same same, but different

Twelve months ago I ranted about how private sector people often perceive those who’d spent time in the not for profit world, how things were often much the same in both theatres despite the efforts (on both sides) to differentiate.

In the year since then, I’ve navigated the waters of the private sector and reflected on what I miss the most – and least – about the not-for-profit world.

The IT support is still woeful: I am still looked after by a bunch of blokes (yes, they are all men, unlike in Red Cross) who bend over backwards every day to do what’s needed on a shoestring and without any obvious IT strategy. Tick.

I am still working for an organisation talking about a flash new e-recruitment process that still hasn’t arrived. Tick.

I still work in a small, committed team whose mutual support and comedy banter is a joy and inspiration most days. Tick.

I still do a week of duty officer (a little more frequently with a lot more to do out of hours). Tick.

I’m still known as Darth Doyle.

Performance management is different. Holding people to account is not only talked about here, it’s expected. In the past year I’ve handed down countless first warnings and a handful of final warnings, and I have fired a couple of people. You don’t perform, you’re out. We have no room for passengers. At Red Cross we huffed and puffed quietly about poor performers until they left: not hugely helpful to the rest of the team or to the quality of our services.

I travel much further to work, but at least when I get there I have my own office, my own quiet working space. No more open-plan working. So I don’t work from home as much – I don’t need to. I can be hugely productive in my work environment.

Finance management is not too different. I steward my labour budget with a rod of iron and question every request to put another shift on the road; but in my not for profit role we counted the pennies obsessively too.

The business intelligence is much, much worse. I managed a $7 million budget with almost no BI at Red Cross. Now I manage a significantly larger budget with absolutely nothing apart from what I can pull together myself with my less-than-adequate Excel skills. It never ceases to alarm me how little analysis support I have, and how much relies on my long-winded workings.

I sit back at the end of each day, week, month, like every General Manager, and look at the numbers. It’s winter, so patient activity is up. This means more work, closer logistics management, worse traffic, but more revenue too. If my P&L matches budget and my productivity levels look good, I stop fretting and look ahead to the next month.  Job done. It’s that simple.

At Red Cross, it was a little different. Of course we carefully counted the financial cost of putting a thousand volunteers in the field, delivering hundreds of meals across dozens of towns, managing dozens of evacuation centres in flood-affected regions, doing outreach to hundreds of households following a devastating bushfire. We had funders and philanthropic donors to satisfy. We had to prove that we were a trustworthy steward of scarce relief and recovery funds, to demonstrate that we could make those funds go far and touch as many people as possible.

But we didn’t sit back at the end of the day (or summer) satisfied that we did what we said we’d do and stayed within budget. We worried about the outcomes of our actions. And I mean worried.

We visited disaster-affected people in their homes, providing information and practical support. We provided a safe place to sleep for people who’d had to evacuate their home. We took thousands of calls from people trying to locate their loved ones after the bushfire raged through their neighbourhood. We kept detailed spreadsheets and produced reports to show how many of each action we did.

But we also asked: did that visit, place to stay, phone call actually help those people in a meaningful way? Could we measure in some specific way exactly how our assistance hastened their psychosocial recovery? How could we be sure we did no harm to anybody, ever? How would we be able to measure our contribution in terms of long-term outcomes, not short-term outputs? Because if we couldn’t, chances are the funding would dry up, the donors would walk away.

Looking at my current job through that lens, it would mean that not only would I be concerned that we had moved every patient on time with no overtime, but I’d have to do research on how the quality and timeliness of my patient transport materially affected their healthcare pathways and by how much it hastened their recovery.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Perhaps it’s as easy as saying that governments and large corporates outsource only simple tasks, but we all know that’s not true. Across the world every day people are cared for in hospitals, kept secure in prisons, fed in schools, trained at work, looked after in nursing homes, given home help and cooked meals, all by armies of workers employed not by the government or the company being paid, but by outsourcing companies like mine.

We are not required to measure and be paid according to the health outcome of the patient we care for, the rehabilitation prospects of the prisoner we secure, the adult fitness and health levels of the school-child we feed, the quantitatively improved career prospects of the worker we train, the quality of life of the elderly, vulnerable lady we look after every day.

We deliver good service, on time and on budget, we record the data, we send the bill, we deliver the budgeted amount of profit, we switch of our laptops off and go home, we do it all again tomorrow.

But everything we do will have had some impact on the lives of the people we have served.

And yet…. and yet. The private sector is still seen as more complex, more difficult, more challenging, the real world. The private sector is where the real workers are, the ones who know what they’re doing.

