What can you do to gain some much needed perspective and take a fresh look at where your career’s headed? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Ben Mallinson, a former public services employment advisor turned government public servant shares his thoughts on the difference between working for a public and private institution and the steps you can take if you’re feeling stuck in your career. I also share a moment in my own career when I had to take a step back to gain some much needed clarity.
Key Career Insights
- While working for a reputable, well-known company can be quite alluring, you have to invest the time necessary to ensure your life there will truly align with your broader career goals.
- Creating some distance between you and your job can provide you with the headspace to figure out exactly where you want to take your career.
- Mirroring the exact language an organization uses to describe their mission and culture in your own job search materials can help you stand out in a very precise manner with those organizations.
- Don’t forget that there will always be other opportunities for you. Your narrative isn’t limited to only how you’re defined within your current organization.
Tweetables to Share
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of stopping and reflecting on your career. My challenge to you was to carve out some time, ideally in the next week, when you’ll commit to taking a moment to pause. I’m talking about getting away from your devices and any distractions, creating some momentary distance between you and your work, and dedicating some time to just being by yourself to reflect on your career and where it’s headed.
Then, take a stance on whether you career is or is NOT moving in a direction you want it to. If if is, great. Double down on an activity that’s been serving you especially well. But if it’s not, I’d like you to reflect on how long you’ll continue to tolerate working in a way that doesn’t truly fulfil you.
If you’re looking for some contemplative music to help you do that, one of my favourite artists to listen to when I’m feeling rather pensive is Max Richter. Give a listen to his songs on Spotify.
About Ben Mallinson
Ben Mallinson’s professional experience spans the not-for-profit, private, and public sectors in Australia. Ben began his career in Melbourne, Australia, working for a not-for-profit employment services provider. A few years later, he transitioned into the private sector, including three years working for one of Australia’s top management consulting firms as a project coordinator and executive assistant.
Last year, he transitioned into the public sector, taking on a role in Victorian state government’s department of health & human services where he worked on a state-wide health and human services reform project. He’s recently started a new role within the same department working on an exciting transformation program of works. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): I had some time to reflect. I wasn’t necessarily sure about exactly what my next step would look like, but taking that space gave me the clarity that I did in fact want to move on.
Joseph: Good evening, Ben. Welcome to Career Relaunch.
Ben: Thanks, Joe.
Joseph: I am very interested in having you on the show today so we can talk about your transitions between the public and private sector and what you’ve learned along the way about how to repackage who you are when you’re making those transitions. I was wondering, Ben, if you could just start off by telling me what you’re focused on right now in your career at the Victorian State Government and also your life there in Melbourne.
Ben: I’m really focused at the moment on developing my leadership skills. I want to try and do that through practical experiences as much as I’m able to. I decided recently that I want to deepen and expand my technical skills relating to that. Next year, I will be studying part-time Management and Business Administration while I continue to work.
Joseph: Can you also just give us a glimpse into what exactly you do there as a Senior Compliance Officer?
Ben: I work for a state government department in Victoria. That’s the second largest state by population in Australia. Essentially, I work in a public policy setting in various projects around policy reform and implementation.
Joseph: I was wondering if we could go back in time and if you could take us back to the time in your life, Ben, when you were working in employment services for the government. Part of what you were doing was working with government welfare recipients. I would love to hear a little bit more about that.
Ben: That was really one of my first proper professional gigs once I had finished uni. I made that decision to go into employment services because I was always really drawn to work in roles or in settings where I was able to help people in some way, shape, or form. I was doing a bit of soul searching, a bit of exploration back then, and I actually went to see a career counselor who pointed me in that direction as a potential option.
I started out in quite a junior role, what’s called an associate employment advocate, and then moved into working with the range of client, I guess with a range of different barriers to employment, many of them who have been on welfare for a long time or have various other barriers to employment or psychosocial issues, and basically working, in a sense, as an employment consultant to try and get them into work either for the first time or back into work and off of welfare in some kind of direction.
Joseph: I know we’ve got similar services here in the U.K. that are more in the public sector where you’re trying to help people who are trying to go back to work or who are trying to enter work for the first time. Do you have any sense of whether there were any misconceptions that you had about those types of people trying to get jobs that you pretty quickly dispelled after spending some time working directly with them?
Ben: I guess when you’re working in that kind of role, you realize that things may not be as simple as they might appear on the outside. There are many reasons why somebody may find it difficult to enter the work force. One prime example of that is really the examples that are in people’s lives.
If you’ve grown up without the example of your parents or caregivers or whoever it may be, in work, then that is not going to be such a natural, expectational path for you that just follows immediately from finishing school or whatever it may be.
