The Challenging Transition From Business to Government

As new leaders from the private sector take over state agencies, they are going to find that their new jobs require a unique dual competence.
January 14, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
Four well dressed professionals in discussion on the exterior steps of a building with columns.
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By Paul Campbell  |  Contributor
An adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and lead for UnitedHealthcare's sales strategy for state and local markets
By Sid Johnson  |  Contributor
Former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Administrative Services

With 20 new governors taking office this month, state agencies across the country are getting new leaders. Many of them are coming to government from the private sector, and for some the transition is going to be unexpectedly challenging. As the late Roy Ash, the former president of Litton Industries who went on to become director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, once observed, going from business to government is like going from the minor to the major leagues in professional sports.

What makes operating in government so tough? On top of the need for business-like efficiency and effectiveness, public leadership presents the added challenge of democratic accountability, which includes processes of public participation, complex consensus-building, and greater scrutiny from the media, special interests and competing government agencies.

In addition to managing external stakeholders, effective governance of an agency requires a unique dual competence of both political and management skills. One of the greatest challenges will be bridging the gap between elected officials and professional/technical staff. John Nalbanian, a former mayor of Lawrence, Kan., and professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, refers to these as different "constellations of logic" with their own languages, values and cultures. Successful initiatives require connecting these groups to achieve what is both politically acceptable and administratively sustainable.

Political leadership requires understanding the political environment, your role in that ecosystem and how to navigate on behalf of your agency. Management leadership requires the ability to create a clear vision for your agency, build a new team and develop a strategy along with the organizational capabilities to deliver results based on the administration's goals.

The conflicts that will arise between political goals and management realities are inevitable. The governor was elected by the people, and therefore their priorities, interests and goals are paramount. However, when operationalizing public policy, perceptions of appropriate timelines, resources and measurement of outcomes may differ between elected officials and agency staff. As the agency lead, you sit in the middle and must build the bridge between these two groups.

To accomplish that, you will need to translate the business initiative of the agency into a story that will resonate with political leaders. And if there are political realities that your staff refuses to acknowledge, you must persuade them that the political concerns are real and that compromise is acceptable.

Despite the best intentions of government, we know that change is not easy and that innovation comes far too slowly at times. And while there are volumes written about change management in large organizations, including government, a recent study found that around 80 percent of government transformation initiatives fail to meet their objectives. The key to success when leading a state agency is based on one's ability to master this political and management dual competency. Plenty of help and guidance is available. The National Association of State Chief Administrators, for example, will be holding a "bootcamp" for new chief administrators at its conference in May to help participants understand their strengths, weaknesses and readiness to govern.

Just like the major leaguers have drills, coaching and playbooks, public leaders need help as they take on perhaps the greatest professional challenge of their careers. Associations of government peers are a great resource to develop skills and a game plan.

So welcome to the majors! With a little help and preparation, we are confident that you can soon be hitting home runs for your agency and your state.

Sid Johnson | Contributor | sidj@uga.edu