Switching Sectors Event Summary

At Watermark Executive Search’s recent executive luncheon we invited a panel of three members to discuss some of the factors around not only their decision to switch between commercial, government and not-for-profit sectors but what they found when they got there and the advice they would provide others in thinking about such a switch.

Our panel members were Jo Brennan, currently a General Manager for Comminsure and previously Chief Executive of for Habitat for Humanity, Vivek Bhatia, the Chief Executive Officer of icare and previously the Chief Executive Officer for Wesfarmers Insurance and a McKinsey consultant and finally Sanjiv (San) Midha, the Deputy Secretary for Agency, Budget and Policy for New South Wales Treasury, previously a Managing Director with Santander bank in the UK.

In considering the opportunity to change sectors all of the panel members agreed there was a confluence of events where the timing was right. Jo was in a situation where she had recently moved to Sydney and was renting property, unencumbered by a mortgage. As a result her financial commitments at the time allowed her to pursue other opportunities. Jo also made the point that she had a highly supportive home environment in terms of making the choice to shift into the not-for-profit sector and ultimately it came down to a question of “If not now, then when?”.

San had recently returned from the United Kingdom and, as a result, was more open to listening to potential opportunities in different areas. Having spent the last 20 years in banking he was quite open to a change that could still leverage his experience. He had not yet re-established himself in the Sydney market and so had the room to think laterally.

Vivek has made a couple of shifts from being the CEO of Wesfarmers insurance into McKinsey as a consultant and then into an interim CEO role in a Government organisation before being appointed as the full-time CEO at icare. The shift into the McKinsey environment was as much of a challenge as the shift into the government environment, they were not quite sure what to make of him. The move to McKinsey was at a point when Vivek was open to a change given Wesfarmers was divesting itself of the insurance business and he could consider alternatives. Rather like San he moved to a role where he could leverage his experience, in this case providing hands-on expertise to McKinsey’s clients in the area of business transformation and corporate restructuring. The opportunity to become the CEO at Safety, Return to Work and Support, a New South Wales Government organisation, came when the amount of time that Vivek was spending away from his family was becoming a significant issue. The fact that he happened to be working at an underground mine site when the opportunity was presented to him was, we are sure, incidental.

Switching Sectors

The panel talked about what they found was different as they stepped into their new roles in new sectors and the point that everyone agreed on was the misconception about both government and not-for-profit sectors being “wind down” lifestyle choices. San mentioned that he “had not worked so hard for a long period of time.” And Jo also made the point that Habitat for Humanity was “life-consuming” and that she “had never worked so hard” particularly as is often the case in the NFP world, Habitat operated with minimal internal corporate support and the CEO is, by necessity, very hands on. All the panel members also found that both the government sector and the not-for-profit sector was filled with people who “had an impressive passion for their roles.”  Jo noted that the potential downside of that in the not-for-profit sector was what she called “mission fever” which can create challenges in clouding decision-making. Both Vivek and San noted that the view that government is full of “cardigans and slippers” is a fallacy. Vivek also made the point that the “stakeholder management was much more complex than he had appreciated.” Apart from multiple stakeholders within government there are a significant number of large stakeholder relationships both with the commercial world and clients.

The panel also touched on what drew them to the potential opportunities in the first place and Vivek said “The immense challenge of the role and the huge transformative opportunity was a real attraction. The challenge and the stimulation was why I took the risk.” For Jo the move into a not-for-profit had always been on her bucket list but as she said “I am glad I took the opportunity when I did because I needed my full energy in that role. It was much more than a full-time role.” For San it was about the breadth of the canvas on which he had to work that was attractive. He bought the cultural change that Treasury was embarking on and noted “The organisation has a refreshing attitude to trying to change processes and procedures. People are very open.”

The panel members were asked what advice they might provide to people looking to move into a different sector and the overall response was to “have an open mind and the willingness to take a risk. Leaps of faith can be the best thing you can do.” Vivek made the point that at icare you can either choose to see it as a government entity or you can see it as the equivalent of an ASX top 50 company. Both Jo and San commented that “You should not let myths stand in the way. Talk to people who have made the move, do your homework and understand what is different.” In understanding the environment of the company or sector you are shifting to, as well as your ability to make change in that environment, Vivek offered “culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.”

All three panel members agreed that their shifts into another sector had been valuable, exploding some of the myths they had about the sectors. They had been interesting, challenging and rewarding experiences that required a lot of hard work and the panel unanimously agreed that none of these were “wind down” roles.