The other is socioeconomic factors, access to education, perhaps a disrupted life in many ways, whether it’s being in and out of homelessness or having other issues or problems, whether it’s drug and alcohol dependence or mental health barriers.
Working in that kind of role, you are able to form a fuller picture of just the wide range of things that can be a barrier to somebody participating and entering into the workforce.
Joseph: We’ve had a couple of people on this show, actually, who have found themselves homeless or have been through a really long transition. If you dig a little bit deeper, things aren’t always as they seem. There could be a really good reason why they’re in that situation. Very interesting.
Now, Ben, you eventually decided to move into the private sector. It sounds like you were doing really great work to help these people find jobs. I’m curious, what was behind your desire to make this shift from public into the private the sector? I think you eventually landed in a management consulting role.
Ben: The next role that I took after starting out in employment services was under a different system with clients who were covered by what’s called workers compensation here, where if somebody has an injury in the workplace, they’re compensated and assisted through their process of recovery and to redeploy into new work or a different career, and also traffic accident compensation clients, clients who’d actually had some kind of traffic accident.
I moved into that area which, in some ways, similar in the type of service but was run by a private organization, and very much to my surprise, a very private focused industry, you might say.
Joseph: What was it like for you to make this shift? Because this is kind of an interesting case study where your role was quite similar, but you’re going from a public sector to a private sector role. How was your day-to-day life different? What sort of impact did that shift have on your perceptions of how good of a fit it was for you?
Ben: I still felt that I worked in a realm where helping people was still the focus of a lot of people working in that industry.
I think my next step into the private sector, which was then actually to management consulting for a private firm working with a whole range of different organizations and clients, whether private, public, or non-profit, and whole range of different projects, it was a change in many ways, because there were so many projects, different projects to work on, which required a very agile approach across those different projects and working with different clients.
Really, the pace, the deadline focus of that environment, the frenzied nature of that environment was a different kind of gear and a different intensity and probably a more commercial underpinning to everything that we did. That was probably a more significant jump and transition for me in some ways.
Joseph: I guess what’s kind of behind my question, as I talk to some people who either work in a non-profit sector or they work in a public sector and they have this thirst for working in the private sector for, I suppose, reasons that seem great on paper, like salary or benefits or just the sheen and the glimmer of working the private sector, I was just wondering if the perceptions you had of the private sector and how satisfied you are going to be there, how did that end up playing for you?
Ben: I was excited. The company that I worked for, they had a really fresh, vibrant kind of image. Throughout the recruitment process, I got a sense that the place was really a very innovative company with a very exciting culture. I was really drawn to that in many ways.
I got into that company, and in many ways, it was an exciting place to work, there was lots of innovative approaches, lots of workshop, and lots of colorful sticky notes on the walls and white boarding and a real kind of buzz to the place.
There were many aspects of working there that I really loved, but the kind of position I found myself in, the role I was doing really wasn’t the right kind of role for me. It was sort of a jewel role in some ways. On one side of things, I was working in project coordination, and in some cases, managing smaller learning and development projects. On the other side, I found myself more on an executive support kind of role.
I found, really, that for many reasons, that wasn’t really a great fit for me. I found myself kind of feeling a little bit stuck in a role that I thought I was being underutilized in, in an environment that was quite exciting in other ways and interesting in other ways.
I think, for me, my lesson in that process was I was very taken by the image of the company, and in some ways, that delivered. What I didn’t think enough about was really how suited I was to the role and how aligned the role that I actually took on was to my broader career objectives and what’s important to me and my life and in my career.
Joseph: That’s a good point, because I guess it is the combination of the organization and the role that you’re in that really creates your day-to-day life. Once you realized that this role wasn’t exactly a great fit for you, how did you then think about the next step in your career?
Ben: I actually recall a specific period of time that was a bit of a turning point for me, if you like. For a while, I was kind of in a state of confusion, because a part of me felt that, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure if this is the right role for me or what my future is here,’ but on the other hand, I really liked aspects of the company, the culture, and the people in work with. What should I do next? I was kind of confused.
I had the opportunity at that time, fortunately, to be able to take a bit of a break. I took a month off work on leave, and I took a holiday. I went to America for a month. I met up with some friends over there, but I spent it mostly by myself. I went to the Burning Man. I went to the Grand Canyon. I had some time to reflect and think about my next steps. I wasn’t necessarily sure about exactly what my next step would look like, but taking that distance, that space gave me the clarity that I did, in fact, want to move on.
