Learning to see the commonalities between private and public sector work

Cross-sector collaboration is a business imperative. The DWP's Debbie Alder and Bakkavor's Pippa Greenslade explain why

On paper Debbie Alder, HR director general at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Pippa Greenslade, group HR director at chilled food manufacturer Bakkavor, have pretty different jobs. Public sector compared to commercial, British compared to global (Bakkavor is a UK-US-Chinese company), civil service compared to manufacturing. But the two HR directors, who are trustees at the Whitehall & Industry Group (WIG), a charity and membership organisation that promotes cross-sector learning, see more similarities than differences between their roles.

“There is more in common,” says Alder. “That shorthand of private sector: good; public sector: bad is inaccurate. There’s a spectrum across both.” Greenslade adds: “Good HR is about understanding the strategy of the organisation and developing your people strategy around it [whatever sector you work in]. Those skills of understanding a strategy, building insight and alignment, being really clear on what your objectives are, and pulling people with you are cross-sector skills.”

Here, Alder and Greenslade reveal what the nature of cross-sector collaboration, enabled by WIG’s development programmes and learning and networking opportunities, have taught them about personal development and value-adding HR…

Working in different sectors makes you broader

Both Alder and Greenslade have enviable CVs of multi-sector roles. Alder held HR roles at Marks & Spencer and Ford and has also worked as an independent consultant, before joining the Civil Service eight years ago, where she has spent time at the Ministry of Justice and Defra as well as DWP. Greenslade started off at Cadbury Schwepps, working all over the world, before becoming global HR director at public sector organisation The British Council.

“I’m a much broader HR director as a result [of working in both the public and private sector],” Greenslade reflects. “It makes you think more broadly and think about a wider range of stakeholders. It has given me a range of perspectives and a network to draw on. Whether you are thinking about executive development or a knotty union issue, if you can bring different perspectives the outcome tends to be stronger.”

For Alder, two big things she’s learnt from moving to the public sector after two decades in the private sector are how to deal with ambiguity and the importance of transparency. “You need to be able to hold firm to a sense of business strategy, business intent, and give stability and confidence to the organisation you lead while recognising the political environment can change in half a day,” she explains, adding that in government departments, the secretary of state often changes with no warning, the new one often coming in with a different agenda.

In the public sector, she adds, transparency is king given you are dealing with public money and have to be able to respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and parliamentary questions. “But in the private sector, [transparency around things like] tax affairs are becoming increasingly important to the public,” she points out.

Cross-sector collaboration is an imperative

“Cross-sector collaboration has evolved from a nice-to-do to a business imperative,” believes Alder. Part of the reason for this is the challenges the UK currently faces are so large that remaining siloed presents a danger to the country’s economy. “There’s something about the convening power of multi-sectoral discussion to try and navigate our way through, whether it’s Brexit or the new industrial strategy,” Alder adds.

“Given where we are at as a nation and the issues we face, and the way in which we have to proportion resources, we do ourselves damage if we silo ourselves within a particular sector,” Greenslade agrees. “It’s not a choice any more. To get the best outcome you have to partner.

“Whether you’re looking at public, private or third sector, the message has to be: how do the three sectors work together? In Lincolnshire, for example, we are working with the local authority on infrastructure for local bus routes to get people to work, which is hugely important. The alignment is: it’s good for the local community to have good jobs, which gives taxes back to fund services.” She also uses the example of partnering with local schools to boost skills capability.

Alder adds that Brexit particularly requires private sector skills, given the newly established Department of International Trade needs experienced negotiators. “We need to be bringing people in and encouraging them to think about working [in the Civil Service] for 18 or 12 months. If you don’t want to negotiate on behalf of the country, what gets you out of bed in the morning?” she points out. “There are questions about: how do we leverage an appetite to go and have a different career experience and provide some kind of win/win between the individual and UK PLC? The more business leaders, charity leaders and public sector leaders are sharing and understanding perspectives, the better.”

Give people diverse experiences

“Great leaders always want to keep on learning,” Greenslade believes. HR and learning professionals need to think of creative ways to keep people growing and learning, and bringing an external focus can really help. “We need to be much more agile and think much more creatively,” she adds. That could include secondments (WIG organises these, allowing people to experience a new sector), mentoring and reverse mentoring, multi-sector shared learning experiences, or joint (public/private sector) leadership programmes.

Such opportunities “bring a richness to the HR offer and moves you away from group think”, Alder says.

Keeping things exciting and offering diverse experiences is particularly important today, Greenslade feels. “Folk who are coming into the workforce now are approaching their careers with huge variety,” she says. “They are focusing on skills and there’s a real openness to different experiences and different ways of doing things. It’s very exciting.”

While both Greenslade and Alder have moved between the sectors, and learnt a lot from it, they are clear that moving jobs is not the only way to benefit from cross-sector experience and learning. Alder’s permanent secretary at DWP, for example, has shadowed the chief executive of John Lewis. Greenslade’s graduates have spent time with hill farmers (organised via the Prince’s Countryside Trust), learning about issues in Bakkavor’s supply chain.

For senior leaders NED appointments are also a great way to access cross-sector learning. “For me, in the private sector, it’s a great way of getting a flavour of how a board works, how committees work and a great preparation for the next step,” says Greenslade

Further reading

The rise of the cross-sector HRD