It’s generally considered that a single organisation can’t expose the aspiring HR professional to all of the experiences needed to prepare for senior management or to work at director level. And, given the demands placed on the HR profession, it is becoming increasingly unlikely.
All three sectors have their own unique career challenges, priorities and attractions, some of which change over time while others remain constant.
In the private sector, the current high level of merger activity means HR can gain valuable merger and acquisition skills. Due to various modernisation initiatives, local government provides an unprecedented opportunity to re-invent the function and develop strategic vision from the ground up. And in the voluntary sector, where HR is sometimes described as making a late entry, personal reward and contribution can be at its greatest.
Traditionally, recruiters have looked for same sector experience and there is still a legacy of this. Linda Moore, HR manager with business advisory and accountancy firm Mazars, has worked across all sectors and says it is the more ‘enlightened’ HR directors who are willing to accept a serious application from other sectors.
But Moore, whose career history has included spells in local government, the police, the Fire Service, higher education, the BBC and Deloitte, urges others to have the confidence to make such moves. “An HR person has easily transferable skills and their different background and experiences can bring a fresh perspective on HR issues,” she says.
Sector-hopping on the rise
There are signs that cross-sector traffic is increasing. And the public sector’s current appetite for more commercial skills means that one of the most popular directions is from private to public. Helen Rosethorn, chief executive at recruitment agency Hodes, says that this has made the public and not-for-profit sectors among the busiest areas for recruitment. But she also issues a warning.
“Individuals who want to make this move need to be very clear about their motivations to do so and what they are bringing as a result,” she says. “Putting something back is not what it is about.”
Balvi Macleod, HR manager for culture change and diversity at Hammersmith and Fulham Council, is one HR professional who has made the switch. She previously held the post of learning and development officer at Vodafone.
“My first day was a huge culture shock,” she says. “It was just so widely different. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but in my view, there isn’t a better time to make this transition because the Government is making a case for commercial skills.”
The culture shock Macleod describes is cited by nearly everyone who crosses a sector border. It is legendary that the public sector’s bureaucratic, multi-layered and hierarchical structure can prove an obstruction to many HR professionals who are more accustomed to the flatter, more agile nature of the private sector.
Mike Emmott, employment adviser at the CIPD, says: “The response from HR people who have moved from private to public is that timescales are longer, it’s a more consultative climate, responsibility is more diffused and there are inevitable budget constraints.
“The job to be done is pretty similar, but the culture is completely different. There is a huge accretion of custom and practice in the public sector.”
The other main difference in the public sector is that you are dealing with elected members and a political leaning, which inevitably adds one, if not more, layers of complexity.
Bob Harper, an interim manager who has worked in local and central government, as well as the private sector, says: “I had to get used to the protocol, which could make the decision-making process a lot longer than I was used to. Occasionally, I’d hit a barrier, and there were some things I did that I would have fast-tracked through if I’d been in the private sector.”
Macleod also highlights unions as generating a fear factor. “There is a feeling of: ‘if we do this we might get sued and we might be breaching legislation’,” she says. “In the private sector, they obviously have to follow some legislative guidelines, but they don’t always have pressure from the unions. That makes a huge difference.”
Based on anecdotal rather than statistical evidence, the volume of traffic in the opposite direction – public to private – is much less. Macleod reports that her public sector colleagues claim their CVs are not making sufficient impact for them to be called for interview. However, the increased flow of private skills into public sector, coupled with the advent of partnership working and more emphasis on accountability and commercial skills, means that over time, the balance may start to shift.
Certainly, putting yourself forward for secondments or project-based work, such as e-government initiatives, will make you more marketable to a private enterprise. Such projects could see you working alongside external companies in anything from setting up a contact centre to implementing a customer relationship management system.
But Emmott believes that while the private sector has a natural lead over the public sector when it comes to commercial thinking, both are having difficulty re-inventing themselves to meet the future demands of HR.
“Business partners are the name of the game in both sectors,” he says. “But I think both are struggling to find out what a business partner actually is, as well as how HR can gain the strategic vision.”
