The Highs and Lows of Transitioning from Public Servant to Consultant with Virginia Wilson

I wanted something different. I was looking for an organisation smaller in size, which had a different leadership model from what I was experiencing. I was also looking to use my skills and experience in a different way, and that’s what Apis offered.

The Highs and Lows of Transitioning from Public Servant to Consultant with Virginia Wilson

What’s your background and how did you get into the Public Service sector?

After I finished university, I won a graduate position at the National Australia Bank and worked there for a year. I was stationed in a small country town but I wanted to work in the city, and the company’s structure didn’t allow me to apply for a job internally. I was then offered a job as a contractor in the public service, initially on a three-month contract.

Where did you go from there? How did you move into full-time work as a Public Servant?

From my three month contract, I secured a permanent position in the Department of Family and Community Services, where I made some valuable connections in the Department of Finance. I moved to Finance and worked there for a year before taking up an opportunity to work for Medicare, where I worked for 9 years. The great thing about the public service is it allows you to move into different roles, to broaden your skill set and horizons. I was lucky enough to work on some really big projects, allowing me to gain experience in areas such as budget costing, financial and stakeholder management and governance.

What were your major takeaways from working as a Public Servant?

I gained a lot working in the public service. Being able to move around in areas that interested me allowed me to experience quite a lot of roles and expand my skill set.  I was fortunate enough to be able to work on major pieces of policy, reform agendas and implementation which has had a positive impact on the lives of the Australian public.

Why the shift to becoming a consultant?

I’d been a Public Servant for quite some time and was planning the next steps in my career. I wanted something different. I was looking for an organisation smaller in size, which had a different leadership model from what I was experiencing. I was also looking to use my skills and experience in a different way, and that’s what Apis offered. I had a professional connection with some of the Apis team. They explained the role of consulting, and the values and culture of Apis, and it seemed like a good fit.

How does your role differ as a consultant as opposed to a Public Servant?

As a consultant, you are engaged by a client for a particular role and purpose. There is a clear outcome which you are trying to achieve.  This allows you to focus on the client’s needs without getting caught up in the overall bureaucracy. You are there to provide critical thinking, advice and propose solutions.  As a public servant, particularly at senior levels, you are required to juggle many different issues and layers of bureaucracy all at once. At times, it can be challenging to focus on the outcome and the value add of the task at hand.

What difficulties did you have when switching roles?

In my previous role, I had a large team of 18 people. I was incredibly busy. When I first transitioned into consulting, it was a challenge not having that same level of responsibility. I came out of a space where I was managing, sometimes, too many things at once. I had to shift my thinking to ‘I’m here for a particular role’ and had to focus on what I needed to do for the client, and for Apis, and not worry about what everyone else had to do.

Another aspect I had to be conscious of was the amount of pressure I put on myself as an individual. The Apis team even warned me of this in the first 6 months. They provided me with some good advice which was “you’ll put more pressure on yourself than any of us will be expecting from you”. For me it was about remembering those boundary lines and not getting involved in things I probably would have had to get involved in when I was a Public Servant.

What has made the transition easy?

The easiest thing has been slipping into the Apis culture and having a network of professional people who will give you their time and are willing to help, guide and mentor you. Apis has a quite a flat structure – people are very open; you can ring, email or approach anyone, and they are willing to help. I have the opportunity to work with like-minded professionals which is very rewarding.

What skills as a public servant are you using as a consultant?

I’ve been able transfer a lot of skills, and am always using my stakeholder engagement, relationship management, and interpersonal skills, as well as my project management skillset. I also use skills such as analytical and critical thinking on a daily basis.  Much of my role as a Public Servant allowed me to see an end-to-end view of processes and roles. Now, as a consultant, it’s easier for me to take a step back and see the whole picture. My experiences across so many roles in the public service have enabled me to pull that across into the consulting world.

What has been the most difficult project you’ve worked on as a consultant?

On one of my earlier projects I found it quite challenging to go into an IT environment not being from an IT background. But it can also be quite helpful because you’re able to question things that people often just take for granted. Documentation needs to be in layman’s speak, so the ability to question in order to understand technology issues has proved quite useful.

What has been the most enjoyable project you’ve worked on as a consultant?

Clean Energy Regulator – It was a small agency and I enjoyed the culture. The role I had there was a Change Manager. I came in at the tail end of the project and my role was to manage the transition of APS staff into new roles and positions. I enjoyed that role because I got to work with all the staff themselves as well as all the different areas throughout the Clean Energy Regulator .

What would stop someone from making the transition from Public Servant to Consultant?

The Public Service provides employees with a wide variety of work.  People are offered the chance to work on major Government policy agendas which directly affect the lives of Australians. The sense of purpose and value placed on ‘serving the public’ can be quite rewarding.  Luckily as a consultant at Apis, the work we do contributes to the same agenda .

What are your tips for those thinking about moving to consultancy?

Be clear on what you want to get out of the move. For me it was the opportunity to work with like-minded people, be focused on particular outcomes and tasks, being able to do short term consulting work and working in different agencies across Canberra. I had particular goals to achieve. Also, talk to as many people as you know in the industry and do your research.