There’s a shortage of men and women ready and able to fill high-level jobs in state government. In part, this is from leaks in the talent pipeline for top positions: Mid-level managers tend to leave the public sector for higher-paying jobs in corporate America.

One way to shore up the ranks of available talent is to scour the executive ranks of the private sector. Although Colorado has hired from corporate America in the past, Gov. John Hickenlooper is pushing an innovative effort called the Governor’s Fellowship Program.  

The program taps leaders in the private sector with the needed competencies. It then has them meet with a cadre of instructors at the highest levels of state government to learn about public governance and how it differs from the private sector. Hickenlooper says the goal is to give the next governor, whether a Republican or Democrat, a list of top-notch people ready and willing to work in the public sector. Other governors, including Jack Markell of Delaware and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island are looking into similar programs in their states. 

Hickenlooper chatted with us at length about the fellowship effort. The following interview has been edited for both clarity and length. 

Why bring men and women with corporate experience into high levels of the public sector?

The best-trained leadership in this country is in business -- something like 75 percent of all the people with advanced leadership degrees are in business. They are trained in how to use data to get results; how to motivate the workforce; how to measure outcomes. I don’t diminish the importance of people with experience in public affairs. We need both. But often you see governments insulated from the world of the private sector.

What inspired the program?

Geoff Smart, who helped me hire people when I first came into office, wrote a book called Leadocracy. One of the points he made is that strong leadership is the ultimate lever for good in the world, but we don’t have a process for exposing people in the private sector to government.

Is this a government program?

The first thing we did was move it out of government. We [turned it] into a nonprofit, which isn’t funded by the state but by contributions from the business community. 

How much time are the fellows required to put in?

The fellows work about one full day a month. They have class work that is highly curated. We make sure the speakers are high level: former governors, mayors and chiefs of staff.

What kinds of subjects are they covering? 

The fellows will be exposed to real government problems in real time -- everything from the mundane to how we reinvent our workforce training program. They’ll look at streamlining the wait time for motor vehicle licenses, managing a budget, dealing with the media. 

In the first couple of years, every governor will have to deal with a couple of natural disasters. It’s the nature of life. So how do you respond to a natural disaster, whether it’s a flood or a wildfire or a tornado? 

Do the fellows guarantee that they’ll come to work for government after they’ve finished the program?

We’re not compelling them to sign a document, but the expectation is that each fellow will spend two to four years serving in a cabinet department or running a large nonprofit that works with state or local government. 

Can you really attract people from the private sector? 

We just brought in Donna Lynne to replace the lieutenant governor, who had resigned to take another job. [Lynne] was the executive vice president for Kaiser Permanente. She went from making more than a million dollars a year to getting something around $160,000. That’s a gigantic pay cut. But she’s doing something very important. The people you get to come to work for the state are people with a genetic inclination toward public service, toward making the world a better place.

Where do you find people with those attributes?

You have to network. That genetic inclination manifests itself early on. The first 22 people we have in this program are high performers. They’re young and from Colorado’s largest, most successful companies. 

What’s the primary benefit of the fellowship program?

It lets people in the private sector have direct exposure to government -- what it looks like when you’re really working in the governor’s office. Many private leaders are surprised by how hard those in public service work. The jobs aren’t easy.   

How will you measure the success of the program?

When we do our annual polling of residents, we ask if the state is delivering good service, using their tax dollars wisely. And you can imagine that the answers we’re getting aren’t very enthusiastic. While this won’t show results in two years -- as would be the case with any management-education program -- we’re hoping it will in five years or so.

What concerns do you have about the program? 

I don’t have many worries. But I do have a regret in that I’ve only got two and a half more years. So, just as this is taking off, I’ll be on my way to my next adventure.