With advanced economies in the financial doldrums, professionals and senior staff in the private sector might wonder how they would fare in the international public sector and whether they would be able to make a meaningful difference to society.
Anyone thinking of switching, however, is warned by headhunters and executive search firms to be aware of several specific challenges.
The sector has shown an increasing need and willingness to utilise skills acquired in the commercially minded private sphere.
Jobs on offer range from senior executive roles needing proven leadership and financial experience to the full array of professional skills, including accountancy, IT, legal, human resources, translation and interpreting, and economics.
Experience at global level and knowledge of the financial sector, such as financial supervision, are often placed at a premium. But this has to be coupled with an ability to navigate the sometimes opaque world of diplomacy and policymaking, where the classic line management style of many companies is absent.
John Strackhouse, partner at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, has helped to place the most senior leaders at the World Economic Forum, which is best known for its annual gathering of global movers and shakers in Davos, Switzerland.
He says it is “very difficult” to find people who could straddle “the intersection of business and government” and who would not harm WEF’s brand in any way.
“They are really careful about who they select because it’s a very complex environment to integrate into and it takes time,” says Mr Strackhouse, whose firm works pro bono on many of its WEF activities.
“The type of people they like are very sophisticated, are global thinkers, are deeply intellectual and put the mission first. People who can do this are very scarce.”
He says all those who have been prompted by the financial crisis to consider the non-profit sector should think hard: “It’s only an additional option if you have the passion for it.”
In terms of finding a job, he says he tells people to remember that 90 per cent of opportunities usually arise from their own connections and network, 5 per cent from targeting specific organisations, and the remaining 5 per cent from headhunters.
“Headhunters are usually used as a last resort given the high cost and when a client can’t do it on their own or when the posting is particularly sensitive or strategic,” he says.
James Campion, public sector director for PageGroup, the specialist recruitment firm, says the experience and personality traits he looks for are specific: “We insist that people understand the cultural fit that’s required and have the personalities to cope in a very different work setting. People have to show they can work on their own, turn their hand to anything and resilience is the most notable trait.”
He attributes the number of individuals showing interest in the non-profit sector, which has “increased dramatically”, not only to the recession but also to rising pressure caused by longer working hours and the desire for a work-life balance.
“We’ve seen people from blue chips and FTSE companies take a huge pay cut because they want to give something back to society,” says Mr Campion, who has worked with non-governmental organisations such as Save the Children and Oxfam to recruit professionals in the UK.
But this also means the calibre of potential applicants is getting better all the time.
“We’ve seen clients make huge demands on us because money’s tighter,” he says. “People need to have technical skill as strong as those needed in the private sector, if not stronger. But they also have to be prepared to roll up their sleeves.
“For example, I had someone at Oxfam who had to get involved in more than their core financial job, including marketing and full-office back-up.”
John Herhalt, global chair of KPMG’s government and infrastructure practice, says that among some members of the private sector, the public sector has a reputation for not being as productive and effective, which he says is unfair.
“Those in public sector leadership get a bad rap, as people think it’s not as productive or they don’t work as hard but in many instances some of the most able leaders are in the public sector or work for government,” he says.
He says the core competencies needed by the public sector are the same as those required by the private sector but the focus is not profitability, more public policy and the delivery of public services.
“It isn’t the same as the private sector world in that it isn’t about just financial results but about public, social and political goals,” he says.
There are also many more stakeholders to consider, not just shareholders, so the work and employment process has to be open and transparent.
“The work is often about changing culture or policy and that takes longer than many private sector endeavors or projects,” he says. “Having worked for the public sector as long as I have, I know it is a very complex environment and it can be very challenging but not everyone in the marketplace sees that.”
In terms of recruitment, he says KPMG is able to rely on its own networks of executives, advertising, and recruitment professionals.
Dayalini Mendis, the chief of the talent acquisition and operations division at the IMF, says his organisation has only used headhunters once this year: “The IMF has a global market obligation and headhunters typically do not provide a sufficient global candidate pool within the hiring timeframe,” she says.
The multilateral organisation has 188 member countries and employs close to 2,500 permanent staff. In 2011, it hired 153 economists and other career streams while getting close to its goal of having 40 per cent of staff from developing countries.
Ms Mendis says the IMF recruits via a variety of channels, such as advertisements and networking at conferences, universities and associations of professional economists in member countries, and it incentivises staff to refer candidates.
The brand and high profile of the IMF during its fire-fighting role in the financial crises of recent years had also helped to maintain its reputation as somewhere desirable to work.
“I would say interest in working at the IMF has held steady since the financial crisis. We’ve always had applications in the thousands,” she says. “Typically, for very senior positions we’ve had 100 applicants per job.”
Wayne Luke, partner with the Bridgespan Group and head of the firm’s talent matching services, says only in rare cases could someone who had worked in the private sector all their career without proof of commitment, such as volunteering or serving on the board of a non-profit, move into the international public sector.
“From a recruitment perspective, it’s not good enough if, say, you’ve worked for General Electric all your life and you suddenly want to go to work for a non-profit. We would ask where the evidence is that such work has been important to you in the past,” he says.
“However, the line is blurring between the private and public sectors because funders are more questioning about their investment and want to know what are the deliverables and outcomes. Results have to be tangible.”