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Unwilling Bedfellows
The C Word—Collaboration at the Interface of the Public and Private Sectors

By Fiona Eldridge and Dr. Sabine Dembkowski

In our earlier two-part article (BCW, February and June 2010), we looked at the challenges of working in new public-private sector organizations following the banking crisis. Since we began this series, the need for individuals and organizations to work together in new relationships has increased. For the first time in decades, the British government is a coalition and governments across Europe are called upon to work together to help out other European Union countries in crisis. Within countries, individual organizations from both the public and private sectors are having to work together. So what are the challenges of the C Word (collaboration) and how can coaching contribute to developing the key skills necessary for it?

As we outlined previously, our experience and research suggest that the key challenges are:

  1. Different cultures--behaviors and expectations
  2. Greater complexity of stakeholder groups
  3. Leadership and management styles
  4. Process versus purpose
  5. Depth and breadth of subject matter know-how
  6. Murkier measures of success
  7. Language and vocabulary

In this article, we explore the skills/behaviors required to address these challenges and describe how coaching can help executives at the interface between public and private organizations develop and enhance these skills.

Putting aside the professional skills required for specific posts, we have identified seven core requirements for roles at the interface:

  1. Strategic thinking
  2. Communicating
  3. Negotiating and influencing
  4. Adaptability
  5. Planning and organizing
  6. Personal resilience
  7. Teamworking

To illustrate how coaching can support individuals in responding to these challenges, we have provided short case examples. These are based on real cases but some details have been changed to preserve anonymity.

1. Strategic thinking

Working at a high level in any organization requires the ability to think and act strategically. However, for executives working at the public-private sector interface, its importance is magnified because of the political imperatives and potential social and economic consequences of actions. Anyone entering a leadership role in such an organization needs to be able to take a broad view of the issues and challenges the organization faces, anticipate the future, and develop a strategy for achieving goals. In commercial organizations, executives are used to developing a vision for the business and then a plan to accomplish that vision. For organizations under public control, the vision may be determined externally by political imperatives and executives have to determine how to deliver it. At times of governmental change, the whole direction of the organization may also change, creating a need for fleetness of foot in strategy development.

In addition, the executive has to scan the political and economic environment and understand the wider context in which the organization operates. For executives coming into contact with the public sector for the first time, the need to understand political drivers and implications is likely to be a new experience. Working collaboratively includes developing an understanding of how the different cultures of the various sectors may affect priorities and impact organizational goal achievement. One key way in which different cultures impact upon strategy is that the public sector is used to taking a four- or five-year approach (linked to government term of office). In contrast, private-sector organizations, although they do make medium-term plans, are more likely to be working to short annual cycles to satisfy shareholders.

Case example:

When Sophie joined her organization, she experienced a steep learning curve. She had had some experience of the public sector while working as a consultant, but had not really appreciated what it would be like to live the complexities on a daily basis. Some early errors with quick decisions--creating adverse media comment--led her to seek our assistance to develop alternative approaches that would balance external and internal stakeholder needs. Her coach worked with her to produce an impact-analysis approach which she could apply to major decision making. For each stakeholder group, she examined the likely impact and its severity. At the end of the exercise she had developed greater awareness for the specific needs of each stakeholder group. This enabled Sophie to adapt strategies to mitigate, as far as possible, against severely adverse consequences for any stakeholder group. She also had a better understanding of the impact her behaviors had on each group and the behaviors and actions she could display in the future to achieve a more desired impact.

2. Communicating

We have already commented that one of the challenges for our clients has been the difference in language and vocabulary between the private and public sectors. It is therefore doubly important that executives are effective communicators. They should be clear and precise both when speaking and writing, and check the understanding of others. They must also be able to think about situations from the perspective of their different audiences and tailor their language and tone accordingly.  

Case example:

Kurt's working world changed dramatically with the intense media scrutiny surrounding his organization after the banking crisis broke. Suddenly he was working with new colleagues from the public sector as the government stepped in to run the bank. Kurt became acutely aware that, as a manager, it was not only what he said but how he said it that was important with both internal and external audiences. He worked with his coach to identify his communication challenges, including communicating with colleagues from very different backgrounds, as well as adverse customer and wider societal reactions. By planning and thinking about the impact of each message he had to deliver, Kurt was able to anticipate potential questions/challenges from his audiences. He also matched the method of delivery with the nature of the message--not delivering bad news by email. His coach also worked with him on personal presentation so that the way he put across his messages exuded competence and confidence.

3. Negotiating and influencing

In a situation where executives are working at the interface of public and private organizations, it is probable that they are in a position where there are many conflicting agendas. In these circumstances, and to achieve organizational objectives, it is essential that they identify the key players, understand where the real power lies, sell the benefits of their proposals, and tailor arguments to the specific needs of the other party. In essence, they need to be able to persuade another person or group. Executives also need to be able to bring supporters onboard and create alliances before entering a specific setting. It may at first seem that with a hierarchical structure it might be easier to identify the key players in public-sector organizations. However, it is not that straightforward, as different functions and different organizations have different degrees of influence.

