Profile: Private sector is no culture shock for Woods

One might expect Bob Woods, who has spent much of his life as a civil servant, to experience a severe case of culture shock after leaving government service for a private-sector job as the president and chief operating officer of Federal Sources Inc.

But that would mean forgetting that Woods has spent years adjusting to new jobs. During his federal government career, Woods held information technology-related jobs in the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and, just before his retirement, the General Services Administration.

Interviewed a few weeks after taking on his new job at Federal Sources, Woods insisted that the move to the business world was no more jarring than switching jobs from one federal agency to another.

"It's like any transition; there are changes that happen," he said. "As I've told the staff here, when you're used to a job, half of what you do is subconscious; you can almost do it without thinking. When you move, everything you do has to be thought out—- even things like where you park or how you send memos out. So I don't see the transition in terms of the differences between a public agency and a private corporation but [in terms of] just changing jobs. Having done that before, I know that all [job changes] take some getting used to."

Woods said he is enjoying his new job so far and spends much of his time talking to employees in an effort to learn the business. Consequently, he has discovered one advantage to his job: He can get closer to all his employees than he ever could as the commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service.

"I went from an organization that had 1,500 people to one that has [fewer than] 100, and it's nice to know people's names," he said. "That's part of what makes [Federal Sources] a great place to work.

"As president and chief operating officer, my job is to make the place work day to day and to work with four senior vice presidents, each of whom [has] a bottom line," he added. "I work with them to take the company in the right direction and make sure we meet our revenue and profit numbers."

Woods said his job is made easier by the continued presence of his predecessor, Tom Hewitt, who now holds the title of chief executive officer. While Woods is concerned mainly with the company's daily operations, Hewitt focuses on future business and growth. "It's a split Tom and I are fairly comfortable with," Woods said. "But we're not bureaucratic about it. If we think he is better at something or vice versa, that's how we decide who does it. It's not always whose turf it is."

Woods explained that Federal Sources does little of its business directly with the government. In most cases, the company acts as a broker in helping private companies win government business. In that role, it provides research, databases, consulting, training and special events such as workshops and conferences.

Woods said he believes he can be an asset to the company by introducing a government-oriented perspective that often is lacking in the private sector. "I'm reasonably critical about how we in the private sector have marketed certain concepts to the government," he said. "If the government is our client, I see that client probably different than a lot of other people who see it from the outside.

"I see most people in the government as hard-working, smart, focused, mission-oriented people. Sometimes you see companies market to the government on the premise that we in [the] private sector are smarter than they are. That's a mistake. From my perspective, the private sector has to be much smarter at viewing the people in government as worthy partners and not act in a condescending manner like we are just helping them out."

Similarly, Woods thinks the government can learn from the private sector. Although he is quick to praise some of the progress realized through the Clinton administration's efforts to reinvent government, he noted that more changes—- particularly in the area of personnel management—- are needed. Federal managers should be offered more money and have a freer hand to control their employees, he said.

"We've come to a generation of government-bashing," he said. "As a result, the government has been hamstrung in a number of areas, and one is pay. They need to pay people better, but they need to have a lot fewer of them. They need highly professional people but better paid—- simply because that attracts talent. I believe you can do more with substantially less if you can pay federal employees well, motivate them and, if necessary, get rid of them.

"In exchange for that, you give up job security and some of the interminable processes there are any time there is a disciplinary problem," Woods said. "I think government managers probably miss that the least when they retire."

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