.  They speak of financial viability and cultural vibrancy within the same sentence.  They understand the importance of connecting in a deep and personal way with the people whom they lead, and serve.  Culture transformation is right up there with increased productivity.  They find a way to balance competing demands.

Sophisticated political savvy

To be effective in the not-for-profit and public sector requires a profound ability to know and understand a multitude of stakeholders – many more than any private company CEO has to deal with. The leaders I met have some of the keenest instincts around stakeholder management I have ever observed. They are not elected officials, so politicking is of no use to them.  To be successful, they need to engage a diverse and extensive community.  And they do so with aplomb.  Where others would become jaded or frustrated, they see opportunity. They maintain perspective, optimism and resilience. They deal with BP oil spill-like crises on a regular basis and respond with a cool and collected calm.  They always find the right words to soothe and convey the importance of an issue.

Uncommon compassion and insight into others

Understanding the views and perspectives of others is a key success factor for any leader.  To be truly compassionate and understanding while maintaining high standards around vision and performance is masterful.  Those who choose to serve the greater good are often, coincidentally, more compassionate and insightful by nature.  This often serves them well as they look to build relationships and coalitions with others.  What is particularly interesting about these leaders is that none of them is a pushover – they all retain high standards and a dedication to the cause of organizational excellence over concern for any one individual.  Leaders in the private sector are often trapped by the obligations of long-term relationships with people who are not serving them well, but whom they are uncomfortable confronting or dealing with.

The gender thing

The four people I met were women.  The reality is, women are attracted to the not-for-profit and public service.  And they are good.  Really good.  Women are under-represented in the private sector at every turn, from junior executive to board member.  In the service profession, women dominate.  Their style, motivation and approach seem to be more congruent, and they seem to be more interested in playing a significant role.  That is a shame.  Every one of the women I met could run a private sector organization without breaking stride.  But they don’t know it.  They probably aren’t interested.  And that is our loss.

Channels: The Calgary Beacon, Aug. 5, Financial Post, Aug. 5, Portage La Prairie, Aug. 6, 2010

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