Want to Climb the Corporate Ladder? Some Say Work in Government First.

Jane Swift, former governor of Massachusetts, believes having public-sector experience is the quickest way to get ahead in the private sector -- especially for women.
by | October 2, 2017
Jane Swift, the first woman to serve as governor of Massachusetts, leans to speak to her daughter and her niece and nephew, as they view her official portrait. (AP/Elise Amendola)

It’s commonly said that you don’t go into government for the money. But according to former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, that’s exactly why people should go into it.

More precisely, she says having experience in public service is the best way to climb the private-sector ladder -- especially if you're a woman.

Swift points to people like Sheryl Sandberg, who worked for former Treasury Secretary Larry Summer and is now the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. What made Sandberg stand out more than the average Harvard MBA graduate? Swift says it was that time spent shaping public policy.

Swift -- who served as governor from 2001 to 2003 -- taught leadership courses for several years at Williams College. There, she noticed her students had an aversion to seeking positions in government. It's a mentality she tried to break and not just for their own benefit.

"We need smart, young people now more than ever to spend some part of their career either running for office -- which was a successful career strategy for me -- or serving as a staffer," she says. "As the world gets more complicated, the technical expertise we need requires more skill."

Governing chatted with her about this theory and how young people can make their first break into public service. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Talk about how you formulated this theory. 

In my time as a lecturer at Williams College, I found that a lot of these millennials are really engaged in wanting to make a difference in the world. But they shy away from politics and public service because they have this perception that it’s somehow going to be either not good for their career, or they won’t be inspired.  My experience was exactly the opposite.

Some of the most exciting work I’ve ever done in my life was in government. Some of the biggest leaps in my life in terms of “climbing the ladder” were the result of entering public service.

I’ve spoken to dozens of students over the years and brought in guest speakers on the topic, and I’ve seen them have this a-ha moment, especially women, who often feel that there are certain paths that are harder for climbing in the corporate sector.

Who are some other people besides Sheryl Sandberg who have leveraged their public service experience to jump ahead in the corporate world?

Patrick Riccards was my opponent's press secretary when I ran for Congress in 1996. He also did communications for politicians for many years. Now he’s running the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation out of Princeton University.

David Shipley, executive editor of Bloomberg View. He was a special assistant and speechwriter for the Clinton administration. He has risen to some of the highest levels in media since then.

George Stephanopoulous, who also worked in the Clinton administration, is now the host of "Good Morning America."

Kathleen Shanahan worked for Dick Cheney’s campaign during the first election and was chief of staff for Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida. She’s since been the CEO of several construction companies and is routinely named one of the most influential businesswomen in the Tampa area. She’s not as high-profile but a good example.

Talk about your career after the governor’s office and how that job helped you get ahead.

When I left the governor's office, I really wanted to continue working on public education. But frankly, I wanted to make money. I had three children.

I’ve been able to serve on education boards. I’m the CEO of a really interesting, successful joint venture between Middlebury College and K-12 Inc., an education tech company. Not many women have had the opportunity to run tech-driven companies in the U.S. On the boards I serve on, most of my fellow members are white men. I got to serve on the board on Sally Ride Science, which aims to get girls excited about science. Would I ever have gotten that opportunity if I hadn’t worked in high-profile public service? Probably not.

Not everyone can serve as governor like you did, but where would you suggest they start?

The great thing about public service is that there are so many different entrance points -- but that’s also the hard part. You need to be a little industrious. You first need to figure out what you’re passionate about, then you’re going to have to use some initiative. Find someone you respect who is doing good work in that area -- whether it’s an elected or appointed person. Call and ask if there are internship opportunities, and that’s particularly good advice for college students. More and more colleges will offer a stipend if an internship is unpaid.

One of the things that’s a great equalizer about public service is there’s lots of work to be done. You don’t necessarily need to know somebody like you would for an investment banking internship opportunity -- you know, where you need to know somebody’s father in order to land a spot. Pick up the phone. Volunteer. Be persistent.