CareerLink: Shifting trends in the public to private transition

More people leaving government to pursue corporate careers as businesses look elsewhere


Traditionally, government agency employees have been provided a steady supply of corporate security management roles at many levels. That has been an area of debate, speculation and frustration as the security risk function evolves and matures as a profession.

We have been asked many times if we thought if this trend will continue. There is a popular theory that organizations will begin—or have begun—to do more development of their internal staffs and to put strategies in place that allow them to cut external recruiting, lessening the number of individuals coming from government to the private sector in upper, middle and senior roles. I’ve personally seen evidence that this practice has taken hold in many organizations. As head of the executive search firm Security Management Resources, I have met with clients who specify that they do not want to consider job candidates who are leaving government and are seeking to join the private sector.

This does pose a dilemma, since at the same time, we are seeing more people leaving government service to look for private-sector employment as soon as they are eligible to exit, rather than waiting until a year or two away from the maximum age. These individuals are looking for a second career rather than a retirement job. That’s a very clear trend, and we are seeing a lot of people successfully leaving government and going straight to the private sector in a variety of corporate and service sector roles in the security community.

These two shifts seem to be antithetical to one another: more ex-government job seekers versus an apparent private-sector aversion to ex-government job seekers. I think the explanation is that, in spite of their decades-long symbiotic employment history, neither the public nor the private sectors have an accurate view of “the other side.”

On one hand, many in the private sector believe there is a rigid government leadership style that sits in direct opposition to corporate culture. Based on my observations of many executives across numerous agencies today, ex-government leaders are no more likely to have rigidity and culture problems than corporate leaders. It’s true that government leaders are likely accustomed to operating under generally strict guidelines and statutes, and that sometimes that extreme structure doesn’t translate well to private organizations. There are cultural hurdles to overcome for many if not most leaders making the transition. However, I’ve been witness to remarkable success stories from individuals who have quickly adjusted their styles and excelled across the public-private divide.

Large private-sector employers who hope to eliminate ex-government recruiting are missing another important consideration. If they’re hoping to find someone who is comfortable managing a $15 million or $100 million budget, with staffs that exceed 600 people (not including the guard force), then excluding the talent coming from a public agency will severely limit the number of candidates that exist.

In many government entities, leaders are given a lot of responsibility and authority over large staffs and very large budgets, even at the supervisory (GS-15) level. That experience by itself—irrespective of the agency they work for or their job title—is a great transferrable skill, because they’re dealing with financial considerations and planning, budget process, people process and planning, and personnel reviews in a large, complex setting. Corporations that discount that may be missing out.

However, government employees who believe that experience alone should or will entitle them to private-sector employment after retirement may not have a clear and adequate understanding of the private sector. Often ex-government employees think that because they’re the executive, deputy, or assistant director of a major activity that they will be in demand by the private sector. While that is true for those firms that just want to use up their rolodex contacts, the challenges of the selection process for a senior corporate security role will prove to be very unsettling and even demeaning. It is something that needs to be considered and requires thick skin.

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