Avoid the perils of groupthink by learning from other sectors – by Peter Unwin CB

Our chief executive Peter Unwin explains why learning from other sectors provides a unique contribution to both individual career success and the success of organisations.

This year, as every year, thousands of talented people will embark on their career. The choice of whether they do that in the public, private or not-for-profit sector may be based on no more than the influence of a parent or teacher, or simply what is the first role they succeed in landing from numerous applications. But in many cases that choice will often define the sort of job they spend most of their life doing. 

Does that matter? Talent will always rise. The Civil Service, industry and other organisations all have programmes to develop the skills of their brightest and best. As those skills are developed they will be deepened to meet the needs of the organisation. But, and this is a big but, they will often not be broadened and may even be narrowed. Anyone who makes it to the top of industry will have a clear focus on outcomes and the bottom line and a sharp commercial understanding. A top policy civil servant will be good at analysing complex problems with conflicting objectives or handling a policy that has winners and losers and will have a clear understanding of public accountability. Both of them will be working in an organisation where many of their peers have similar strengths and weaknesses to them, contributing to the groupthink that can lead government departments or major companies into one sort of a crisis or another. 

It’s not that the civil servant or the private sector professional doesn’t share the capacity to develop each other’s skills; they probably weren’t that different when they left school or university. It’s just that they’ve exercised and grown different skill muscles based on the demands of their organisation or sector. 

That’s why WIG is passionate about learning from across sectors. Put peers together from different backgrounds and the potential for learning is huge. They will be exposed to people whose skills have developed differently; they will often find they are dealing with similar issues from a different perspective; and they will learn more about the wider environment in which their organisation operates. Try finding a chief executive who doesn’t say they want their organisation to be more externally focused. Not only does cross-sector learning broaden skills and perspective, it also enables people to operate more effectively in collaboration with colleagues in other sectors – which is essential these days to succeed on most of the big issues facing us. 

The long-term answer is, of course, a world where government, business and the not-for-profit sector work together as a matter of course, and where it is the norm for people to move between sectors during their careers. That is what the Civil Service is trying to achieve by creating more “permeability” into and out of government. It will be helped by two factors: the move away from the “job for life” in government and major companies; and, secondly, the greater appetite of the millennial generation for change and new stimulation. But this is a long-term process. In the short term, cross-sector training and leadership programmes, secondments and other initiatives are vital if we are to ensure that leaders in organisations across our economy and society have the broadest range of skills possible and a wider perspective of the world they operate in. 

We have seen at WIG the opportunity for unleashing this potential within people when they are exposed to a cross-sector learning environment.

But it is surprising that its benefits are so little recognised in some places. That is why this year we held the first WIG Leadership Impact Awards, to highlight the huge value that development across the sectors can have on individuals, their teams, their organisations and the wider world. These awards will now showcase this impact on an annual basis, illustrating what we at WIG witness daily: that learning from another sector makes a unique contribution to both individual career success and the success of organisations.

Note: This article was originally published in the Public Sector Executive on 18 April. (Adam Busby, Cognitive Media).