I actually wanted to move back closer to a more community, human-services-focused industry where I can work on problems and projects that would affect the lives of people who are disadvantaged. Taking a bit of time out to sort of take a step back allowed me to see that and say, ‘Okay, I know one thing. I don’t know what that role exactly is going to be, but I know I need to explore what kinds of organizations and roles and pounce that I might be able to pursue that are more in line with that direction rather than private management consulting.’
Joseph: One of the things that we spoke about before, Ben, when we chatted prior to recording this, was the steps that you took to leverage some of your key contacts and mentors to help you repackage yourself in your career. How much did that play a role in your next move?
Ben: It played a really vital role, I would say, and in each of the transitions that I have made, whether it be in public or into private or out of private sector, talking with other people around me and drawing on resources was really a key strategy that I found was very helpful.
In my previous role and organization, I was very fortunate to have a great mentor and coach and a senior colleague or manager of mine, who I trusted and respected. Once I had identified that I wanted to work in human services and in fact identified the department I now work in as an option for me, I talked to her because she used to be a senior government executive before actually moving into management consulting.
I talked to her about roles that I was looking at and whether she saw them as being suitable for me or how I might adjust my approach or the language in my résumé and my cover letters to be more aligned to the public sector context and to really mine for her wisdom as to how I could make that transition. She was really able to help me in that process to review my applications and to support me through that process.
She’s just one person who I spoke to throughout that whole process, that whole transition. I used to speak to people, to hiring managers who had even rejected job applications I had submitted, to ask them for coffee and to get feedback and ask what I might be able to do differently.
Really talking to people, drawing on whatever resources I could was just a huge, huge help in the whole process.
Joseph: One of the things I think you mentioned to me before, also in our initial conversation, was that you look at the values of the target organization as a way of packaging yourself for that role. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that played out for you here?
Ben: Almost every organization or government department has their values and their strategies and their key reasons for being on their website and in their position descriptions. I really focused on analyzing what I could with the website or the position descriptions and using that language and using those values throughout my resume and throughout my cover letters and trying to highlight examples of how I had demonstrated those values.
It’s actually really taking the time to look at information you have available and see how you can mirror that in your applications, so they can see you and the application and see how you align to their organization.
Joseph: Another thing I’m curious about, Ben, is this concept of returning back to the sector that you came from. I guess the term is a boomerang employee, where you go back to the actual company. Sometimes, it works out for people, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Did you happen to have any concerns about shifting back to the public sector from the private sector?
Ben: I did have hesitations, and I think that there were a number of things underpinning those hesitations. Part of it was the vibe and aspects of the culture in which I was working. I wondered whether I was going to find the same kind of exciting environment, the same kind of innovation anywhere else.
Another part of it was really around difficulties that I was having with my confidence at the time. There were parts of the role which I was doing previously that weren’t a great fit for my skillset, and I had a few challenges in trying to make that work. Some part of me sort of, in some ways, brought into an external narrative, if you like, of perhaps I should stick it out here and try to make this work, because if can’t make it work here, then how am I going to make it work anywhere else? In some ways, my own self-confidence was playing against me.
Then it’s the fear of the unknown, I guess, and knowing there were parts of the culture that I liked and being scared that I wouldn’t be able to find something equally as exciting or interesting and rewarding elsewhere.
A few months later into the role, I found myself in a position I never could have dreamed of, really. I was given more responsibility, and I was leading the piloting and the roll out of three different classroom training programs that were rolling out across the state and managing multiple large contracts with vendors. In some ways, I couldn’t believe that this was happening for me only a few months later. Once I was there, I really never looked back. I didn’t regret a thing.
Joseph: The last thing I was hoping to talk with you about, Ben, before we wrap up with some of your side work, is a few of the things you’ve learned during your journey. I’d love to start by, first of all, taking a look at what you’ve learned when you look back on your career change. Is there something that you wish you had known that you now know?
Ben: One of the key things that I’ve learned and that I’ve been putting a lot of thought into recently is how important it is, during challenging times, especially perhaps if you are feeling disenfranchised with a certain job or feeling like you’re going through a challenging patch, not to get caught up or focused only on where you are now at a particular point in time and a role with a particular organization.
It’s realizing that there are plenty of other opportunities out there and taking a big picture view, not getting caught up in the narrative that other people write for you, whether it’s your current bosses, your colleagues, your family members, but actually taking it inward and saying, ‘Okay, what do I know to be my strengths? What resources do I have to draw on? What’s important to me? What’s the kind of work that matters to me and that I would like to be doing in the future?’ and really taking a big picture view and taking charge of writing your own personal narrative, if you like.
