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Sector Switchers: Why Successful People Transition Between Sectors

Thursday, Mar 17, 2016 Category Education

By Chris Marvin

Last year I left a role at a nonprofit organization to start my own consulting business. This is my first private sector job, and I've now officially held public, private, and nonprofit occupations. I still focus on issues similar to those I dealt with at the nonprofit, but I've found distinct differences in how I view and address these issues from a new sector. I wondered if others had similar experiences, so I interviewed some people with cross-sector careers to get their thoughts on being sector switchers.

I selected a small group of people from my network who have made more than one sector switch, with the goal of exploring different kinds of sector switches—nonprofit to private, private to government, government to nonprofit, and the reverse. For example, I spoke with a colleague who moved from a policy role for the mayor of a large U.S. city to a national nonprofit. Another friend's cross-sector journey took him from nonprofit to consulting to politics to small business. I also talked to a business school classmate who spent time at a start-up and on Wall Street before becoming a Capitol Hill staffer. Along the way, I had a handful of other conversations with a wide variety of sector switchers.​

I concentrated on a few basic questions: Why did you switch sectors? What differences do you see? What insights might you have for other sector switchers? The results were surprisingly in line with one another, as well as with my own experiences. Far from a comprehensive analysis, I hope to use what I learned to offer a few insights and anecdotes on sector switching.

Making the Switch

Jobs aren't as permanent as they were a generation ago. We don't spend decades at one company and retire into a generous pension. Thus, most of us feel free to move around, sometimes changing sectors in the process.

My first sector switch occurred after serving seven years in the military. It was time for a new opportunity, so I pursued an MBA, which was my introduction to the private sector. Then, I made a unique post-MBA career decision, jumping headfirst into the nonprofit world. In making this move, I consciously examined the differences between sectors. Most of my classmates were taking corporate jobs, and I had offers to work in management consulting. But my goal was to find a career that would give me a sense of purpose. However vague that may sound, I didn't see great purpose in consulting. I chose nonprofit work because I was motivated by its mission-driven nature.

Talking with the other sector switchers, I uncovered a common thread. Like me, earlier in a sector switcher's career they often deliberately explored another sector to gain experience. One person told me that he took a corporate job to prove he had the chops to make it in the private sector. Ultimately, he left because he found it "boring and soulless." Still, he pointed out the many benefits he gained there, including learning humility and understanding hierarchy. This was immensely beneficial to him in governmental work, and he has no regrets about his time in the corporate world.

Despite early-career sector experimentation, mid-career sector switchers tend to be in search of work they enjoy or a mission they believe in. If that leads them to a new sector, so be it. The aforementioned friend who moved from a mayor's office to a national nonprofit is still working to improve the well-being of vulnerable people. Her goals and motivations didn't change with her sector switch. Like her, many sector switchers are passionate about a specific set of challenges and bounce between sectors searching for ways to be more effective. Others see themselves as "generalists." They enjoy many different types of work, which naturally leads them to crisscross sectors.

Most sector switchers eventually become sector agnostic because they prioritize the nature of the work. One person told me he looks for jobs that are intellectually stimulating, provide challenging work, and have a defined purpose. He said he would be happy to find that job in any sector. Another individual simply asks himself, "Am I excited to talk about my work at social gatherings?"

None of the sector switchers I talked to would have a problem switching sectors again for the right reason. It became apparent that successful switchers follow work that motivates them and quickly adapt to take advantage of new tools available to them. A friend who has been successful in both the public and nonprofit sectors said she could easily see herself in the private sector if she could identify a way to make a difference on an issue she cares about.

New Angle, New Tools

All of the people I interviewed said switching sectors gave them new angles and new tools. Specifically, when sector switchers continue to focus on similar challenges, the new sector offers advantages not available in their previous sector.

Until my most recent sector switch, I led a nonprofit effort to change cultural perceptions of veterans. We were successful in the entertainment industry, showing writers and producers how accurate depictions of veterans could enhance their storylines. Occasionally, we worked directly with productions to convey the nuances of the veteran narrative. But time and resource constraints prevented large-scale expansion of these one-on-one efforts.

I was managing a multi-million dollar budget, had staff and consultants in five cities, and was beholden to a clearly defined mission. There was simply no time to provide feedback on dozens of scripts. Even if we had the time, there were questions about mission alignment, and the revenue model wasn't feasible. The nonprofit required a sizable donation before we could free up enough resources to provide the kind of content consulting requested. Justifiably, the producers weren't interested in making a donation; they were focused on finishing their own project on budget. For them, the cost of a large donation simply wasn't worth the benefit of the services.

