Career Transition: Public Sector to Private

Moving from the public sector to a private sector security job can be a huge leap. David Quilter points out the strengths you'll bring along with the skills you may need to develop. Excerpted from From One Winning Career to the Next, published by the Security Executive Council and available through their online store. You bring gifts as you transition from the public to the private sector. In government or military service, you may have perhaps performed some of the following tasks and grown in the skills of:

  • Constructing and overseeing multi-million dollar budgets
  • Managing liaison with local, state, and national law enforcement agencies
  • Evaluating organizational performance
  • Interviewing potential employees
  • Interviewing criminal suspects
  • Bridging inter-service rivalries
  • Conducting audits and inspections
  • Dealing with the unexpected in life-threatening situations
  • Losing a friend or colleague on the job, in violent circumstances
  • Making quick decisions that may have life or death consequences

I encourage you to add to this list from your own history. Then consider how you can translate your leadership experiences into business success. Do this in a way that executives can understand and see the value your skills and know-how brings to them as they seek to accomplish their goals. Do that and you will be on the short path to earning their trust. Learning the nuances and rhythms of your new organization will allow you to lead and integrate security in a way that makes the jobs of other executives easier. They will have fewer distractions, interruptions and see a better bottom line.

Because of your experience, you bring certain advantages to the business world. Tough crises, scenes of violent crime and life and death decisions test a person's mettle. It takes skill and discipline to testify in court and persistence to follow a case to a successful conclusion. A certain basic willingness to serve also involves discipline. For fourteen years, I thought the GS (in GS-1811) stood for "government servant", rather than the more prosaic "general schedule" which has to do with an employee's pay status. To this day, I prefer my first understanding of GS.

Many in public service have held both operations and headquarters positions. The flexibility required to move from one level of service to another develops balance, resilience, and a focus on the needs of the organization, not simply one's own career. For example, in the DEA I began as a special agent working in the New York Division office. Eventually I was reassigned to Headquarters in Washington, DC, and after some years, I became the chief of agent resources.

In this position I was responsible to manage Special Agent recruiting; to select candidates for the DEA Academy; to re-assign and promote Agents. My peers called me the Job Fairy, although I preferred the title: Duke of Deployment. Later, in Texas, I returned to field work. Moving from the highly charged and frequently changing environment of headquarters, where internal politics can be challenging, back to protecting the lives of agents and others in the field is a valuable exercise.

By contrast, many employees in business have spent entire careers in finance, or sales, or marketing, or human resources, or communications. Their experience tends to be either headquarter-centric or field-centric. This is especially true of middle managers, who may be confined to one department only. Perhaps they are expert at what they do, but their experience can also be self-limiting.

This is especially true when it comes to dealing with serious incidents, or a crisis that crosses multiple functions in the corporation. While you can learn what many of these executives know, they may never have the tested mettle that is yours because of your life history—your path. Therefore, they need you—as long as you are also willing to learn everything you can from them—about their business. This becomes a win-win situation if you work hard, look for opportunities to apply security skills within the company's culture and keep your eye on enhancing the bottom line.

In every organization there will be some who will never see the value you bring. Do not allow them to frustrate you. Once you have given them a fair chance to collaborate, leave them behind, and deal with those leaders and parts of the business that are receptive and responding. This is something like driving down the highway and encountering major construction. It may slow you down, but you don't let it keep you from continuing your journey, unless you develop a bad case of road rage and have an accident. Difficulties come with the security leader's territory; a sense of humor also helps you deal with them effectively.

When someone moves into a new leadership in role in business, it is not unusual for them to rely on their subordinates to give them an orientation. If you assume the lead security position in a corporation, you have no such luxury. You will be expected to hit the ground running and get your decisions right the first time.

The Security Executive Council recently concluded research that highlights key skills that the next generation security leaders need in order to be successful in bringing value to their company's business operations. The following leadership skills are considered essential:

  • Communications skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Project management
  • Organizational skills
  • Business acumen
  • Strategic planning abilities
  • Relationship management
  • International experience
  • Team building
  • Negotiation skills
  • Decision making skills
  • Cost control management
    • Remember, very few of even the most experienced and talented security leaders have every one of the above skills. If you have a good base in most of these skills, along with a focus on building strong teams and a personal and professional network it will help you compensate for skills that are not as strong. But you need both aptitude and flexibility for personally developing the majority of these skills within yourself. Finally, long term success will be found in your own willingness to hone your developmental opportunities and continually work to strengthen them.

      Show up every day. Learn the business. Be honest. Work like hell. If you bring personal discipline, are thoughtful toward others, deliver on the commitments you have made, and introduce humility and fun into your daily work, you will become that next generation security leader the next generation so desperately needs.

      J. David Quilter's security leadership successes spans four decades with contributions in both the public and private sectors. David Quilter is principal of QuilCo Inc., is an executive consultant with the Business Security Advisory Group and is a member of the Emeritus Faculty of the Security Executive Council.

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