Saturday, April 28, 2012

About iron rice bowls and paper plates.

This is a short article. I have a discussion with a friend about careers today and we were talking about the differences between the public sector and private sector.

Now most folks from the private sector have a tendency to scoff at government or quasi-government bodies because of the impression that no work really gets done in these organizations, staff are jiak liao bee because they're protected by the iron rice bowl syndrome.

As someone who spent a decade in the private sector before deciding to look for more work life balance, I have a different perspective.

Public organizations and NGOs do a lot of back-breaking work. Results also take time to show itself  because of the intense amount of paperwork to push a proposal through. It's also important that decisions involving money are above-board and not compromised by a sexy IT sales manager, so a lot of pains have to be taken to provide a paper trail.  The other challenge is that it is a lot a harder to justify something without a simple ROI or IRR model that the private sector works by.

The other reality is that these organizations cannot hire and fire at will because of the political pressure from the electorate, so much work is required to outplace a non-productive worker, it's simply easier to tolerate them and give them work that provides less value add. Overtime, managers end up with a large contingent of such workers who cannot work for any other organization other than the ones they are stuck at.

Which brings me back to managing people in NGOs and government organizations.

While an iron rice-bowl may be the envy of the private sector. Never forget that we do not actually eat rice-bowls. We eat what's actually inside it.

If you have an iron rice bowl but report to a terrible manager, that's the equivalent of someone sprinkling dog food into your next meal. Your bowl will not break, but it's not exactly something that you want to eat for the rest of your career.

While a paper plate may not last many meals, a good careerist can always always walk around with some steak and foie gras on it. It the plate gets ruined, as it always happens because some kind of restructuring is just around the corner, just ensure that you know where to get the next paper plate.

A smart careerist can make do with an iron rice-bowl, ceramic plate or even a paper cup. The important thing is to manage your resume and experience, so that you will always have some caviar, champagne and foie gras to go with each party you attend to.

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