However, when I imagined this model in the context of a small business, the mission requirements loosened and the cost drivers decreased substantially. Essentially, I was able to offer high-quality, personalized services at a fraction of the cost. For clients, the arrangement was more transparent and quid pro quo. For myself, I was still making a tangible impact, which was crucially important to me.

I heard similar stories from other sector switchers. One person told me that sector switching uncovered different angles on the same problem. Another noted that experience in multiple sectors is like the ability to speak multiple languages. Sector switchers are more prepared to collaborate across sectors because in many cases they've held the other points of view. In that vein, sector switchers have a better appreciation for the other sectors—their challenges, advantages, and blind spots.

My friend who worked in local government policy told me she felt responsible for everything in the city. Thus, a switch to nonprofit allowed her to reduce the scope of her responsibilities and focus on a few defined problems without being distracted. Similarly, I explained how in nonprofit we tried to solve any problem that fit inside our mission. In the private sector, I've narrowed my aperture to fit the specific problems of my clients, while my experience with big picture issues keeps me from being too myopic. I feel like I have dozens of buckets of water to put out a small campfire. Meanwhile, my friend says that in government you often feel like you're facing an inferno with a very small squirt gun.

The Benefits of Bouncing Around

Scope and point of view aren't the only differences between sectors. Each sector brings its own advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious is the disparity in compensation—in all its forms. In general, the private sector offers the best monetary compensation, the nonprofit sector offers impact and purpose, and government presents out-sized responsibility.

A prime example of out-sized responsibility in the public sector is the military. At 25 years old, I was a platoon leader responsible for $25 million worth of equipment and 25 soldiers in combat. Or take the 30-year-old who is asked to overhaul an $8 billion municipal budget during the height of the financial crisis. Or consider the first time government employee taking the lead on the construction a new stadium for the city's professional sports team. The public sector gives talented people the chance to lead, learn, and sometimes fail, but it all results in valuable experience.

Beyond higher compensation, one person mentioned that in corporate work he found a more high-functioning peer group. Not to say that there aren't smart people in other sectors, but higher monetary compensation both attracts and incentivizes top performers. Another person noted that the lack of money in the public and nonprofit sectors sometimes scares talent away. One reason I was an anomaly going directly from an MBA to a nonprofit is because most recent graduates have steep loans and need a high-paying job to help pay them down. I think that's a shame because I believe the nonprofit sector would benefit greatly from more people with MBA-type skills.

Another common benefit noted by the sector switchers I interviewed was the positive moral and emotional value of their time in nonprofit. The job was mission-driven and impact laden, the work felt positive, and the people were usually great. It's a job that simply makes you feel good. Of course, depending on the size of the organization and the type of nonprofit, there can still be levels of bureaucracy—after all, there are a few multi-billion dollar nonprofits in the U.S.

When Sector becomes Irrelevant

Many sector switchers become agnostic, but it seems that for the most experienced switchers sector becomes irrelevant. For example, I talked to a colleague who used techniques from management consulting to grow a young nonprofit. Another noted the distinct advantages in the federal government that came from his understanding of the financial world. Junior military officers often walk into the private sector with leadership skills that help them succeed. In many cases, the sector in which sector switchers actually work has almost no bearing on why they are there, what they are doing, or how successful they can be.

In my own nonprofit job, sector was largely irrelevant. For example, large corporations would often request services for free because the work was in line with our mission. Occasionally, we could meet the request, but unless another entity has given funding explicitly designed to provide that service to others, it doesn't make business sense for the nonprofit. So, when I declined these requests, I was making a purely business decision. I ran the nonprofit like a business because a nonprofit is a business—it just has tax-exempt status. A good nonprofit leader will always make decisions to satisfy the organization's stakeholders—just like good leaders in government or corporations.

One of the people I interviewed runs his own consulting practice just as I now do. My friend expressed quite bluntly that he couldn't care less about the tax status, and I agree. We are both engaged in work that we find interesting and challenging. We have both created sector irrelevant businesses. Our companies take advantage of our own experiences and satisfy our own stakeholders. While the IRS classifies us both in the private sector, how we operate has much more to with who our clients are than how we file taxes. Like other experienced sector switchers we both learned that if you follow the work and are agnostic to sector, you can end up in a scenario where you're doing what you love and sector is essentially irrelevant.

Chris Marvin is the principal for Marvin Strategies. He is a retired Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He is the founder and former executive director of Got Your 6. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School and is a former Presidio cross-sector leadership fellow.​