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, 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.

Horizontal Integration

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.

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, DC, 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 mutually exclusive of each other, the organization is likely to be less competitive or will be slow to react to changing conditions. This can mean 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 the agencies with a charter to protect our 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."

This constant intelligence gathering, and the concurrent analysis that leads to new knowledge, significantly heightens the leader’s ability to understand risk on a broader scale, to see issues that are just over the horizon, and to prepare for those effectively. It also hones his or her skill in identifying sources, leveraging systems and finding relevant information quickly.

"In the private sector, however, many companies are only now just starting to understand and embrace the strategic value of the non-aggregated intelligence that exists in the business," Mahlik says. "While rigorous intelligence gathering may occur during a crisis at most companies, it is rarely considered in the normal state and may even be outsourced in certain instances."

"One of the things that inhibit long-range examinations in the private sector is the quarterly conference call with boards of directors and investors," explains Weaver. "When company leadership’s main focus is improving quarterly and semi-annual revenue reports, it often leads management to make shortsighted decisions that increase short-term profits and stock value at the expense of longer-term efficiency and revenue. While profit is not unimportant, this kind of approach further amplifies vertical, rigid bureaucracy," he adds.

"It can be hard to persuade companies to think in broader terms about the role of intelligence — who collects it, and how it gets infused — because there’s an immediate and recurring cost to build such a capacity internally," Mahlik says. "What’s the risk of not meeting my numbers for this quarter? That’s a tactical concern that could potentially, and often does, cloud longer-term operational strategies that could very well make the quarter-to-quarter risks easier to manage, predict and mitigate."

Developing new products, predicting the movement of the industry, tapping unique opportunities — none of these things can be done from a strictly tactical, profit-center outlook. A leader with public-sector experience, because of the nature of the government’s long-term planning process, will likely contribute a leadership style that demands intelligence and advocates a strategic perspective. A company that puts someone in the position to do this well understands risk as a strategic issue and values its importance. That individual has a difficult challenge: to prevail over the short-term profit motives while still respecting the need for revenue building, and to instill a sense of longer-range integration over a period of time.

 Succession Planning

One factor of long-range planning is succession planning — another valuable skill that public-sector leaders can bring. "In government it’s paramount," says Mahlik. "Often you know who the next leader in line for command will be, and as a leader you are deliberately focused on mentoring, coaching, inspiring and closely watching a number of your subordinates or others in adjacent areas for promotion. A plan is always in play to prepare them to take the lead and give them the experience and opportunities to learn at the next level. This is a lesson that is not as formal or as pervasive as it should be in the private sector security business. And the lessons of the public sector are particularly fitting in today’s industry when the costs to recruit, hire and on-board the best qualified talent are high and getting higher. Growing your own talent seems to be a wise and perhaps a more economical option," Mahlik adds.

Weaver is quick to point out, however, that while succession planning is crucial, it must be done correctly to be valuable. "There’s a difference between building someone up as a successor and giving someone a job because they are next," he says. "The fact that you have 20 years of experience in the organization may only mean you have one year of experience 20 times. Knowing a company’s culture through years of inside experience can be helpful, but it may not match the benefit of having new eyes and innovative approaches to similar goals. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t make it optimum for growth and transformation."

Companies need to be unafraid to hire outside the company if they want best of breed when the internal leaders are not there. A combination of internal and external experience may be the best recipe for success.

Money Matters

One of the reasons all of these skills — horizontal thinking, cooperation, long-range sensibility, intelligence building, and succession planning — are more prevalent in the public sector is that public-sector leaders are able to hone them in an environment that is not profit-centric. That may be the biggest advantage for retired public-sector leaders who are entering a second career. Having developed these competencies free of the pressure of the profit-center perspective, the quarterly conference call, and a “me-first” business culture, they can adapt their abilities to a profit-focused organization with the confidence and experience to assert that some protection elements should be non-negotiable and other issues can be adjusted to help the company build value.

At the same time, it may be the biggest challenge. Entering the private sector, as Quilter frequently emphasizes, entails a jarring culture shift. Moving from an environment where profit is relatively unimportant to one where profit is king is certain to cause conflicts, and too many public-sector individuals looking to make the jump do not prepare for these differences adequately.

"All of the skill and know how of public-sector leaders is really tremendous," Quilter says, "but none of that will matter if they don’t know how to play the game. You have to really study business and learn how to play if you want to be able to apply these skills that you have."

 Marleah Blades is senior editor for the Security Executive Council (, which provides strategy, insight and resources to risk mitigation decision makers. The Council incorporates input from all industry segments into proven practices to provide an array of options that solve pressing issues. With a faculty of more than 100 successful experienced security executives, we work one-on-one with Tier 1 Security Leaders to help them reduce risk and add to corporate profitability in the process. To learn about becoming involved, e-mail