Tri-Sector Leadership Skills

Why are some public sector leaders — like John Koskinen, Ed DeSeve, and Michael Bloomberg – so successful at what they do?

An article in the September issue of Harvard Business Review by Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas tries to explain why. They examine the careers of leaders who have been successful in addressing complex challenges requiring collaboration across a wide range of stakeholders. They cite Harvard Kennedy School professor Joseph Nye, who says that these kinds of leaders have the ability to “engage and collaborate across the private, public, and social sectors.”

Lovegrove and Thomas found that these “tri-sector” leaders are “people who can bridge the chasms of culture, incentives, and purpose that separate the three sectors.” They go on to say that these leaders “are distinguished as much by mind-set as by experience” and have a common set of skills that they’ve developed by working in each of these sectors:

Balance competing motives. Successful tri-sector leaders have a strong sense of mission and want to work on a large scale – characteristics of people who work in non-profits and government. Lovegrove and Thomas say “Tri-sector leaders find ways to pursue overlapping and potentially conflicting professional goals.”

Acquiring transferable skills. Business leaders excel in allocating scarce resources; government leaders bring competing interests together for the common good; and nonprofit leaders have greater operating freedom to devise creative approaches. When leaders move between sectors, they acquire a growing array of tools and tactics, and strengthen their ability to work across sectors.

Developing contextual intelligence. Lovegrove and Thomas observe: “tri-sector leaders must not only see parallels between sectors but also accurately assess differences in context and translate across them.” This ability to understand how different organizations and bureaucracies work, they say, is “contextual intelligence.”

Forging an intellectual thread. Many tri-sector leaders develop subject matter expertise in a particular area, even when they work across sectors. “Developing and applying an intellectual thread across the sectors,” note the authors, “given them the capacity to understand underlying principles and to transcend some of the constraints . . . .”

Building integrated networks. Since hiring managers rarely look outside their own sectors for talent, those with tri-sector careers rely on their own integrated, cross-sector networks to “build leadership teams and to convene the diverse groups that can address and resolve knotty tri-sector issues.”

Maintaining a prepared mind. In interviews with tri-sector leaders, Lovegrove and Thomas found “many tri-sector leaders speak of the need to prepare financially so that they can afford to say yes when the president calls. They are also ready and willing to deviate significantly from the familiar road to embrace opportunities. . . .”

Unlike some who see tri-sector career moves as a pernicious “revolving door,” the authors advocate lowering the cultural and structural barriers that inhibit cross-sector career moves in early, mid-career, and senior people. They conclude: “We believe that as a society we must find ways to help passionate, committed, creative individuals of goodwill in their quest to build extraordinary careers that address the world’s most difficult problems.”

Graphic credit: courtesy of Boaz Yiftach via FreeDigitalPhotos

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David Paschane

For several reasons I did NOT like this article when I first saw it. Its a back hand way of glorifying those who have had diverse careers and insulting those who have primarily been in the government their whole careers. The author’s opinions are unwarranted and cannot be verified, so I may as well give my own opinion. I meet plenty of all-government folks who are incredible thinkers and leaders, and many multi-sector folks who are shamelessly arrogant, incapable, and wasting taxpayers dollars. I have worked intensely in all 4 sectors – government, commercial, academics, and civic, and in 20 years of such experience the most disappointing leaders I have seen are the commercial who go government, which is what the author is implying as most valuable. This was put out by IBM, and they have a stake in promoting these ideas. I simply want Better Government, from the govies, regardless of their backgrounds.

John Kamensky

Hi David — The blog post is based on an article in Harvard Business Review, which I found insightful. It is not my opinion, but rather the multi-year research by two thoughtful people. I do happen to agree that their insights reflect some of what I’ve seen. . . My career started in state and local government, then I spent 24 years in the federal government before going into IBM’s think tank. I can assure you, I (nor IBM) have any nefarious intent to promote a particular point of view on this.

Yes, people in all sectors (or multi-sectors) can be good or bad leaders, but having been exposed to a broader background and context seems to better prepare them for effective leadership, based on my observations over the past 35 years . . . and reinforced by the research reflected in the HBR article!

The authors, by the way, do say that people with experience in a single sector can develop the “multi-sector” mindset. I’ve seen this as well, for example former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen spent his entire career in the government, but had that mindset when he handled the Haiti recovery effort and the Gulf Oil Spill effort.

David Paschane

John – The HBR article is not a research article. The Tri-Sector promotion is a set of opinions about people examples (very biased) being applied to the level of justifying a forum for a select group of players.

It is wrong on several levels, including science (an ecological fallacy) and law (propagates an opportunity for these players to work around the FAR), and social (downgrades value of government employees).

Not to judge IBM, but I think it does reflect on IBM to have them promote something that is clearly on a bad path. IT may sound warm and fuzzy, but most government leaders see right through it.

David Paschane

Yes, a healthy attitude. And, in this subject, I hope I convey a healthy attitude about the value and possibility of government employees – they need to lead their work, despite the careers that proceeded them getting there.

Thank you for reading my blog too.



Couple thoughts:

-Check out the print or subscriber only HBR – the full article is better than the blog

-Also check out The Solution revolution – Bill Eggers book on topic coming out in couple weeks. I’m reading now and it’s good.

Personally I think there’s something interesting about tri-sector leadership that’s real. And more real than the generic “government should be run more like a business” which I think is trite and doesn’t get to the depth of the complexity of solving public sector problems

Jay Johnson

I too saw this article last week. I don’t care so much for the skill sets they pick or which sector is better arguments. Instead I like the idea that it gives communities more options for improving themselves.

For example, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a project to bring an accessible playground to our area to serve the community and in particular, children with disabilities. Bremerton Beyond Accessible Play was formed by parents of special needs kids who wanted to have a place for them to play, just like anyone else. Rather than complaining to local officials about not having such a place, we partnered with them to make this happen. From the begining, we involved the city’s Parks & Recreation committee. We invited vendors of playground equipment to talk with us and give demonstrations of their products. We found a local non-profit to help us with fundraising. The bottomline is that in less than three years we will have brought a nearly half million dollar handicap accessible playground for our community almost completely through volunteer effort. And it was possible due to tri-sector partnering.

David Paschane

Both comments are interesting because there is a long-time deficit of government solving public problems. Government programs tend to manage activities that manage symptoms, with the help of consultants who reinforce the machinery of government. The untapped talent in all this is people. Regardless of the “sector” we denote someone as being in (they either work or live in all of them), people and their talents are often overlooked by those who wheeled power. Look at Microsoft to see a recently hot example. I go back to my statement that there is a weakness of thought going on when we conclude that a few people-cases make a sound theory of reliable practices, especially when it ignores the potential of people who may not fit the theory. Volunteer citizens can lead solutions, paid govies can lead solutions, and commercial entrepreneurs can lead solutions, and they can work together; but, to praise a few who have been paid by all three sectors as better than any other option is plain silly. And insulting to those who have not. Let’s remember that what strengthens the way we think is how we organize and use disciplines to cross-pollinate our thinking about actions. The ways we tap sciences, arts, economics, etc. to gain insights into human activities is what we can point to as having sustainable value, not the resume of one or two people-cases. If we look to the trans-disciplinary disciplines and their applied cases we see all kinds of strengthens that are force multipliers of people from any background.