top of page

How I Went from Public Sector Employee to Successful Business Owner: An Honest Reflection of My Lessons Learned.

I always wanted to be a Police Officer. From a very young age, I knew I didn't want a 9-5, I wanted to work with people and I wanted a job that made a difference and that would challenge me.

At 18, as I finished my 'A' levels and as the majority of my friends went off to university, I had a plan to find a job that gave me 'life experience' while I waited for the police recruitment process to open.

The perfect opportunity came up for me when a vacancy for a police staff post at the local police station was advertised. A part-time role in the enquiry office. (aka the reception desk)

I still remember the interview, being offered the job, going to HQ to get my uniform fitted and having the first-day obligatory uniform photograph taken!

At 18, straight out of sixth form, this role was such a steep learning curve. My eyes opened to worlds I did not know existed. Back in those days (1997) there wasn't a course you attended, you shadowed whoever was on duty, you watched them, they watched you, and then you got on with it!

I spent multiple times daily, back and forth to the Sgt's office with a paper form420 in my hand with the repetitive words; 'Sarge I've got ..." with no clue what to do or even where to start!

I was incredibly fortunate to have had fantastic mentors and supervisors who helped me learn to ask better questions, ascertain what information was needed and how to make decisions.

In 1999 the recruitment process opened. I spent hours on the application and entered the process. I got as far as the final psychometric tests and failed one of them, something to do with train speeds and distance travelled, annoyingly, nothing to do with policing, and I came to the end of the process.

Gutted was an understatement. I had lots of support and settled back into the enquiry office role while I waited for the recruitment process to reopen.

At the risk of this becoming a book rather than a blog I will gloss over the next bit!

Long story short, I didn't ever apply again. My circumstances changed, my priorities changed and by the time the recruitment process opened again I was a wife, pregnant, and my police staff career was accelerating.

Over the next 20 years I worked in some incredible roles;

  • Enquiry Staff Officer

  • Senior Enquiry Staff Officer

  • Customer Service Manager

  • Force Service Centre Supervisor

  • Major Crime Logistics Manager

  • Secondment to the Operating Model Programme Team

  • Business Change Manager

I was involved in:

  • Setting up the local call-handling units

  • Setting up the Force Service Centre

  • The implementation of the workforce modernisation of the major crime teams

  • Creation and implementation of the regional collaboration of major crime teams

  • Review and reorganisation of the force as part of the comprehensive spending review

  • The rollout of bodyworn cameras

  • The rollout of laptops and mobiles

  • Initial phases of the mobile policing app design and test phase

There are so many achievements to be proud of, my first leadership role in my early twenties, my first senior manager role in my early thirties, one of the first police staff managers to manage police officers and at the end of my career I was working at a superintendant equivalent level.

Zoe Thompson holding her 20 years long service and good conduct certificate in the gardens of avon and somerset police hq.  white female, long brown hair dressed smartly.
20 Years Long Service and Good Conduct Ceremony

From Public Sector to Business Owner

In 2017 I was told that my role was being made redundant. I knew that redeployment was not possible due to the level that I was working at and other roles at that level that matched my skill set.

My twenty-year service anniversary was on the 28th of July 2017. My redundancy date was 01st August 2017 - I just made it!

Redundancy was tough. Being in the police was a big part of who I was. All of my adult years were in the service. Friends, colleagues, and experiences (the good, the bad and the ugly) were all attached to different roles, and different teams and all part of who I had become.

At the point of the redundancy notice, I had been exploring the idea of exiting the police and moving into coaching. At this point, it is fair to say that I had a hobby with a logo. I had been completing some training courses outside of work and had been working with a couple of 'guinea pigs' to practice what I had been learning.

I certainly did not have a business model and I most definitely did not know how to run a business!

I did float the idea of applying for a job elsewhere, but not for long!

I had a short period of time to get a business up and running. I dialled into webinars, I downloaded free resources and on August 1st 2017 I launched the business. Phoenix Life and Wellbeing Coaching. Phoenix and Phoenix Life and been taken so I added in wellbeing not knowing that within the next few years 'wellbeing' would become a booming industry!

I gave myself until Christmas, to throw myself into the business and do everything I could. I called trusted friends and told them not to let me talk myself out of it or apply for jobs until after the Christmas break.

I gave them permission to give me tough love when I called or had a wobble.

I never made that call.

I haven't made that call in 7 years.

Ultimtely I had to make it work. I had a dependent child and a mortgage to pay and I was the sole earner. It simply had to work!

Embracing Change: Why Redundancy Was a Blessing in Disguise.

Whilst I had been exploring the idea of coaching when I left the police I had no intention of doing that until my son was out of full-time education. The risk felt too high to let go of the security of the regular income.