The not for profit world is perceived as softer and fluffier, populated by well-meaning, left-leaning, sandal-wearing social workers who are probably still being bankrolled by Mummy and Daddy. Those who can, do. Those who can’t will probably be able to get a job in a charity somewhere.

I look back at the strategic planners, the IT service delivery gurus, the change managers, the logistics people, the departmental heads I’ve worked with in the not for profit world. All of them could run rings around many of the people I’ve come across in the private sector, in terms of intellect, strategic approach, long-term focus, commitment, ethics and sheer hard work. But most of them will never be considered for a role in the private sector, because their skills are not believed to be transferable.

And you know, it’s probably true. Many of their skills won’t be transferable, because they would not be used or valued. Many of them would see their skills wither away in the private sector, with its often shortsighted focus on this month’s bottom line, this quarter’s results or the exec team’s end of year bonus.

So do I regret my move? Not at all. This is not a polemic against the private sector world, just another small attempt at levelling the playing field. Most working environments, most teams, most organisations have more in common than divides them.  They are all less unique than they believe they are. And that’s across the board.

Private sector workers coming into the not for profit space will have some valuable short-term tactical focus, pretty robust people management skills, a fair amount of less-thinking-more-doing attitude to contribute.

Not for profit workers taking on a private sector role may have the ability to look a little further out and a little further up, consider the unintended consequences a little more, understand reputational risk and how to avoid it a lot better. They’ll sure as hell know how to make a little go a long way and still look good.

Same same, but different.


5 thoughts on “same same, but different

  1. At the end of the day, whether in the public or private sector, people are people and the vast majority come to work to put in their best effort to do a great job? I live by the mantra that attitude outweighs skills always, and I’d employ anyone with a mix of passion, compassion, dedication and skill any day – no matter the sector they’ve come from. Most good business leaders would. What we need to be successful is diversity of thought – and that comes from building a team of individuals with different backgrounds, experience and skills.

  2. Another fantastic thought provoking read! As a humanitarian that has considered a future career path in the private sector, this opens the eyes to the challenges involved in crossing the divide and just how green (or not) the grass is on the other side! Many thanks for sharing the thoughts Darth Doyle!

  3. An interesting read but misses some relevant points for those employed in the private sector. Whilst there are always some people that can, and do, make the switch from a not for profit organisation to the private sector, there are many unable. This is because of the change in mindset that is required.

    Yes, of course there are skills that are transferable, but it’s the mindset that becomes the stumbling block. Let me give you some examples.

    1. Innovation. If the world consisted of only not for profit organisations, then I’m sure we would be still travelling in horse and buggy. When you turn off your laptop, travel in your car and enjoy the comfort of your home, just think that the vast majority of this “technology” comes from the private sector. People in the private sector are encouraged to seek better ways of doing things. This is not as prevalent in the not for profit sector. True, some not for profit organisations are innovative eg CSIRO, but it’s nowhere near that of the private sector. Change is (or should be) a constant pursuit of private sector organisations.

    2. Competition. Most not for profit organisations do not have competition as a driving force. Most not for profit organisations think that “competition” for donations is true competition. It’s not! True competition is about getting a greater share of paying customers, who are always ready to change for better service or product. Competition focuses the mind, and makes most people strive to do better. To be under constant threat from competition sharpens the mindset.

    3. Sense of Urgency. In the private sector it’s a case of adapt quickly or get out. Many companies have failed to adapt in time because they simply have not had the sense of urgency. Not for profit companies do not have the same level of “sense of urgency” and hence when those managers switch to the private sector, they experience trouble getting staff and themselves to do things on time. It is this part of mindset that sees not for profit managers unable to succeed in the private sector.

    4. Environment. Not for profit sector enjoy many benefits (eg tax) not available to the private sector. Would the not for profit organisations succeed if required to operate on a level playing field as the private sector? I suspect many would fail. This is where the phrase “real world” comes into effect. The private sector has to manage the environment it operates in (eg lobbying Canberra, create mergers, find acquisitions, raise new capital, etc). It has to try to shape its environment that it operates in, as it’s too easier target for politicians, greenies, etc to take negative actions. This is no where the same for not for profit organisations. Again, it’s the change in mindset that is required to, not only identify the issues, but also act on them.

    So if you want to switch from the not for profit organisation to the private sector, go ahead. And good luck. But don’t forget, in the private sector there are no volunteers. They are all paid employees ( including subordinates) who will expect you perform, meet deadline, be innovative, understand the competition, and possess the right mindset.

  4. You are still doing an amazing job. It was a pleasure to know you at Red Cross. I too miss the friendships I made there but the universe is unfolding in many ways. Take care.

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