IN MY OPINION: Chartered Management Institute companion Pauline Perry, ex-president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, urges mutual public/private sector help

IN MY OPINION: Chartered Management Institute companion Pauline Perry, ex-president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, urges mutual public/private sector help - When I spoke to a seminar of senior managers a few years ago, I described the company of wh

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When I spoke to a seminar of senior managers a few years ago, I described the company of which I was chief executive: it had an annual turnover of about pounds 100 million, about 3,000 employees and assets in the region of pounds 200 million. I was talking about South Bank University. I watched with some amusement as they checked their programmes, muttering to each other that they thought I was from the education sector - there must be some mistake!

Despite greatly improved contacts in recent times, the assumption that leaders and managers from the private sector have nothing in common with their counterparts in the public sector - and certainly nothing to learn from them - lingers in the minds of many. But the similarities in many senior roles, not least in the role of chief executive, seem far greater than the differences. We have much to learn from each other.

As a member of the leadership research steering group, chaired by Sir John Egan and carried out by Demos for the Chartered Management Institute, I was delighted to see that the characteristics of leadership most admired by junior managers - inspiration, the ability to provide vision, to look to the future and to handle change - are common to both sectors.

Outstanding examples of this kind of leadership can be found across both.

In the public sector, famous heads of schools and leaders in academic life, inspirational leaders of the churches, politicians and commanders in the armed forces who never managed a private-sector business in their lives are recognised as models. Managing change has been a way of life for leaders in the public sector in recent years, and it takes a strong and inspirational person to manage such constant change without damaging staff morale or standards of customer service.

It is therefore a sad reflection that the trade in learning has for so long been seen as a one-way street. In education, we have had employers as governors of schools and colleges. The civil service has time and again been reviewed and reorganised by advisers from the private sector, and representatives from the private sector govern our hospital trusts and health authorities.

All this has been excellent. In the public sector we have benefited greatly from the example and advice, freely given by busy and expert women and men from the private sector. We have learned the huge lessons of how to be demand-led instead of supply-led. We have learned the importance of rewarding people according to their performance rather than to inflexible formulae that reward everyone on the same nationally agreed pay scale.

We have learned that sometimes it is enough to be - as one of my governors once said - 'just 51% right' instead of waiting till we're sure of being 100% right.

John Major's Citizen's Charter initiative was a bold way of injecting a discipline into the public services to take the place of the market discipline that controls quality in the private sector. Its success across many public services has been too little celebrated, but it is impossible to see the Chartermark winners each year without recognising how profound the changes have been in attitude and performance.

So what can the private sector learn from us? Styles of leadership in many of the public services have evolved over the centuries in very different climates from those of the commercial world. In academic life, for example, we have long known that different activities need different timescales.

Reaching an executive decision is right when it comes to building for expanded student numbers, but changing the nature of the admissions or examination process requires lengthy consultation and space for dedicated academics to accept the reasons for change and add their experience and expert knowledge to the decision.

The slow processes of committees and internal debate often frustrate our friends from the private sector, but they fit the kind of staff whose commitment and professionalism we enjoy. The public sector, I would venture, understands the mindset of professionals better than the private sector.

Our staff are more concerned with their clients, students or patients than with the preoccupations of their managers. It is from their clients that they derive their rewards and to whom they see themselves as accountable.

In academic life, we have to deal with people whose reputation is international; who seek satisfaction in recognition from their peers around the world, and not in any reward their management can offer. We have learned over centuries how to bring out the best in such people, and have much to offer to employers in the knowledge economy who find themselves with a similar workforce.

Without wishing to claim the moral high ground, I am well aware that the public sector has operated for centuries on the basis of core values at the heart of all it does. We have clarity about our core values, and therefore our core business, which I often find lacking in the private sector. However often we fail in living up to the values we profess, they are accepted and embraced by all professionals within many public services.

There are lessons here that the private sector might well find of real worth.

Baroness Perry of Southwark remains an honorary fellow of LCC.

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