I would be lying if I said that it didn't take a little while to get used to not having a pay cheque on the 28th every month, however, within the first 3 years I was generating income that matched my salary in my final year of employment.

Redundancy forced me to make that decision, it also gave me a comfort blanket financially. It was without doubt one of the toughest couple of months I have experienced, however, it put me on the path of some of the most enjoyable professional years ... so far!

Discovering the Transferable Skills from the Police to Running a Business

Where to begin!

I think this is one area that public sector workers can really struggle with. When your experience is purely based on experience and you don't have a certificate or qualification to evidence your skills, it can be really hard to identify what they are.

Communication skills are without doubt one of the key transferable skills. Not just for coaching and training but for all the other elements of business ownership. Networking, building trust, rapport and relationships and being able to communicate well with those who you work directly with and the decision-makers at CEO level.

Resilience, in particular, the ability to flex and adapt when something happens is incredibly important in business. When COVID hit, many businesses found themselves in a state of chaos as they tried to flex and pivot to meet the new ways of working and new demand.

Whilst many hated the uncertainty and the unknown, I found myself thriving in the chaos. It took me back to the times of decision-making in the control room as information came through, or dealing with the situation in the enquiry office when the person was standing right in front of you, expecting you to have all the answers and know exactly what to do!

These aren't skills you can learn in the classroom, they are behaviour skills we learn through practice. Learning to remain calm under pressure, learning to gather information, assess risk, consider options and contingencies as well as impact on others are all skills you use as a business owner. The NDM (National Decision Making Model) isn't just a useful tool for the police service!

Discovering the Gaps - What the Public Sector Did Not Teach Me.

Let's be honest. The public sector does not run like a business. It might have some similarities however a lot of the work is the exact opposite.

The key differences for me coming out of the police were:

  • Going from reducing demand to increasing demand and repeat customers.

  • Being visible - Proactively talking about who I am and what I do both online and in person.

  • Being a personal brand rather than a uniform representation of the organisation.

  • Not having processes, procedures guidelines and legislation to make decisions on.

  • Creating a new identity, stepping away from what I had always known and working out who I was when I was no longer 8952 Thompson.

I think the last one was the hardest for me and one I needed to work out to help the personal brand and be confident in being visible. I consciously chose to step away from the 'police world' for a couple of years to work on this. It wasn't easy but it was an important thing for me to do personally as well as professionally.

These have all taken some time to work through and get used to. Business strategy is also evolving, so having flexibility in your business model is important. Having goals and KPI's will be centred around growth rather than reduction and you learn to adapt what is similar and adopt what is not.

Government agencies are big ships. Changes often have a chain of command and have to go through board or governance approval.

As a business owner, it is more like being in a canoe!

You can make small changes that can have a big impact and this can take some getting used to. You no longer have the frustrations of 'jumping through hoops' however you do hold the responsibility and accountability for every decision you make and you many business owners find it very isolating when you don't have people to consult ... or inform.

You have to regularly check in with yourself to assess what you are doing and the impact it is having to ensure that you are not going around in circles.

What do I miss most?

Without a doubt, the camaraderie and the connection with colleagues. I am not sure anyone ever finds this after coming out of operational roles.

I would say this is part of the acceptance of the transition phase. Something that cannot be replaced in its entirety that's for sure.

Making the Most of Entrepreneurship

There is no denying it is a completely different world. However, it is a world you get to create and shape.

I see a lot of people looking to leave the public sector who are looking to mirror what they do in the private sector.

Whilst I can understand the benefits of transferring skills I do feel there is a missed step in the process.

Understand what it is you want to do, and how you want to spend your days.

  • What are your logistical and psychological and emotional needs?

  • What are your values that you need to align?

Understanding why you want to leave the public sector will help you to understand what you want and need next.

  • Frustrated at the restrictions with the decisions you can make?

    • You know that autonomy is important in what comes next.

  • Tired of poor work-life balance?

    • You know that working hours and flexibility is important.

  • Finding that the job has changed beyond recognition?

    • What is it you miss doing, what is it that no longer aligns with what is important to you?

Being a business owner gives you the autonomy to shape and create all these elements, however, you have to have clarity on what this looks like so you can ensure that your business operating model reflects this.

Don't get me wrong - business ownership is relentless. I thought I worked hard in the police, but it doesn't compare! however, it is different, it is yours, you are shaping it and you have control and influence of what that looks like.

You can also do it in a way that aligns with how you want to work. I still work evenings and weekends, however, I don't see clients in the mornings as I like to work on the business and go to the gym. I see friends for lunch and walks and I schedule my days off so that I can travel around the country watching basketball. I travel regularly and sometimes for weeks at a time and work remotely.

Zoe at the desk, you can see blue sky in the background so you can tell it is not the UK, Zoe is at her laptop working before taking a selfie. white female curly brown hair and a slight tan due to sun exposure!
Working away in Cyprus

My business, my rules!