Case example:

James is a recently appointed Director of Resources for a large UK public-sector organization with an overall budget of over £400 million. Previously he held a senior position in an organization providing IT solutions. Since the recent elections, emails have been arriving daily from central government announcing the cuts required to begin to address the budget deficit. With less money, James still has to ensure high-quality services for both internal and external stakeholders. It is clear to him and others in the top team that this cannot be achieved without working with partners. However, many of those he now needs to bring onside have spent the last few years arguing and blocking what his organization has been trying to achieve.

James wanted to work with his coach on making the great variety of “partnerships” he had to forge as effective as possible. The approach was to help James identify stakeholders for his area. Once he had done that, he mapped all the interrelationships between the groups and his coach suggested that he use his team to help provide background on who really held the power in each group. Visualizing the relationships on a chart really helped him see where his leverage points might be and also understand the complexities of his new organization's situation. Having identified the power holders, James then decided to organise one-to-one meetings with them. This gave James invaluable insights into their concerns and preferences. Working with his coach, James then decided what approach to take with each individual to sell the benefits of the partnership. The next step will be for James to ensure that he has other champions for his preferred approach before the next key meeting.

4. Adaptability

It is an often-quoted truism that 'change is the norm.' However, in the current climate the need to be flexible and adapt to changing priorities has rarely been so important. For executives in public-private settings, new directions and new imperatives are flowing on an almost daily basis. Organizations that were set up under one political regime have to adapt to new political masters--some have a change of focus, some are being phased out completely, and others are charged with merging with other organizations. Those leading the organizations have to be adaptable both on a personal and an organizational level and need to tailor the speed of their change strategy to the situation.

Case example:

John joined a public-private organization after spending his entire career in private-sector industry, where he had proved himself in three large-scale change initiatives. In fact, he was chosen for his current role specifically because of his experience. He could bring to the table a particular approach he developed and compiled while working with different consultancies in the previous change projects. He felt well prepared. However, three months into the change initiative, he found himself isolated, could report limited progress, and had failed to achieve several milestones.

In our coaching sessions, we reflected on all that had happened since he joined the organization and John became aware that he had failed to change himself. He had a plan, applied the methodologies and tools that worked so well in the past, and treated this initiative as “business as usual.” During the coaching process he became aware that, at times, for his new colleagues, he moved too fast, did not involve all crucial stakeholders, and communicated too little with his team, who were not used to his methodology. As often occurs, spending time with his coach provided John with the space to see where things were not working and allowed him to develop an action plan to adopt new strategies for the change process.

5. Planning and organizing

Bringing together partners from the different cultures of the public and private sectors requires executives to provide very clear leadership so that all involved know the objectives of the organization, who is responsible for what, and the timescales in which objectives have to be achieved. In a complex situation with a multiplicity of stakeholders, executives also have to develop robust systems to monitor personal and organizational performance and be prepared to challenge actions and activities that do not contribute to an effective and efficient organization.

Case example:

Following a surprise resignation, Tim was suddenly promoted to a temporary Chief Executive role. He had many years of experience at a senior level in the public sector, particularly within his professional field, but had never led an entire organization. His top team was relatively new and included people from both the private and public sectors. The government department responsible for the organization set very demanding financial and performance targets. It was made clear to Tim that he was expected to deliver financial breakeven by the end of the year.

A few months in, and after a particularly painful meeting with departmental officials, it was clear that the organization was failing to deliver. Tim used his coach as a sounding board to provide a challenging independent view of what was happening and to consider what he could do to turn things around. In essence, Tim was failing to stay on top of things and was allowing his directors to take advantage of his inexperience by being disingenuous and not giving full information if Tim did not ask the right questions. He did not drill down into the detail of their reports and was overlooking inconsistencies and inaccuracies of data until it was too late. Through not planning carefully or differentiating between 'business critical' and other activities, the organization was lurching from one near crisis to the next, attracting the unwanted attention of departmental officials. Clearly there were several areas where Tim needed to develop his skills, but he identified that providing clear direction through effective planning and organizing would be a key first step in turning the organization around. With his coach, Tim identified the immediate priorities and began working with the individual directors to develop clear plans to achieve the targets. Tim also recognised that he was not yet ready for a full Chief Executive role and did not apply for the permanent position.

6. Personal Resilience

Undoubtedly, it is easier to lead an organization which is mature and successful and when the prevailing climate is stable both politically and economically. However, in the current climate, executives in all organizations, particularly those at the interface of the public and private sectors, need to have the skills to develop personal resilience to withstand the buffeting they receive on a daily basis. People both within and outside of their organizations look to the executives to make difficult, and often unpopular, decisions and to remain in control even under conflicting pressures.