This is consistent with findings in the market trends article (see page 17). It found that while most HR professionals are aware of the concept of business partners, less possess the skills required to be one. There is no less need for such expertise in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, where, if anything, HR professionals can teach their private and public counterparts a thing or two about commercial realities. It is true that charities in particular face fierce competition as their very existence relies on donations. Any initiatives have to be backed by a strong business case, which means they have more in common with private enterprise companies than you may at first think.
Making the switch
Jenny Dawes, assistant HR director of Asthma UK, who previously worked in the private sector as an HR officer at an insurance company, made the switch. “Before I worked in the voluntary sector, I had lots of pre-conceptions about people in cardigans, rattling cans,” she says. “But this is one of the most forward-thinking and strategic organisations I know. We’re competing against more emotive charities, such as children’s cancer charities, for instance, so we have to be as leading edge and professional as a private sector company.”
Katherine Galliano, head of HR at Mdecins Sans Frontires, backs up Dawes’ strategic claims, and stresses how each charity can bring a unique challenge to HR.
“It’s about adapting HR policies and procedures to very different environments,” she says, and for Galliano, that can mean coping with the demands. Following the Tsunami in South East Asia, she was tasked with ensuring all its UK volunteers in the region were safe and accounted for, and of informing their next of kin.
“The HR department has also been contacting volunteers, checking their availability, organising flights, obtaining visas and briefing them on what to expect,” she explains. “When they return to the UK they will also be provided with psycho-social support if they need it.”
Dawes and Galliano lend weight to the idea that working for a voluntary organisation can be more rewarding. Both highly rate the personal satisfaction they gain as well as the personal interest they have in their organisations, and both say they are happy in the voluntary sector.
“At this stage in my career, this – and having a good work-life balance – is more motivational than financial reward,” says Dawes. “This is the same for a number of our senior managers, who have made the transition to the voluntary sector from the commercial world.”
While clearly no fan of civil service bureaucracy, Emmott does warn anyone moving from the public sector, especially to the voluntary or not-for-profit sectors, that it does have its own set of challenges. “What the public sector does have, for all its faults, is a big machine capable of managing people and resources,” he says. “The not-for-profit sector doesn’t have this and, in many cases, HR has to live with inadequate resources.
“Also remember that managing in the voluntary sector in general can be difficult because you have a lot of people with deep-seated feelings and convictions. In many ways, it’s more raw.”
There is no shortcut to preparing for such a move. “Each has to be experienced to be understood,” says Emmott, while Moore suggests that you need to be open- minded to how HR operates in different environments. “You should also be confident enough to use your experiences elsewhere to suggest different ways of doing things in your new environment where appropriate,” she adds. “And be happy to ask questions constantly about how things work in order to learn.”
Plenty of HR professionals have long and happy careers without changing sector, but there is little doubt that those who do gain valuable insight and increase their marketability.
Case study: Going private to public
Balvi Macleod decided to move to the public sector when she was made redundant from Vodafone after four years in learning and development. Interested in diversity, she was seeking an interim position when the job came up at Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
One of the most pronounced differences, she says, is that in the private sector, she had been treated more like a consultant. “In the private sector, you are called upon to advise and guide,” she says, citing management behaviours as one of the biggest challenges facing an HR professional moving from private to public.
“There is still a very strong culture of the parent/child relationship, and there is also a fear factor,” she says. “People are afraid of making decisions above their grade, and there is a very strong culture of protecting each other.
“If you don’t mind firefighting and you don’t mind a reactive state, then the public sector is good,” says Macleod. “But the strategic work is done by the head of HR, whereas in the public sector, the HR projects are put on a table.”
Macleod says that in six months she has gained good experience in equality and diversity that adds weight to her CV, but ultimately believes the private sector is likely to hold more appeal for her.
“It also depends on your own learning and management style,” she says. “People like me who are a bit of an activist will fit in more in the private sector than the public sector.”