Unwilling Bedfellows (part 2)

Learning to Be ONE: The 7 Challenges of Working in a Public-Private Setting (Part 2 of 2)

By Dr. Sabine Dembkowski and Fiona Eldridge

What happens when the private sector meets the public? We draw on our experience coaching both sectors and coaching people who suddenly found themselves working in organizations taken over by the government. We hope to raise awareness of commonly occurring themes in order to better prepare executive coaches and their clients for the challenges ahead.

In Part 1 (WABC's blog December 13, 2012), we grouped the most commonly recurring themes into seven categories and discussed the first three themes or challenges:

1. Different cultures-behaviors and expectations;

2. Greater complexity of stakeholder groups;

3. Leadership and management style.

In Part 2, we explore the remaining four themes:

4. Process versus purpose;

5. Depth and breadth of subject matter know-how;

6. Murkier measures of success;

7. Language and vocabulary.

4. Process versus Purpose

For some of our clients, a key difference stemmed from the public sector's apparent focus on process, i.e., the way things are done rather than the achievement of objectives. Previously they had been very task/objective focused, emphasizing the ‘what' without much thought to the ‘how.'

In the public sector environment, things seem to have to be done in the ‘right way.' For example, one client was looking for sign off for a purchase. In his old world he would either have just signed off on his own authority or simply asked his direct manager. In the new role, he was told that the chief executive of the agency would have to sign. When he went to ask the chief executive, he said that he could only sign after the expense had also been approved by procurement. A further week elapsed before the form came back from procurement and was then passed on to the chief executive. Finally, nearly five weeks later, our client was able to place his order.

In our coaching assignments, we soon recognised that our clients had to learn how to understand the need for process, which is so much a part of public-sector culture. We worked with them to develop new strategies and to ensure that they built in allowances in their project plans for the necessary time delays that have become part of their everyday life.

5. Depth and Breadth of Subject Matter Know-How

Traditionally, senior civil servants have had a career pathway that has taken them through several different government departments, which gives them a consummate skill in policy development and a deep understanding of the process of government but, frequently, a lack of professional expertise in specific subject areas. Obviously there are exceptions to this, such as government scientists, but in general, civil servants' backgrounds are in stark contrast to the bankers working alongside them.

Certainly this has been the case for many of our clients, who come into these new partnerships with a background steeped in banking and finance at the highest levels. We found that our clients experienced much frustration with having to explain terms and procedures that were second nature to them and then having to incorporate new, seemingly bureaucratic processes before decisions could be acted on. What helped our clients was to analyze the causes of their frustration and to recognise and acknowledge the different types of expertise held by them and their civil servant colleagues.

6. Murkier Measures of Success

In private-sector companies, the measures of success (both organizational and personal) are relatively clear. Measurement is connected to the bottom line and return on investment.

In the public sector, measures are less clear -- this is not to say that finance is not important, it is just that the organization is not profit driven. For our clients, this cloudiness created some challenges both in terms of their own performance and in developing metrics for their teams. Another difference is the wider group of stakeholders for whom performance monitoring is important. In general these are:

  • General public (both as individuals and representative groups);
  • Clients, consumers, users, and customers of the services provided;
  • Individual politicians;
  • Government -- central and local;
  • Regulatory, inspection, and audit agencies;
  • Managers within the organization;
  • Employees within the organization.

Success tends to be measured in terms of impact, public perceptions, and outcomes, as well as obtaining value for money and coming in on budget. For example, some of the indicators against which success is measured for the UK Treasury include:

  • Achieve an improvement in value for money in public services year by year;
  • Increase employment over the economic cycle;
  • Make substantial progress toward eradicating child poverty by reducing the number of children in poverty by at least a quarter by xxx;
  • Increased policy cost-effectiveness;
  • Impact of policy measures on taxpayers;
  • Trend growth in output per worker (productivity) over the economic cycle.

These indicators illustrate one of the key private-public sector differences highlighted by our clients: success depends on a multitude of interrelated factors and is often out of the direct control of the individual or organization being measured. For this reason, for some of our clients, stress levels had become so high that their key goal was simply to work hard to enable their bank to "pay the money back asap" and to then "get on with business as usual and do the work we are trained to do."

7.   Language and Vocabulary

One of the challenges of moving between public and private sectors is the difference in language and vocabulary. This is commonly experienced when joining any new organization, but is more marked when moving between the sectors. One client told us how she had been given a file containing literally hundreds of acronyms when she joined the organization.

There is also an expectation of understanding  phrases and a need to build a common vocabulary if misunderstandings are to be prevented. As one UK manager commented, "I was told that there was a ‘yellow file' on my desk. I thought, that's nice but...." What she later learned was that this was an important document containing a ministerial question which needed a quick response. Another example from the UK comes from the National Health Service. Here the term ‘overperformance' is frequently used. For the unwary, this might seem to be a good thing, but it actually means that the organization is overspending and is likely to be in financial difficulty.

Clearly, the common usage of phrases and acronyms is not confined to the public sector. The banking world has its own terms and phrases such as ‘structuring derivatives' which mean little to the outsider. There is a need for both sides to learn the language and to ask for clarification when something is not clear.

Our clients ended up by creating their personal vocabulary books which helped them to learn and make use of the new language and vocabulary. This, in turn, strengthened their level of confidence and their position in meetings and negotiations.


Coaching is about change and moving into a new public-private setting is a fundamental change in an executive's career. One of the key roles that coaching can fulfill is to provide support and structure. Working with a coach can help the executive to identify the fundamental differences in his or her new situation and then to develop options and action plans for both adapting old behaviour and acquiring new knowledge and understanding.

It takes time to get to know a new sector, but by making the specific themes and challenges transparent, we hope that executive coaches can begin to understand some of the challenges their clients face. In addition, we hope that this might also help bring about a more rapid improvement in management performance so that better results can be achieved in crucial public services.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (June Issue 2010, Volume 6, Issue 2). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.


Dr. Sabine Dembkowski is founder and director of The Coaching & Communication Centre in London, Cologne, & Frankfurt. 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. Contact Dr. Dembkowski. More about Dr. Dembkowski in the WABC Member Directory.

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 & Communication Centre, she is non-executive Chairman of Teaching Personnel and 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. Contact Fiona.

Sabine and Fiona (along with Ian Hunter) are the co-authors of The Seven Steps of Effective Executive Coaching published by Thorogood in 2006.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

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