Case example:

Petra knew that the 'streamlining' proposals for her organization would cause tremendous uncertainty for employees and users of the organization's services. In addition, she was being asked to collaborate with private-sector organizations to look at new partnership models of delivery. She wanted to work with her coach on ways of developing strategies to remain calm, in control, and rational even in the face of difficult emotional issues and her own uncertain future. She was aware that if she did not acknowledge the emotional side of the situation, she would be perceived as uncaring, but equally, she could not shoulder everyone's emotions. It would be all too easy to get caught up in the growing anxiety and to make quick decisions under pressure.

Petra worked with her coach to identify potential crisis points, as well as key areas of focus for her work. In her sessions, she was able to rehearse reactions to different scenarios and then plan her potential approaches to particular meetings. This provided an opportunity for her to examine her own reactions and to think about how others might respond. We also worked with Petra to develop strategies for 'recharging her batteries' through a planned program of nonwork activities. Equally important was the identification of the types of situations which had led, in the past, to her reacting inappropriately to events (such as becoming slightly aggressive and shouting). By becoming aware of those triggers, Petra could then plan to break the chain of events by using a different behavior, such as taking a walk around the block before responding to an email or voicemail.

7. Teamworking

At the core of working collaboratively at the interface of the public and private sectors is the ability to develop strong working relationships between people and organizations from different backgrounds to deliver shared goals. It involves the executive being able to help all those involved to see each other's perspective and help break down barriers, real or perceived, between different groups. An executive demonstrating teamworking skills will help develop an organization that does not let hierarchy determine how effective the organization is, but rather has encouraged groups of people to work together in partnership to solve problems. The executive will also develop a network of contacts in influential positions across the organization with whom he or she can work in order to deliver organizational objectives.

Case example:

David is in charge of a cost-cutting initiative spanning several departments within the Civil Service. His unit has been brought together specifically to perform this role, and when he first asked us to work with him, he outlined a number of challenges he was facing.

The first was that his individual unit members did not know one another and appeared to have nothing in common other than being asked to work on this pan-government initiative and being experts in their own areas. Secondly, and perhaps the biggest issue, was that the unit could not easily get the information they needed from the departments, who saw providing the information as putting them in the category of “turkeys voting for Christmas”! The information that the unit needed would lead to major decisions about budget cuts, reorganization, and redundancies. There had also been little or no communication to the various stakeholders about the role of the unit. Frankly, David did not know what to tackle first. He was operating in an environment of suspicion and miscommunication--some people feared that just talking to the unit would put their jobs on the line.

We worked with David to help him build the relationships he needed to achieve the unit's objectives. The first step he took was to start communicating with all stakeholders to replace the rumors and speculation that were in circulation. This helped break down barriers and put the unit's work in context so that stakeholders began cooperating. We also worked with David to plan a meeting with his unit members--ostensibly, this was to agree on a form of questions and communication messages for each member to use when visiting stakeholders. A secondary and equally important objective was to work out vision, values, and operating methodology for the unit. David put together a simple framework which helped the unit to answer:

a) What are we doing?
b) Why are we doing it?
c) How will we do it?
d) How will what we do be consistent with what we believe to be fair?
e) What has worked so far?
f) What has not worked?
g) What does best practice look like?
h) Are we all prepared to sign up to deliver this tough message?

David also helped his unit see that it was important that all communication should be free of 'management speak' and tailored for each stakeholder group. Now the unit still has to deliver hard messages, but at least it has its stakeholders onside.


The skills and behaviors needed by executives to address the challenges of collaborative working at the interface of the public and private sectors are rooted in (1) the ability to scan the environment and see and understand the big picture, and (2) well-developed people skills. Coaching can really contribute in both of these areas, as the independence, challenge, and support provided by an external executive coach can assist individuals to assess their current skills and then develop action plans to improve performance, both personal and organizational.

Fiona Eldridge is director of The Coaching & Communication Centre. Much of her work centers on supporting leaders across the public sector. Previously she was Head of Leadership and Coaching at Veredus. In addition to her work for The Coaching & Communcation Centre, she is non-executive Chairman of Teaching Personnel and was, until recently, a non-executive Director of NHS Professionals, a special health authority set up to manage the supply, cost, and quality of the temporary workforce within the UK's National Health Service.
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Dr. Sabine Dembkowski is founder and director of The Coaching Centre in London and Cologne. Together with her colleagues, she supports members of boards, executives, and high-potentials in Fortune 500, DAX 30, and leading professional service firms across Europe. Before she established The Coaching Centre, she was a strategic management consultant with A.T. Kearney and Monitor Company in London. Learn more about Dr. Dembkowski in the WABC Coach Directory.
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