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  • Iain Donnelly

Five lessons learned after two years in business

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

I left the police service almost exactly two years ago. I had completed my 30 years’ service, and I'd enjoyed a thoroughly satisfying and I think a very successful career. I had decided to start a business when I left the police because I had spent a great deal of my last five years of service dealing with all things techie, and I wanted to carry on with this work from a different angle. In my final twelve months, I had been the project manager of the National Data Analytics Solution (NDAS), which had been the first time that UK law enforcement had attempted to use predictive analytics to understand serious crime better.

Leaving the police was on one hand, pretty exciting and on the other hand quite nerve-wracking. Spending thirty years of your life in the public sector is an incredible privilege, however it leaves you with perhaps a limited understanding of other areas of life, particularly the private sector. Like many people starting a business, I was filled with bright ideas and a mixture of optimism and anxiety. I knew a lot of people who run their own businesses, and I was under no illusion that it was going to be easy and I had to ignore the Gremlins on my shoulder telling me 'You have no idea about this, it's not going to work'.

So, here I am two years on, and I thought that it would be interesting to share five key things that I have learned since leaving the police. I hope this might be of some use to others transitioning from a public sector life into a commercial life, or for that matter for those who have always worked in the commercial sector and wonder what it must be like to work in the public sector. I need to emphasise that this isn't about saying that one is better than the other. It's more about giving you my honest thoughts and reflections on what I've personally learned along the way. Your experience might be completely different.

Lesson 1: Once you've gone, you've gone

No matter what you've done in the public sector, or how experienced you are, or how extensive your network once was, once you've left, the world moves on alarmingly quickly. It's a self-evident truth that no one is indispensable and every organisation, particularly the big organisations, carry on regardless, and you're quickly forgotten. Currency is everything, and if you were the expert yesterday then there will be a new expert tomorrow. Therefore, it's really important that you don't make too many plans to rely on your previous network as a potential source of income, because in the same way that people in business owe you nothing, your previous organisation or occupation now owes you little or nothing. That maybe sounds a bit harsh, but unless you're offering them something that they need really badly and you are the only person who can deliver that, prepare to be rejected or ignored after a fairly short period of time. In the same way that those in your previous occupation no longer care about what you did in your previous life, don't expect colleagues in the private sector to care a great deal either. What they are interested in however, is the value that you are adding to their business right now. Fairly early in my new commercial life I was told by one CEO that ex-senior cops are of little use to businesses, other than in the very short term just after they leave the organisation. I asked why this was the case, and I was told that it was because 'They don't really want to work. They want to charge big day rates and then swan about with their mates at conferences. They also have big pensions, and this doesn't give them the hunger we expect in every employee'. I'm pleased to say that this was not his assessment of me, and we went on to have a very fruitful and positive commercial engagement for over a year.

Lesson 2: The grandiosity of what many people claim in some parts of the private sector is often inversely proportionate to what they go on to deliver.

In the police service we deal with with a lot of different people from all sorts of backgrounds. This was particularly the case in London where I spent the first half of my career, and as a uniformed officer in my first four years I dealt with every type of person, from the very wealthiest or highly educated, right through to those who lived on the streets or had spent many years in addiction. This experience makes most cops unimpressed by wealth or influence and more interested in what someone has actually done, or whether they are a decent person or not. There is also a culture of humility and a well-founded suspicion of anyone who 'talks big' in the police. Anyone who joins any police team, and behaves like this, is very quickly brought down to size by his or her colleagues. Bragging is very much frowned upon, whereas honesty, a sense of humour and straight-forward speaking is valued. I discovered pretty quickly that many people in the private sector are not shy about boasting about their achievements, and frequently when I went into a first engagement meeting with potential clients, there were many 'over-the top' claims of stellar success, with each person around the table seemingly vying to outdo one another in terms of what they claimed to have achieved. Admittedly, my early experiences were in the context of the venture capitalist world, full of big egos, where they wanted my help and advice with technology investments. However, it very soon became clear that their actual abilities were not matched by their claims. Indeed, my first commercial engagement with a VC resulted in me being lied to, taken advantage of and never paid by the client, who still owes me a great deal of money. Therefore, if I hear this sort of grandiose talk now, I run a mile and I suggest you do too. Talk is cheap.

