We need more women in the higher echelons of public service. This last election cycle in the U.S. was historic in that women for the first time now represent 20% of the U.S. Senate. There was also a record number of women running for public office and I hope we will continue to see more and more women in the political sphere as well as the higher levels of public service at the federal, state and local levels. And while there have been significant gains for women in public office and in the public sector, there remain too few women at the top leadership levels of public service across the board.
Many MBAs report their difficulty post-graduation with securing positions in the private sector that truly challenge them as well as provide opportunities for real leadership experience. Some of this is due in part to the current job climate and lack of leadership opportunities at the mid-career levels. For others, they are held back by the career choices they’ve made early on which has limited their opportunities for advancement and growth. This is particularly true for those in technical careers who feel boxed in and have a difficult time developing then re-branding and re-positioning their leadership skill sets at work. And it is important for all of us to recognize that leadership requires a very different skill set and mindset than those we gained in graduate school or our career experiences thus far. The skill sets that brought us to one point in our career aren’t necessarily the ones that will put us on a path towards leadership. What many MBAs are not made aware of is that working in the public sector, at any point in your career, offers a unique experience to develop and test key leadership skills which for many helps fast track their path not only to leadership but to finding their true passion and purpose at work. For women who aspire to lead, take a second look at the public sector.
The Three P’s of Public Service – Power, Persuasion and Politics
Working in the public sector provides a unique path to leadership because at its core it begins with developing and leveraging what I call the Three P’s of Public Service: Power, Persuasion and Politics. Three areas which are also essential for successful leadership in any sector. In the public sector, relationships are paramount and if you want to survive and thrive you must constantly negotiate, persuade and balance challenging relationships of oftentimes equal and competing value. Women traditionally shy away from the three P’s and loathe talking about them in public forums. Even in the classroom, and particularly when I teach or facilitate executive women’s sessions overseas, women hate talking about power, persuasion and politics. Some of this is cultural, some of this ingrained as many of us are socialized from an early age to leave the three P’s to men. The irony here is that women have innate strengths and abilities in these areas whether they want to admit to it or not. There is also the opportunity in the public sector to gain valuable global experience and cross-cultural skill sets. For me, working at the U.S. Department of State allowed for my experience on the ground with cultures in every region of the world as well as an understanding of and appreciation for geopolitical risk and complex political environments. Additionally, I worked on numerous public-private partnerships where I was building tri-sector leadership experience, bringing governments, non-profits and companies together on a variety of issues and efforts. Global skill sets, a global mindset and working effectively across cultures — which come from experience, not osmosis — are essential to effective leadership and are increasingly marketable skillsets that too few post-grads possess.
Scheduling Lateral Career Moves & Re-Thinking the Leadership Ladder
This summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her now famous essay for The Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” sparked numerous conversations and debates about women’s role in the workplace. One of the more striking themes was the notion that women should chart their own career paths, in essence get the idea of a ladder out of your mindset, and focus instead on pursuing your passion and when necessary schedule a lateral career move or ‘downshift’ if necessary to expand your horizons. And while encouraging women to pursue working in the public sector, she has been candid about the demands of government service and the unforgiving work environments that exist in many public service positions. Therefore, if you do plan on making a lateral move to the public sector, do it early on in your career. There is a saying in the government that ‘You can always go to the private sector’ but for few, unless you receive a high level appointment like Slaughter the reverse is much harder.
I came into the government straight out of graduate school through a program called the Presidential Management Fellowship — a two-year fast track program in the federal government incorporating two rotations into different disciplines and agencies so you can find the right fit for you. The program was exceptional and I cannot recommend it enough for second year graduate students. For those several years out of graduate school who are thinking about making a transition to public service there are several excellent executive education seminars and programs like the USC Center on Public Diplomacy Summer Institute where I teach a component on Corporate Diplomacy. In this unique, two-week intensive, you learn not only about public diplomacy efforts in the government, but also engage directly and network with other attendees many of which work for governments around the world. Public diplomacy is but one area of government service where the skill sets and experiences gained have numerous parallels and applicability in the private sector. or the Women’s Leadership course I developed and taught this summer at the Hult MBA School in Dubai we discussed lateral career transitions and re-thinking what leadership means for the individual. Incorporating elements of the McKinsey Center Leadership Project, we looked at practical ways one can continue their career progression while exploring leadership opportunities beyond the c-suite — in their communities, as entrepreneurs, and yes, in the public sector.
Stop Focusing on What Your Supposed to Do… And Start Doing What You’re Meant to Do
The government could use more MBAs. Given resource limitations and budget constrictions, governments at every level are being asked to do more with less. And if the last election cycle was any indication, we are going to need an army of civil servants equipped with strategic tools who know how to problem solve, manage change effectively and provide some much needed clarity. And while it is true in many cases that the government pays less, expects more and on numerous occasions can be an extremely frustrating, demanding environment, somewhere along the way, I found space to truly identify and develop what I was most passionate about. And this, I realized, was an unexpected gift that has served me throughout my career.
Finding your passion and purpose is messy and so many of us we spend our lives doing what we think we’re supposed to do, rather than finding out what we’re meant to do. Public service, I found, allowed me an opportunity to use the tools and skills I gained in graduate school. It also allowed me the space to challenge myself in numerous different ways, find and define my true passions in life, and then provided opportunities for my advancement beyond anything I could have foreseen. Which left me with a tremendous amount of satisfaction, a mindset geared towards service and skillsets that I knew I could take anywhere and succeed. It’s worth taking a second look…
Read the full Huffington Post article by Professor Cari Guittard, Professor of International Negotiations and Women’s Leadership.