There tend to be a lot of myths and assumptions about working across the sectors, whether about 'the hard private sector' or the 'inefficient public sector'. My career has spanned three of them, starting out in local government, moving into construction in the private sector, returning to the public sector as a senior civil servant and, more recently, becoming a trustee of an international NGO.
Working across the sectors can add considerable value to business delivery and aid personal development, but too often the frustrations and cultural barriers facing those trying to do so outweigh any benefits. Employers must therefore ensure there are both effective, visionary leadership and supportive processes and opportunities in place.
This was important for me as an ethnic minority woman, going from the public regeneration sector into a male-dominated private construction company. It was made possible because of the leadership shown by the COO at Turner & Townsend and the senior management team. On day one, I was allocated a 'buddy' and given a profile in the company's international newsletter outlining my credentials. I was given media training and represented the company in publications and round-tables. I participated in a year-long leadership and management course. While there was an element of educated risk on both sides, the leadership team recognised the need to open up to a new public sector market and they understood the value different skills could add to their strong technical construction skills base. My experience and established relationships, gained through working in local government, for example, helped develop a new regeneration arm in the south, and my urban design skills contributed to the new and growing sustainable places agenda.
In turn, I learnt a great deal from my colleagues through knowledge sharing and monthly project management meetings. In the private sector, everything is geared to meeting client needs. In the public sector, there is considerable accountability for spending, resulting in more processes and tiers of recommendations. What the private sector can add are the technical processes which define the stages of a project, identifying risks and options within a timescale to ensure value for money and to meet the bottom line.
My return to the public sector as a senior civil servant (SCS) was facilitated by a supportive permanent secretary who advised from the start that 'change was difficult'. There were some significant cultural barriers and jargon to overcome. Public accountability was paramount and risks were minimised, limiting innovation. Officials often worked in silos with distrust of the private and third sectors and of newcomers, who were seen as being parachuted in. As the only external SCS in my directorate, I often felt isolated and would have benefited from a buddy, or clearer information concerning learning events. However, my additional skills were recognised and used in developing and delivering the city strategy. I also established a learning network to enable dialogue between sectors and partnerships, resulting in my division winning the Business in the Community race for opportunity partnership and collaboration award in 2008.
Despite the challenges, the professionalism of senior colleagues in dealing with the constant change of ministers - and therefore of style and direction - while maintaining momentum was admirable. In four years as an SCS, I worked for four secretaries of state and seven ministers. I cannot imagine the impact that such constant change in the chairman and chief operating officer posts would have on the private sector.
Incorporating cross-sector skills can be beneficial for third sector organisations too. The trustees at Concern Worldwide, an international NGO which I am involved with, have a range of specialised skills which ensures that we add value. This was particularly relevant in this field, where programme partnerships with the private sector have been encouraged by the Department for International Development.
Indeed, the Government has played an increasingly important role in recognising the value of cross-sector skills. This reflects the wider policy agenda around creating new models of partnership between the private, public and third sectors as demonstrated by the new Work Programme, and the Big Society and localism agendas. The development of Social Impact bonds, the need for greater private sector investment in hard- to-reach communities, and the growth of foundations, all signal the need for greater dialogue and understanding between the sectors.
Too many managers trying to make the leap between sectors have experienced poor leadership, lack of communication, opaque recruitment processes, and a command and control environment, all of which contribute to poor morale and failure in delivery. What is needed is strong, visionary leadership within a supportive management framework of learning and opportunity. This framework not only enables a well-functioning team, but helps people survive across the sectors and actually enjoy the experience.
Nahid Majid OBE has worked across the sectors at senior levels, first training as a town planner and an urban designer. She started in local government, before entering the private sector as associate director of international construction company Turner & Townsend. She was also a senior civil servant in the Department of Work and Pensions, leading on area strategies. Most recently, she was director of programme development at the Mayor's Fund for London. She is an active volunteer and a trustee of Concern Worldwide, an international NGO.