You have to show up for you and your business. Nobody is checking in on you and setting deadlines. You don't have a manager holding you accountable or a system that flags when you are behind .. unless of course, you create the system that does this.

Nobody will tell you that it is easy, many of us will tell you that it is worth it, when you create the business that you want that supports the life you want to live.

Understand your values, your needs and your passions and purpose. This is a fundamental part of the process. Then, you can create a business model that generates income and profit.

Building the Foundation: From Side Hustle to Full-time Business

When I was given my redundancy notice I had already been taking steps to create a full-time business.

I had compressed my hours in one of the roles to create space to give it my attention and focus however when I changed roles that was no longer an option.

I worked on the business in the time that I had. As a full-time working single parent, who was also competing nationally in the sport of strongwoman at the same time, I did not have a lot of 'spare time'. What I did have was focused time, discipline and a whole lot of stubbornness, or as I prefer to say, determination.

You have got to want this.

It is a common approach, and a sensible one, to create a side hustle whilst working.

This isn't for the faint-hearted, but then neither is working in the public sector so you know you are built for this!

You need to set aside time for this and understand what time you have to commit to working on the business alongside your day job and other commitments and priorities.

Identify what time you have and what your priorities are.

What are the key activities you need to do each week to help you make progress and keep the momentum going?

What time can you set aside and how will you commit to it?

Who can help you hold yourself accountable?

Running a business is not a 'pick up and put down' activity. It requires consistency and discipline. Find a way that works for you that is sustainable for you in the time that you have now. Be prepared to be flexible in your approach so that you can make it work.

Taking the Leap: Transitioning from Part-Time to Full-Time Entrepreneurship.

It is fair to say that I did not choose the timing of stepping into full-time entrepreneurship, although finding another paid employment role was an option it was one I decided not to take.

My original plan was to build a client base, slowly reduce my hours with the police and then hand in my notice when I was confident that the business was stable enough to make that change.

In an ideal world, this is a fantastic approach and I suspect many of you reading this will be doing the same or building the business with a retirement date in mind.

You definitely cannot wait for perfect to start, and you have to be ready to seize the opportunities as they arise.

Attitude is everything and opportunities are everywhere.

Know what needs to be in place to know you are ready to make the change.

Consider both the logistical and emotional requirements. Finances are the obvious one, what else do you require?

  • What do you need to have in place?

  • What do you need to see and feel to know you are ready?

  • What do you need to let go of that might be holding you back?

  • What will be the most helpful way to think about making the change?

image of white female having fun having danced down between 2 rows of people.  The crowd are cheering and clapping.
Choosing work that is fulfilling is key - What do you need from your work?

Crafting Your Business Plan

This was one of my biggest challenges. Where to begin?

It was really important for me to define what it was I wanted to do, what I knew I didn't want to do, and to refine my different income streams.

The plan has evolved over the years and I review it regularly.

It is important to horizon scan, and risk assess. Identifying opportunities, and recognise emerging gaps in the market and also potential threats will help you to be able to flex and adapt without going off course.

I have found planning ahead one of my biggest challenges. A lot of the roles I had in the police were reactive and my strength is being able to respond in crisis and under pressure. It wasn't until I went into senior management and project and programme management that it was important to be able to create a project plan, tasks, actions, timelines etc.

Strategic planning is a skillset and depending on the roles you have had will depend on your ability to be able to set your goals and create a roadmap for success.

Creating Your Personal Brand and Marketing Yourself

As I mentioned earlier in the blog, the police was a significant part of my identity. All my adult years I was in an environment where you had rules, regulations, standards of behaviour and processes, policy and legislation to follow.

All of my adult years had been shaped by the roles I was in and it was a key part of my identity.

Redundancy was tough. It is hard to convey what some of the emotions were, and I definitely struggled with this at the time.

For twenty years I felt I was part of something. I felt that I contributed to something meaningful, that the work that I did was part of something bigger and of significance.

Even though the logical part of your brain knows that the change to your role is a business decision, an economical/financial decision, there is still a part of you that questions how important you are or have ever been.

One of the hardest parts for me was being taken off the programme I was on. I was taken off of meeting attendance lists as it was felt that there was little point in me being there if I was going. All of sudden, I had gone from feeling like a significant cog in the wheel to 'no longer required'. My diary and inbox went from full, to empty. It was tough. I was clearing down my list and told to hand things over. The hardest part was having to stay and watch the work continue as I stood on the sidelines. My request for gardening leave was declined and ironically I was told that I was too important to be released.

My coping strategy was to switch my focus onto 'what next' and so I started to create lists of things I could get started on, ready for August when my notice period ended. One of these was my brand and my identity.

