Making the Jump From Public to Private

Twenty years ago, government retirees could walk straight from the public sector into a corporate position. Government experience was sought-after, and businesses were looking to hire it. Today, however, the picture has changed, says J.D. Quilter...

In 1999, Weaver, who was Commandant of the Naval District of Washington, D.C., and Tom Mahlik, then Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in Washington, D.C., began leading interagency crisis management exercises to improve leadership and address potential vulnerabilities they saw in a segmented or siloed event response. When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred two years later, their work contributed immensely to the resilience and effectiveness of Naval security and force protection responses in and around the Washington, D.C., target area. Together, their combined and consistent leadership, grounded and tested in the principle of dynamic exchange with multiple federal agencies and adjacent private constituents, helped deter immediate threats and achieve the risk mitigation levels required in the Naval District.

“With the last 10-year change in how business is done in government, I think that sense of horizontal integration and that tendency to ask ‘Why not?’ instead of ‘Why?’ regarding process — that willingness is an advantage in the private sector,” Weaver says. He adds that horizontal integration is the opposite of bureaucracy, which tends to foster isolated functions and strict hierarchy, and which has become associated with ponderous organizations that are difficult to navigate. “There’s bureaucracy in both the public and private sectors, and where it exists it is an inhibitor to effective delivery of products, whatever they happen to be.”

Weaver asserts that much of the problem comes from the segmentation of large companies into profit centers, which are, of course, judged on how much profit they bring. “Very often I have found there is a reluctance or unwillingness to work between profit centers because there may be a dilution of the measure of delivery of product each profit center provides.”

Mahlik brought his appreciation of horizontal integration from his government experience, most recently in senior executive positions as former Deputy Assistant Director, NCIS and as Section Chief at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to his new private-sector position as Director of Global Security Services for Raytheon Company’s Intelligence and Information Systems (IIS) business unit.

“Anybody straddling the public-private line is well attuned to this dilemma,” he says. “From where I sit now, that horizontal thinking has advanced my ability to confront obsolescence. I’m not afraid to go outside my comfort zone or specialty; in fact, it is an operating principle that senior company leadership demands of my team to achieve the next level of success. I find myself focused on building integrated teams and collaborative processes that have the best chance of solving the types of complex problems that dominate today’s shifting security landscape. Critical thinking comes from diversity of thought — sales, business development, R&D, facilities, security, IT, product line and supply chain functions. It is like being in a war — you fight shoulder-to-shoulder. That brings a whole different psychology to doing business. We can’t survive without being more diverse horizontally.

“When business functions operate exclusive of each other, the organization is likely to be less competitive or will be slow to react to changing conditions. This can be the difference between mediocrity and success,” Mahlik adds.

When departments do not share information with one another, threats and vulnerabilities go unrecognized or unaddressed, and opportunities are missed. There is likely to be significant redundancy of effort between departments in a variety of areas that costs the company unnecessary dollars.

Many companies claim to aspire to enterprise-like behavior — sharing, cooperation, partnership — but because they reward short-term gains and do not materially support coalition-building within the organization, they cannot achieve those aspirations. “It all comes back to behaviors driven by reward,” Weaver says. “Individual profit center performance is vertical. The challenge to the private sector is to change behavioral incentives to encourage horizontal integration in the company.” This is something public-sector experience can inform.


Looking to the Horizon

A second public-sector skill that can bring private-sector benefits is an ability to look at the organization’s strategy and risks with a long-range perspective. “In the public sector — particularly in agencies with a charter to protect national security — there’s a culture to share what you know,” Mahlik says. “Discussions are continuous around the strategic context of the intelligence and where it came from. You are accustomed to having your head on a swivel. Maintaining a good connection to the world environment, threats, opportunities and challenges can make all the difference. That’s why the government has 24-hour watch centers that collect raw information, monitor tripwires and help to piece intelligence together for decision-makers.”