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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.

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