I wanted to step away from the Police. I wanted to 'shed the skin' and walk into something new, something that I could create and shape and evolve and I knew I needed to create distance to be able to do that.

I am glad I did this. It helped me to spend some time working with different companies and understanding the world outside of the public sector.

I kept hold of the important things and I left the things that no longer served me from my police days behind.

I now feel I have the best of both. I can use my police experience in the work that I do, but I also have years of other experiences to add to the mix. My police experience is part of my brand, it brings a very special set of skills and experiences to the mix of what I do and it is often what companies recognise as my USP when they are considering working with me.

It is also one of the reasons why individuals want to work with me.

Certain experiences help me to understand what clients are working through:

  • Working full-time (including shifts) as a single parent

  • Being ambitious as a mother

  • Leadership and Management, as a female and at a young age

  • Navigating a male-dominated industry as a female manager

The world and our society is evolving, it is getting better, but we aren't there yet, and these are challenges people still face today.

I won't go into the experiences as I don't want them to muddy the waters of all the positive experiences that I had, but they were there, they were challenges to overcome and they have become useful tools in the toolkit of life!

There are lots of experiences that I could use in my brand (secondary messaging) who am I and what do I do? There are some things that I choose not to talk about. Others talk about them frequently and openly.

It is your choice. Privacy is not the same as secrecy. You choose what you share and what you use in your branding, marketing and messaging in the same way that you get to choose the type of work that you do and the clients that you work with. Freedom of choice is certainly one of the key benefits of being the owner of your business.

Building a Support Network

One could argue that there is no better support network than the friends and colleagues you make in operational public sector roles. The challenges that you face together bring you together and connect you in a way that is very hard to describe .. if you know you know!

I do wonder sometimes, if this is one of the reasons why people discount self-employment as an option as they want to work with people.

There is no denying that entrepreneurship can be very isolating if you don't build up a network of people around you.

It is important, even for an introvert like me, to find mentors and peers and seek support from experienced entrepreneurs. The more experience you have the more you can pass this on and support those starting on their journey. It is one of the reasons that I decided to set up the Facebook Group - Aspiring Business Owners in/from the Public Sector

Surrounding yourself with positivity is important but also surround yourself with people who are open and will share their experiences and work with honesty and integrity.

Most business owners only share their highlights, which is understandable. Make sure you have some people around you who will share with you their struggles as much as they share their wins and share the hacks that help make business easier so that you can learn too.

I have been so fortunate to have some really good people around me over the years. There is a lot of bullshit out there and a shiny social media page with a huge following does not automatically equate to a successful and profitable business. Surround yourself with authentic, supportive and positive people who work with honesty and integrity.

3 adults sitting and smiling - 2 females, 1 make, all look happy
When work is fun and you get to work with people you also consider to be friends.

Adapting to Change and Evolving

Leaving the public sector is a huge change. It was significant for me after 20 years in the police and I can only imagine how much harder it could be for those with longer service or coming out of the military.

Change happens in the public sector all the time, change of leadership, change of government, change of priorities, changes in society - it is all a constant change and this along with uncertainty you will be used to.

Your resilience and adaptability will be one of your strengths going into business.

Embrace failure and be open to learning from setbacks and use them as stepping stones to success. No blame culture applies in business too. You need to be less risk averse in business, seize opportunities and have an ambitious, creative, entrepreneurial and innovative mindset.

A successful business is centred around continual growth. Not just the business, for you too. Continuous learning, training and professional development is important for your own personal growth and staying agile and adapting to market trends is important for your business growth.

Phoenix has grown and evolved over the years. I have changed and the work has levelled up as I have gained more experience, training and developed in my role. People still get the same Zoe, they still get a very authentic version of me, and they definitely get a better version of me now in 2024 than they did in 2017.

Celebrating Successes and Milestones

Recognising achievements is important regardless of the industry you work in. As a business owner, you need to acknowledge your progress and milestones along the way as the chances are nobody else is going to do this for you.

Determine what success looks like for you. What does a good win look like? You get to determine what a successful business looks and feels like. My goal is to be able to work part-time before I am 50, whilst having financial security and the freedom to travel. Finding fulfillment is also important and it is important to not forget the rewards of entrepreneurship beyond financial gain.

Is Entrepreneurship for You?

If the title of this blog caught your eye as you too are considering leaving employment in the public sector and starting a business then here are a couple of free resources that can help you.

Join one of our FREE monthly workshops HERE to help you with the strategy, mindset and confidence in life, leadership and business.

Book a clarity call and we can have a chat to see where you are, what your plans are and how I might be able to support you

I hope my journey has been interesting, and the learning of interest/value to you. Thank you for taking the time to read to the end!

If you would like to stay in touch you can connect with me on LinkedIn


30 views0 comments


bottom of page