Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Why Tri-Sector Leaders Rise to the Top

Sergey Peterman/

Why are some public sector leaders -- like John Koskinen, Ed DeSeve and Michael Bloomberg, who are icons of government enterprise -- so successful at what they do?

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

Lovegrove and Thomas call them tri-sector leaders. They are “people who can bridge the chasms of culture, incentives and purpose that separate the three sectors,” the authors say, “distinguished as much by mind-set as by experience.”

Here’s a common set of skills these leaders have developed by working across sectors:

  • Balancing competing motives. Tri-sector leaders have a strong sense of mission and want to work on a large scale -- characteristics of people who work at nonprofits and government agencies. Lovegrove and Thomas say they “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 boundaries. 
  • 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. “Developing and applying an intellectual thread across the sectors,” note the authors, “has 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 integrated, cross-sector networks to “build leadership teams and to convene the diverse groups that can address and resolve knotty tri-sector issues,” the authors say.
  • Maintaining a prepared mind-set.  Lovegrove and Thomas say “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 for 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.”

(Image via Sergey Peterman/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.