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, security consultant and author of the groundbreaking book, From One Winning Career to the Next. Quilter has spent more than four years assisting people who want to make the transition from the public to the private sector, drawing from his observations and his own experience moving from a long career with the DEA to successful Fortune 500 employment.
"Businesses today don’t want individuals coming right out of government," Quilter says. "If you can move right into a corporate job, it’s because you have really done your homework."
Start Preparing Early
"My consistent observation has been that the hardest part of the transition for people coming out of the public sector is that people currently in government do not see how important it is for them to become educated about what business does," Quilter says. "The cultural shift from public sector to private sector is absolutely huge. Ninety percent of these people don’t have a glimmer of understanding of the corporate environment. They don’t know what they don’t know about business. They don’t know how to talk to businesspeople or how to interview, and they don’t show confidence in communicating with executive leaders."
Quilter recommends that public-sector individuals looking to make the jump begin preparing two years before they plan to leave their government career. They should begin reading about business process and concepts, and they should begin networking with business people. "Get involved with ASIS and ACFE and get certified," he says. "That process is not just about getting the CPP or CFE, it’s about learning to deal with people who are in business. It helps you begin to build a network outside of your normal military, law enforcement and intelligence communities."
If you are not willing to put in the time and commitment to learn about business in that last two to three years, Quilter warns, you are not going to get those jobs. "You better be open and willing to step back and put your ego aside, because you really need a lot of training," he says. "You have to build up your business acumen in ways that make you comfortable with senior leaders in the business. You have to be able to walk the talk of business, not of security. You have to show them you’re here as a business partner, to make their job easier and to make their part of the business more profitable."
If you are one of the few who commits to the transition by preparing in advance and learning business, you must also identify the skills you have developed in the public sector that will benefit a company you would like to work for.
One of the most significant differentiators between the public and private sectors is what Rear Admiral (ret.) Chris Weaver calls horizontal integration — frequent, in-built collaboration between business units and functions. Weaver began consulting for and advising private-sector clients in 2006, after retiring from command of all Navy Installations worldwide.
"Since 9/11, there has been a much greater drive in government toward horizontal information sharing and horizontal integration," Weaver says. "The decade since 9/11 has demanded of federal security professionals a willingness to integrate horizontally, perhaps in a way that they have not previously." Weaver is one of many forward-thinking individuals who helped usher in this change in government.