That was something that was hard to see at the time when I was feeling a bit stuck, but now in hindsight, I feel that that was a valuable lesson: to take charge of writing my own narrative.
Joseph: I guess I’m probably one of these people where you get a little bit caught up in the micro picture of where you’re at at this precise moment in your career. Do you have any tips on how you can make sure you step back and just reflect on the bigger picture?
Ben: Purpose is important. If we only think about ‘what kind of role do I want to do, or what kind of money do I want to make, or what does my boss think I’m good at, or what this, that, one or the other?’ but actually thinking about what drives you, what kinds of organizations do you want to work for, what influence do you want to have, what purpose do you want to be the thread of your career, taking it back from there can help us to get out of the tunnel vision into the situation we’re in right now.
The other piece of advice I’ve given, that I think I’ve spoken about in some other ways throughout this conversation is really about talking with others, whether it’s mentors working in a role that you think you might want to do a little better, friends or family who have made their own successful transitions.
When you talk to other people, making a career transition automatically becomes a less lonely path. You realize exactly that you’re not alone. You may pick up some pearls of wisdom along the way and get the strength to go forward.
Joseph: Having been through this career change, is there any particular thing you’ve learned about yourself, aside from these very valuable lessons about the importance of connecting with other people and also reflecting on your long-term purpose? I’m wondering if there’s anything you learned about you, yourself during the process.
Ben: When I was in my previous role—I’ve mentioned the two parts to the role—some of it allowed the opportunity to lead smaller projects. The rest of it was more in a role of supporting executives to do well in the projects they were working on. I always felt, when I was working on projects and leading things, that that was a fit for me, that it seemed to light me up.
In the new roles that I’ve been and in more recent times, I have had great opportunities to lead projects and to lead others as well and really take charge in the work that I was doing. That made me realize about myself that leadership is something that is a natural strength of mine and something that I’m orbited towards and that I want to use in my own career path.
Joseph: I’d love to wrap up, Ben, by talking a little bit more about what you’re doing now and specifically about Medium, which is where I know you’re writing about a lot of these lessons that you’ve shared with us here about your career journey.
For those listeners out there who aren’t familiar with Medium, it’s an online long-form blog-publishing platform which was launched a few years ago by Ev Williams, the Co-Founder and former CEO of Twitter.
This is actually how you and I first crossed paths, because I think you stumbled upon my Career Relaunch publication on Medium. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about the writing that you’re now doing on Medium.
Ben: I try and post short articles and thought pieces from time to time on Medium. A lot of them do tend to be around similar content to yours in some ways, Joseph, on career transitions, repackaging yourself to make a move into a different role, a different sector, and the processes and stories that I have to bring to that. There’s a few articles I have up on that topic. There’ll be some new stuff there and coming up soon on creating your own professional narrative, which I talked on a little bit about today.
If people want to have a look at that or check that out it’s on Medium.com/@benmallinson, and my stuff will be there.
Joseph: Perfect. Speaking of personal narrative, before you go, I just got to ask you, for someone out there who is struggling with re-crafting their narrative—because I know that that does come up especially with career changers, trying to figure out what your narrative is going to be and how you’re going to pitch yourself—any quick tips for somebody out there who’s struggling to connect the dots in their own career?
Ben: Our careers are not linear in nature, so don’t just get caught up in where you are right now. Perhaps if you’re struggling to imagine what you could do next or down the track, take a look at where you’ve come from.
Where did you start out?
What’s always been your driving purpose for the types of things you were looking for in your career and maybe in a time before your current place when you were in a role where perhaps you’ve felt like a better fit? What were the strengths that you were demonstrating in those roles?
What were the aspects of that part of your journey that you’d like to revisit?
Celebrate your successes along the way and what you do well now, and then taking a look at the past, taking a look at where you are now, and then thinking about how all of that applies and can feed into the next step of your career as well.
Joseph: It’s a great tip. I think sometimes people fall into the trap of wanting to almost explain away their past when they’re trying to make a change. Actually, since you can’t change your past, I’m with you. You might as well embrace it and try to figure out how you can make the most of it, because it is what it is. Great tip. Thank you for sharing that with us.
I also just wanted to thank you so much, Ben, for telling us more about your transitions between the public and private sector, the importance of reflecting on your long-term career purpose which I think is really, really useful, and also just a good reminder about the power of making sure you talk with other people when you’re trying to figure things out, because it can be a very lonely journey when you’re changing careers.
Best of luck with your new role there at the Department of Health and Human Services, and I look forward to reading more of your career insights on Medium also.
Ben: Thank you so much, Joe.