A public sector frontiersman

Back in September 1988, I was facing my first day at work as a fresh-faced graduate trainee in the City on the first rung of the corporate ladder. Fast-forward to 2005 and here I am, midway through my first interim contract in my first public sector role, having bid farewell to my role as Acting Head of UK Human Resources at Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) 15 months’ ago. In all probability, I have left the world of permanent work for good. Yet it seems such a natural step – I have never been so happy in my professional life.

The first inkling of my move into the interim world came in 1991 when I gave up a good job and headed off with my wife-to-be around the world. I suppose the notion of job security went out of the window at that stage. Over subsequent years I built a career in the private sector by moving fairly regularly for increasingly more challenging and senior roles. I worked for companies that were bought, sold, merged, restructured, in-sourced and outsourced, downsized and right-sized. I set up and closed down HR functions and always seemed to join companies as they embarked on periods of huge organisational change, often for the first time and usually involving significant job losses.

I took the first of two lengthy periods of paternity leave in 1999 when our first daughter was born, returning to the City with SCB in 2000. I had the opportunity to lead the company’s UK HR team in April 2003 on an interim basis until the end of that year, when another career break beckoned and I spent a hugely enjoyable 2004 with my wife and children pondering the future.

And that is when it all became clear; my CV was really a portfolio of major commercially-focused change projects. My previous project at SCB had been to lead the HR programme to outsource commercial banking operations to India. This earned me a company award and favourable comment in the Sunday Times and the Financial Times. I came to realise that I was easily bored and enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of change and short-term, meaty, focused projects. If I could combine this with my other area of greatest interest and job satisfaction – leading teams – then this was the natural way forward. The world of professional interim management beckoned. I was attracted by the control I would have over my professional future, choosing jobs that gave me what I really enjoyed, as well as the opportunity to combine work with my family life in equal balance.

I had never considered working in the public sector – it had always seemed like “the dark side” where no self-respecting private sector professional would venture. Yet it became increasingly clear in my research that the real opportunities for high-profile, challenging interim HR change roles lay in the public sector, which was turning to private sector professionals – particularly on a short-term basis – to help to transform its culture and its concepts of HR and service delivery.

I was aware that my first interim role would be crucial and was likely to shape my future job options. When the opportunity arose to work for Ofsted and to lead the HR function of 70 staff and the organisation of 2,500 people through a huge change programme, it was too good to miss.
I was offered the post in November. Just a week after starting the job I was on a train to Birmingham, preparing to share the platform with a senior manager as part of the biggest reorganisation in Ofsted’s 12-year history.

The day I announced that the Birmingham office would close by no later than 31 March 2006, I became the face of Ofsted HR. In my new interim career I went straight in at the deep end – and enjoyed every minute of it. There has been no waiting around, champing at the bit or waiting to get stuck into something of substance. At Ofsted I have had to catch up quickly and make best use of the tremendous work already undertaken by my colleagues in preparation for change. One of my first lessons as an interim was to grasp very quickly how I could make a genuine contribution to an organisation while not knowing what was going on around me; self-sufficiency and initiative became the most important tools. I made my own way and asked only those questions I really needed to ask.

Being an interim requires a much more focused and shorter-term perspective; the organisation has bought a commodity, a package of skills, knowledge and experience for a fixed term to deliver in very specific areas. The whole notion of selling your skills to those whose need is most immediate is much more apparent in the interim world. There is no sense of long-term gain and the emphasis is on a quick return. Recognising this is crucial as delivery is king. In the same way, I have quickly understood that when an issue has a longer-term impact, then it becomes crucial to delegate, at least in part, or to share a decision with others. My judgment and input is valued, but the longer-term is rightly the preserve of others.

This job has really brought home to me how you can make a difference in a short time. The opportunity to shine in the right role, where you can use your expertise from day one in an organisation that has chosen you for a specific purpose, is greater than in any other situation I have experienced.

Equally, there is an element of professional selfishness in the interim world. I have chosen this job and this career for specific reasons and I need to think at least one job ahead. I had to be very clear that this role with Ofsted would open up future opportunities. The future looks brighter than at any other time. Office politics wash over me and I can move from one job to another, doing what I enjoy most with no questions about long-term commitment. Best of all, I will have six weeks off each summer with my family.

Is there a down side? Well, I highly recommend interim work in the public sector – although I suspect Ofsted is more progressive than some public service departments. It is decentralising support and moving to a regional, site-based HR structure. We have acquired a new HR system based on self-service; union relations are positive and the organisation is open to new ideas.

There is a greater focus on policy and process than I am used to and the switch from a cash-generating business to one that takes very seriously its role in spending tax payers’ money has been interesting. In the City money was often used as a solution to problems. Not so at Ofsted, and this is one of the reasons why it can take longer to move things forward. Yes, there are differences to managing in the private sector on a full-time basis. But my role is to manage change and my business is people; and change is change and people are people whether in the public or private sectors.

See also www.personneltoday.com/Articles/2005/03/08/28376

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