Sector Switchers: Learning from Leaders who move
“It is always important to take the time to reflect as leaders, even during especially busy periods” — Pat Ritchie, Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council and NLC Advisory Board Member
At the end of 2020, the National Leadership Centre hosted an online webinar Systems Leadership — Learning from Sector Switchers which brought together 50 leaders from across public services to discuss the lessons that they have learnt from moving between sectors. NLC Network events are designed to be a space for reflection for leaders across different sectors to come together to learn from one another and develop their leadership skills.
At this event, we heard from:
- Graham Farrant — CEO of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council. Graham was previously the Chief Executive of HM Land Registry and Chief Land Registrar. Prior to that role, Graham was Chief Executive of Thurrock Council and London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. He has moved within the public sector; working across local Government and central Government as well as his prior experience in the private sector.
- Jane Robinson — Dean of Engagement and Place, Newcastle University. Jane was previously a CEO at Gateshead Council and COO at Durham University. She has worked in multiple sectors in the North East and shared a place-based perspective on leading the public service system.
- Angie Ridgwell — CEO of Lancashire County Council. Prior to moving to Lancashire County Council, Angie was Director General of Corporate Services at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategies (BEIS). Angie has led a wide range of public sector bodies and local authorities, including Bristol City Council, Thurrock Council, Coventry City Council and Bridgnorth District Council.
Three main insights stood out as particularly important lessons to learn:
There are more similarities and fewer differences than you think
All our speakers had different experiences of switching between sectors, but they highlighted emphasised “there are fewer differences between sectors than you might think.” Jane Robinson’s experience was that “it’s more about culture and transferable skills and how we understand those relationships.” Jane moved from Local Government to Higher Education and noticed there weren’t as many differences between the sectors in her experience. Similarly, Angie Ridgwell spoke about exploring the environment and the organisation you move to, as she learned that “the types of people you encounter in each sector are largely the same, but it’s the environment that is different.”
The perceptions around competition in the public sector compared with the private sector are one of the main differences Graham Farrant experienced. “We like to think we don’t have competition in the public sector, but we do. There is actually competition between services in local government and across departments in the civil service.” How much do we know about our competitors’ and colleagues’ business and what we can learn from that are always important questions to explore.
A unique perspective
Sector switchers bring a unique experience to organisations and have a role to play in systems leadership and encouraging collaboration between sectors. Angie spoke about this from her experience across local and central government, but emphasised it is crucial to learn about the new environment if you move from one sector to another. Fundamentally, bringing people together from different sectors around real problems, in a project-based learning environment, enables people to learn different languages and engagement routes with other sectors. Graham learnt that budgeting is viewed very differently in the private sector but there are lessons that we can bring to the public sector. In the private sector, you might see more of an inclination to radically challenge what services can be delivered with a fraction of your budget. This makes you think differently about where money is being spent and the approach is transferable to the public sector, alongside longer-term financial planning: a specific experience he gained from moving between and working with colleagues from different sectors.
Leading beyond authority is important
“The more we rightly focus on systems leadership, the more we do need to lead beyond authority, having a shared strategic vision.” — Jane Robinson
Collaboration is key when it comes to systems leadership, and being able to lead beyond your own authority is important when we think about working with other organisations around us and working towards a common goal. As Dean of Engagement and Place at Newcastle University, Jane, for example, realised that it was important to connect the different aspects of the university’s work and to think about how universities can maximise the contribution they can make locally and globally.
Let us know your thoughts and experiences around switching sectors, or any other issues around leadership, systems working and collaboration in public services. Get in touch on Twitter @NLC_HQ