There have been numerous examples in recent years of governments employing C-suite executives from the private sector to transform ailing public sector organisations. Leaders at mid- to senior management levels, interested in contributing to the commercial success of their country, have also been making the shift from private to public. Is this transition a workable one? Are there lessons that the public sector can learn from the private sector?

As far back as 2007, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown established a ‘Government Of All the Talents’, appointing a number of private sector leaders – including Sir Richard Branson – to his government team. In a conscious move away from cronyism and nepotism, the idea was that these executives, called by the acronym ‘goats’, would expand the Westminster talent pool to increase efficiency in the civil service.

As part of this drive, Odgers Berndtson UK was involved in a campaign to re-energise the talent pool of the British diplomatic service by bringing in leadership from a number of ‘outside’ industries. Mid- to senior level private sector leaders were appointed – mostly in their 40s and post-MBA, with years of experience in the commercial world, to complement the pool of career civil servants and increase diversity. Similar campaigns have been conducted for the National Health Service (NHS) and at local government level.

More recently, the current prime minister, David Cameron, appointed former Talisman and BP Downstream CEO John Manzoni as chief executive of the civil service in October last year. According to a civil service reform progress report, more people from outside the civil service are to be brought in to address skills gaps, with all senior appointments open to external candidates.

We believe there is no reason why private sector leaders won’t be as successful in the public sector, especially if they already have a proven track record of success in multiple arenas. Of course, they will have to win the hearts and minds of the people, and there is likely to be a lot of resistance and politics, as well as protectionism in certain roles. Much the same as in the private sector however, their success will ultimately be measured by whether or not their organisation is moving in the right direction and service delivery has been improved.

Private sector executives have much to offer the public sector. In keeping with their roles in the private sector, they are usually effective, innovative and transformational. They also know how to ensure excellent customer service – they come from a competitive environment where customers have choices, so they know they have to be the best in terms of customer engagement.

Civil service executives who have come up through the ranks of their organisations tend to suffer from group-think. We believe it is crucial to populate public sector talent pools with diverse leaders who have experience in managing complex commercial organisations – leaders with different experiences, from different sectors and from different markets. If a leader has only ever worked in local government, how is he or she going to come up with the most innovative way of leading, managing and improving service delivery?

As a country which tends to focus on local talent – and not necessarily the best in class – South Africa has much to learn from the example of the UK and further afield. Countries such as Brazil, Singapore, Canada and India have also realised the value of applying the expertise and experience of the private sector to their civil service organisations. In South Africa, our public sector should consider drawing in private sector leaders who have worked in other emerging markets and are well versed in addressing the unique challenges facing developing countries. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – we can look at best practice globally and learn from others who have had some success in transforming struggling public sector organisations. Service delivery should be top of mind, and there is no one better to assist in achieving this goal than successful private sector leaders.

Leon Ayo

Leon Ayo is the Chief Executive Officer of Odgers Berndtson, Sub-Saharan Africa. He has consulted and led teams across four continents. He lectures & advises on Leadership, High-Performance Culture...

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