People & Skills
Changing Jobs – Facing an Interview for a Private Sector Procurement Role

The New Year is often a time when people think about their careers, changing jobs, and whether this is a good time to look at something different. So in this series, we are looking at some of the issues facing those who might be thinking about this now. We looked in our first article at the factors that you might want to consider when deciding whether you might want to move, and then here we looked at the sort of jobs now available to procurement specialists, ranging from conventional category management type roles to working in consulting or even in the software industry.

So now let us assume you have got to interview with a private sector firm of some sort, whether management, consulting or a more hands-on procurement role. How to perform well in these situations is a huge topic of course – entire books have been written simply on this subject. But today we will just look at a very specific issue. How can you convince the interviewer that your background in the public sector is not a barrier to employing you in the private sector? You have had some success already if you are being interviewed – they have seen something interesting in your application, clearly. You need to build on that now in person.

How you approach matters does depend on your skills and the role of course. As we said last time, some skills are very transferable. If you are a deep category expert in energy, or travel management, and have been managing major tenders for a large public organisation, requiring deep market understanding, then you should be able to move into a private sector energy or travel category management role quite easily.

Other highly transferable skills are those relating to procurement systems. Knowledge of technology and experience in running eSourcing processes, eAuctions, or in implementing spend analytics or purchase to pay systems for instance can all transfer across to the private sector easily. Whilst the very best private sector organisations are probably the leaders in use of procurement technology, many public organisations are more advanced than many private firms in this area. You might be surprised how your experience in that field is valued by your prospective employer. So in the interview you need to emphasise how your work is relevant and show your technical skills.

Similarly, if you are applying for a more senior job, aspects of your past roles such as developing strategy, managing teams of people, and working with senior stakeholders can all be presented at interview in a manner that will be positive to your private sector interviewers. Indeed, some of the toughest “stakeholder management” I ever did in my career was during my time in the public sector. Persuading a senior politician that because of EU regulations he or she can’t do exactly what they want is as difficult as any stakeholder management challenge you will find in Unilever, Siemens or Santander!

As well as your skills and experience, your attitude is key in terms of how you come across in the interview, and you must avoid being seen as what some people see as a “typical” civil / public servant. That means showing that you are not obsessed by process and compliance! You need to demonstrate qualities such as drive, initiative, dynamism, even creativity and entrepreneurial tendencies. Not everyone in private firms has these of course, but your interviewer may well think that they are more common in the private than public sector!

If you can show how you changed the way your organisation did something, or how you brought in innovative methods, or perhaps even were involved in “innovation procurement”, those points will all show that you can make the transition to the private sector.

Finally (for now), you need to show that you understand the motives of private firms. Make sure you know the basics of financial jargon – for instance, profit and loss, balance sheet, shareholder value and share prices. You don’t need to be an expert, or claim to be a rampant capitalist, and you are not trying to become CFO. But you do need to show you understand the aspects of working in business that are different from your public sector experience.