Lesson 3: Prepare to be ignored and/or rejected

At the risk of making a massive generalisation, there tends to be more of a mindset in the private sector that a relationship is only worth developing if it leads to some sort of immediate financial benefit, or benefit in kind to you personally. This came as a bit of a shock to me initially, but I now accept that this is one of the harsher realities of business. In the public sector we have to build relationships with all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it's because you need something or the organisation needs something from that person, but usually it's because they need something from you, and it’s your job as a public servant to help them. It might be a member of the public; it might be someone from another organisation or a member of the business community. The bottom line is that you are there to help. Therefore it took me a while to realise that in business no one owes you anything, and unless you're able to help them in some way, it is unlikely that they will engage with you. There is also a difference between the mindset of those who work in large corporations, SMEs, start-ups, or micro businesses. In my experience, the larger the business, the more likely you are to get ignored. Therefore, if you're transitioning from the public sector into the private sector, you need to learn how to navigate the culture of every organisation you deal with, because they're all very different. No matter how good you are, or how good your proposition is, you're probably going to get ignored or rejected a lot, so get used to it and don't take it personally.

Lesson 4: Many public sector employees underestimate just how good they are.

When you work in the public sector most of your working life, you tend to put the private sector on something of a pedestal, believing that the private sector is much more efficient, and gets things done much faster. This is completely wrong. In my experience, there are probably slightly fewer barriers in the way of getting things done in the private sector, but the quality of the people is no better than in the public sector. I didn't realise just how good the police is, until I left it. The police service is fantastically good at problem solving, dealing with complexity, engaging with all sorts of people with different skills and getting things done quickly against pressure of time. This week we learned the scandalous disclosure that the Test and Trace system had cost UK tax-payers £37 billion (which is almost as much as the entire UK defence budget for a year and more than double the entire UK police budget) and yet it made almost no difference to the trajectory of infections. This was predominantly a private sector project, whereas the immunisation roll-out delivered by the NHS has been a stellar success. This illustrates well the point that public sector managers are extremely good working under pressure with limited resources and doing what they have to do to get the job done, whereas I suspect a small army of consultants saw the Test and Trace project as little more than a revenue-raising exercise for themselves and shareholders. Therefore, if you’re leaving the public sector and moving into a commercial role, you need to believe in yourself and do not think that having spent a long time in the public sector is going to be a barrier to your future success. It is more likely to be the very reason for your future success.

Lesson 5: If you start your own business, everything you achieve will be achieved by you alone.

It can come as something of a surprise to realise how much work there is in running even a small business. You have to do absolutely everything. You do all the thinking, all of the paperwork, attend every call and every meeting and all of the invoicing and financial management. You are the chief admin clerk, post-boy, cleaner and receptionist. You will have lots of highs and lows and some bitter disappointments, as well as the sweet taste of success with the financial rewards that go with that. Many of the projects that you think will fly, will come to nothing and some of the successes will appear from nowhere in a very unexpected way. In spite of all this, it’s great fun, endlessly interesting, you'll meet lots of fascinating people and hopefully make money. I'm now making good money and I also get to go fishing when I want.

Reading this back, I wondered if it perhaps sounds a little bit like I'm knocking the private sector. I'm really not. I've worked with lots of fantastic people in my short commercial life, who are incredibly hard-working, committed and passionate about what they are doing. I simply want to reassure those transitioning into a business life that they will be absolutely fine. I also want to encourage employers in the private sector to recognise the many skills and abilities that public sector employees bring, principal amongst which is a strong sense of loyalty, integrity, purpose and a commitment to doing the right thing.

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