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The Top 7 Traps When Moving from Business to Government

The Top 7 Traps When Moving from Business to Government

Peter Daly and Michael Watkins /

Trap 5: Overlooking Nonmonetary Incentives

One of the starkest contrasts between business and government is the differences in incentives for motivating workers. “The biggest trap for successful individuals entering government, is not understanding the structured nature of pay in government,” notes one HR professional in the survey. “Pay raises can only be given based on certain criteria, at a certain time and within the confines of a merit system. This is often a shock to former private-sector employees.” In business, motivation often means sharing in the financial benefits of a successful business plan. In government, financial incentives can conflict with the concept of professionals who carry out policies to best serve the public, not for personal gain. Leaders, therefore, must rely on other tools – a compelling vision, a culture that values and recognizes success, the potential for development and advancement, and the reward of engaged teamwork – that are more difficult to design.

Trap 6: Overestimating Control Over Critical Resources

Acquiring resources in government is heavily regulated by Cabinet agencies and Congress, creating a competitive environment where agencies not only vie against each other but must engage the political process and gain the support of allies. Even when support is strong, acquiring quick infusions of people, facilities or technology is unlikely, given complex personnel and procurement rules. Most new government leaders must start off largely with the resources they inherited.

Trap 7: Expecting Government to Move as Fast as Business

New arrivals from business “believe they can make change happen quickly,” says another survey respondent. “When they find out that they cannot make that change as quickly as they’d like, discouragement sets in.” Government’s rhythms are different from the quarterly and annual reporting deadlines of business. So for new leaders, getting up to speed could take longer than six months, which is typical in business. Still, they are not insulated from the impatience of stakeholders and are likely to face pressures for early wins. Targets for such wins should be selected wisely, despite insistence from some quarters for rapid action, because when they are met, they increase credibility and build momentum for success with longer-term changes.

Success in avoiding these traps will position you to get off to a good start and build personal credibility. If you fall into one, however, it will set up a vicious cycle that will consume your precious time and energy; it could even contribute to derailment.

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