COMMUNAUTÉS & EXPERTISES — Expertises

Odgers Berndtson

Face a changing world: outstanding leaders in the public sector



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Transforming to face a changing world - the need for outstanding leaders in the public and non for profit sectors is greater than ever. (Photo: Odgers Berndtson)

Following the definition given by ADEM, “the public sector refers to all economic or social activities carried out under the total or partial control of the State and local authorities”. 

Thus, if we include all public organisations and government bodies, non for profit organizations, industry associations, education, hospitals, research organisations and I could go on, we have a very important part of our local economy to which the need to recruit and to retain effective leaders is fundamental, to maintain complex and bureaucratic organisations in an era of a global transformation. It also means that there is as big demand for talents within this sector as within any other one.

However, what’s the difference to recruit for public sector comparing to recruiting for industry or finances?

Well, one of the differences could be the maturity of the sector, and quite old-fashioned recruitment practices. There are mainly three categories of staff to be recruited for the public sector in Luxembourg: the civil servant, the state employee, the state worker. Government employees and workers are recruited based on their diplomas or study certificates. They are centrally recruited by the Ministry of the Civil Service. Regarding medical, paramedical, social and educational careers, they are excluded from this procedure of centralized recruitment, which means that those sectors are open, and quite experienced already, in welcoming on board best practices coming from the private sector. More than ever, we also notice that those sectors are increasingly looking across sectors to recruit the talents to develop the reach of their organisations (creating partnerships public/private), whilst remaining true to their ultimate mission.

This is about the processes and the most common practices. However, why top leaders join the public sector today and what kind of leaders do we recruit?

As the role of this sector is increasingly centred within the global social and political landscape, the natural switch from private to public sector and not-for-profit sectors by senior business executives is still rare enough to cause a stir when it happens. Why doesn’t it happen more often?

The additional important question we would need to ask here would be: “Why top talents would come here if they can make more money elsewhere?” It’s true that, based on our experiences, the public sector pays less, and offers far less benefits on the top of the base salary than the public sector. Food for thoughts of course, as strong compensation and benefits practices are one of the key factors to gain the war of talents today. However, what really drives top leaders today to change, is this money or something else? The answer is quite complex, and relatively simple. Even if we are still living in the world driven by quick profits, unfortunately, “putting profit over long term prudence, and prioritizing short-termism is not in itself sustainable,” according to Paul Polman Ex Unilever CEO. Mr Polman follows that “Capitalism, which has been responsible for the growth and prosperity that has done so much to enhance our lives, is a damaged ideology and needs to be reinvented for the 21st century”. Thus, the world is changing and top executives recognize more often than ever the risks to their businesses associated with social inequality and climate change through changes in regulation and consumer behavior. These challenges require greater agility and authenticity in leadership. And drive a desire to make the world a better place.

And here, public and non for profit organizations appear as a perfect place to be for “this” type of individuals. They get a deep personal satisfaction and sense of purpose from knowing that their daily work is having a positive impact on the world. Impact has to matter more than money. Yet Julie Oliver, our Head of Non for Profit Practice from London argues: “We don’t have any problem finding people for roles whether they’re remunerated or not. This type of organizations is run by people who are passionate about what the organization does. It doesn’t attract people who don’t have any sympathy for the cause – they would be the wrong people in those roles. It needs to be someone who has the value-set to make that organization and its beneficiaries really thrive.”

However, at the end, public and non for profit organizations are like any others, it’s just that they have a different bottom line. According to Julie Olivier, “it is the same operational and logistical expertise that enables an organisation to manage a global supply chain in the telecoms industry that also allows an INGO to efficiently and cost effectively deliver food or vaccines”. Thus, the difference is that while for-profits optimise around maximising shareholder value, non-profits attempt to maximise the positive impact on beneficiaries. That being said, we all need to recruit the best people, not just the well-meaning ones.

What competencies do we usually search to fit this sector?

The right mix of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds is important in any sector, and this to innovate, develop and deliver agreed strategies. This is equally applicable to the public and private sectors. It is also relevant to the issue of transformation, given that the public and not for profit sectors need to be “fearless”.

From a recruitment perspective, this involves bringing the most diverse skills from across sectors on board, with necessary knowledge to maximise opportunity and taking a more consumer-led approach – a commercial mindset becomes really important for this sector. Although “fit for purpose” remains crucial, it becomes more important than ever to recruit the best people, to build a stronger, focused and reinforced public face of competence and client experience.

So, as the job landscape is changing, will we see a massive move from private to public and non for profit sectors locally?

First of all, it’s up to all of us to make a huge promotion of the opportunities within the public sector and non-for profit organisations locally. Just have a look on the websites of different organizations in our country. There are hundreds of great jobs waiting for you! And a very important room for great leaders within, as this sector is in transition, like any other, but still remains underestimated. There is certainly a room for more promotion on the local market as people still have some preconceived notions about this space. The sector as a whole would also need to be smarter in the way it recruits senior management, “to attract those candidates”. Organisations have to clarify their needs, to be demanding but also honest enough to build a clear frame, to provide with honest and reachable objectives, and to determine the way and available resources to help people be successful. The culture of KPI’s needs to be established too, as this is the language of the private sector. In one word, the public and non for profit sectors need to take the responsibility of their development, and to professionalize their approach to attract the leaders of tomorrow, while clearly articulating and actively promoting their impact to potential candidates.

Are we ready for the transition?

Every day, we meet great professionals open to take the risk, to switch from very comfortable positions within big international organisations to join the environments where they can leave the trace, combine experiences with passion, and deliver impact at scale. This is a kind of trend today, or perhaps a natural way of protecting individuals from disruption, an expected retour to the roots and carpe diem attitude in a very unpredictable world? Following the findings of our internal researches and discussions, we do trust that the public and non for profit sectors can take a huge profit from uncertainty of the today’s world. The global transformation can help them catch the available competencies with purpose, and to “use” them quickly to support the transition and to go quickly to the next level of excellence. It looks like a perfect solution for hundreds of organisations, looking for guidance and improvement, and hundreds of educated and self-aware leaders looking for a purpose.

So, let’s promote the public and non for profit sectors as a massive room for business know-how, and a perfect place to be Force for Good, and to embrace the change with serenity.

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Transforming to face a changing world - the need for outstanding leaders in the public and not-for-profit sectors is greater than ever. (Photo: Odgers Berndtson)