WIG CEO Blog August 2019 – 'Get rid' of your high potential employees

When you consider developing your people, you are surely thinking about broadening their experience, offering challenge, providing broader context, pushing them beyond their comfort zone, giving them responsibility and ideally different insights. Is this necessarily going to happen by moving them into a different division or department within your organisation? Are you moving them as a cog next to a different cog? Ultimately it’s the same mechanism but viewed from a different angle. Even if there is the advantage of a well-oiled development scheme designed to shift ‘high potentials’ around the business, does it really provide all the benefits listed above?

Perhaps you should send your best people away; for a bit, anyway. The military has a long-standing tradition of exchange. A Dutch Marine serving with the Royal Marines, a US Navy aviator in a Fleet Air Arm squadron and numerous Army and RAF equivalents at every level. The benefits are huge. Cultural understanding, perspective, best practice, future knowledge and networks... the list goes on.

In both the public and private sector secondments, far from representing ‘time out’ from development, actually turbocharge it. With the right match (one that is set up well), an individual will find themselves in very different surroundings, operating different rules with different challenges. This requires of them accelerated understanding, re-calibration, fresh eyes and the transition to different responsibilities within an organisation. WIG places close to 100 Fast Stream civil servants every year in selected not-for-profit organisations for secondments of six months or more. This scheme, called Charity Next, is one WIG has been running for over a decade, building on our legacy of brokering cross-sector secondments since our inception in 1984. Almost invariably the feedback from Charity Next secondees has centred around a much more in-depth understanding, often only available in a smaller organisation, of purpose, policy, strategy, operational design and front line delivery and most importantly how these areas interface with each other. This amounts to an opportunity they may well not benefit from in the vastness of their home department (except over a period of several years). It is also apparent that a good plan for their return to the organisation is an essential element to the process.

Secondments, therefore, are a massive opportunity for personal development, but there is a bigger prize here as well. For private sector players supporting the public sector, there is the challenge of comprehending a very distinct environment, just as there is the other way around. It is one of language and culture and the misconceptions that arise from a lack of understanding and exposure. Caricatures tend to become etched. The public sector is seen as slow, bureaucratic, risk-averse and challenging to navigate. The private sector is meanwhile seen as solely profit-driven, unaccepting of the broader picture and liable to subjugate public and societal good. Both of these views are almost certainly wrong.

Those who know both public and private sectors would quickly observe that some of the challenges in the public sector sit around the certainty required for far-reaching policy implications that could last for generations; certainty about the use of tax-payers money, of constant public and political scrutiny and the complexities of policy coherence with numerous other strands. In defence of the private sector, they would doubtless add that it needs to respond with lightning speed and absolute precision in highly contested market places. It needs to react to future trends before they become trends while increasingly respecting the Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agendas and in order, let us not forget, to advance the national bottom line.

A little like the graduate language student spending a year abroad - the only way of truly understanding the other culture is immersion. Secondments are the most efficient and effective way of building a cross-sector ‘linguist’. Someone who gets to feel the complexity and drivers, the context and the challenges – and with this, understanding – has an enormous advantage. All this from being sent away for a few months.

To find out more about WIG's secondment programmes, go here


  • Simon Ancona CBE

    Chief Executive

    Simon Ancona enjoyed a full career in the Royal Navy including service in the Fleet Air Arm and appointments abroad in both Hong Kong and Bahrain. He commanded 4 warships, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group and UK maritime forces in the Middle East but also spent about 10 years in Whitehall including time in Ministerial outer office. His final appointment was as the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff in charge of world-wide defence diplomacy and engagement. On leaving the military he worked as the Chief Operating Officer responsible for Network Rail’s North East London and Anglia region, which provided experience of commercial delivery and the challenges of operating at the seam of both the public and private sector. Married to Lisa he lives in South London and has two university aged children. Interests include cycling, walking, theatre, cooking, books and playing the blues Harmonica (normally when the house is empty).

    Simon writes a CEO Blog for WIG on topics that he identifies as relevant to and impacting on our members.