Tuesday, August 27, 2013
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