Triple-strength leadership

Nick Lovegrove &
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Leaders who have experience of working across sectors have a higher chance of success as they develop different sets of skills that can be valuable.

A decade ago Coca-Cola faced a major crisis in south India. The government and several non-governmental organisations objected so strongly to its water consumption that it was banned from soft-drink production in the region. The company uses water not just in the drink itself but also in the manufacturing process. Making a litre of Coke consumed more than three litres of water.

In response, Coca-Cola turned to an outsider to develop a strategy for sustainable water stewardship, appointing Jeff Seabright to head its newly created Environment and Water Resources department.

Although he had briefly worked as vice president for policy planning at Texaco, Seabright was a relative newcomer to the private sector, having had extensive political and diplomatic experience with the Foreign Service, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

To make a concrete business case for water conservation, Seabright commissioned a geographic information system map — a tool familiar to environmental agencies. It showed that 39 per cent of Coca-Cola’s plants were located in the world’s most water-stressed areas — precisely the places where the company expected the bulk of future growth.

He then asked the natural resources company Rio Tinto to adapt a water risk analysis process for Coca-Cola’s 20 business units.

Unit managers were presented with six months’ worth of data at a two-day meeting. Using the data, he developed water risk models for each unit, which he aggregated into a companywide global risk model.

This was the first time that Coca-Cola’s leaders had seen such a thorough piece of work on the natural resources consumed by their business. It persuaded them to give Seabright a budget for several water sustainability initiatives. Today the company uses only two litres of water to produce one litre of Coke, and is regarded as an industry leader in water neutrality. Seabright is a rare breed: a leader with three distinct sets of strengths.

He epitomises what the Kennedy School of Government professor Joseph Nye has called a “trisector athlete” — someone who can “engage and collaborate across the private, public and social sectors.”

Trisector leaders are becoming more valuable, but they’re also becoming harder to develop — particularly in the United States, owing to a widening disparity between business, government and non-profit incomes; the onerous confirmation process for senior government jobs; and the differing cultures of the three sectors.

That’s unfortunate, because our research suggests that people who have succeeded in crossing sectors have had notable careers as leaders. From our interviews with more than 100 trisector leaders around the world we’ve distilled six skills that set these people apart:

Balancing competing motives: Successful trisector leaders find ways to pursue potentially conflicting professional goals. Most are concerned at some point with wealth creation, which they associate with the private sector. They also aspire to positions of influence on a large scale, which draws them to government service. And they typically have a strong sense of mission — the primary focus of nonprofits.

Acquiring transferable skills: Business executives excel at allocating scarce resources to capture market opportunities. Government officials bring competing interests together to create policy frameworks for the benefit of the public. Non-profit leaders typically focus their more limited resources on devising creative ways to further the social good. When they move from sector to sector, trisector leaders acquire elements of all three skill sets.

Developing contextual intelligence: To select and apply the tools in their repertoire, trisector leaders must not only see parallels between sectors but also accurately assess differences in context and translate across them. A number of government and business thinkers define this ability as “contextual intelligence.”

Forging an intellectual thread : Many trisector leaders concentrate on a particular issue or theme over time, building subject-matter expertise in the process.

Developing an intellectual thread across the sectors gives them the capacity to transcend some of the constraints that single-sector leaders face when dealing with cross-sector issues.

Building integrated networks: When we ask people, “How did you end up crossing sectors?” they most commonly say that a mentor, a colleague or a friend pulled them into their newest position. Networks can be essential for any career, but because hiring managers so rarely look outside their own sectors for talent, networks are even more vital to trisector careers.

Trisector leaders depend on their integrated networks to convene the diverse groups that can address knotty trisector issues.

Maintaining a prepared mind: In our interviews we always ask, “Did you set out to be a trisector leader, or did it just happen?” Almost everyone says it was the latter. Bob Hormats, a former Goldman Sachs vice chairman and Princeton visiting lecturer who is currently the undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the State Department, is typical in saying that “virtually none” of his career was planned. But he adds a crucial observation: “I am a believer in Louis Pasteur’s famous saying ‘In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.’ This type of career requires a prepared mind.”

To develop trisector leaders, we need to take a life cycle approach — to create programmes that will give them an intellectual foundation at the start and practical pathways that will allow them to move from sector to sector throughout their careers without slowing their momentum.

Early on

The aspirations of trisector leaders are both a challenge and an opportunity for the academic institutions that give so many of them the foundations for their careers. Quite a few leaders at the top graduate schools for business and public policy know they should do more to improve their joint-degree programmes in order to meet the development needs of future trisector leaders.

An equal responsibility lies with private sector employers. Many professional services companies in consulting, law and information technology already have robust training programmes that teach not only how to perform the tasks at hand but also how to understand the culture and various clients.

Such organisations can do more to develop trisector leaders by systematically rotating their professionals through engagements with private, public and non-profit clients.


We believe that people who need to gain trisector experience without slowing the progress of their careers would benefit most from fellowships, associations and conferences that could connect them to mentorship opportunities, virtual and traditional communities, and relevant media channels for advocating their ideas to targeted audiences.

At the top

As organisations increasingly face challenges no sector can address alone, they will feel the need to recruit trisector leaders for senior positions. Businesses also need to incorporate trisector experience into their talent development programmes at every level.

Providing it for those who are in line to lead their organisations in five to ten years should be one of the highest priorities for CEOs and business unit leaders facing trisector challenges.

Nick Lovegrove, a director emeritus of McKinsey, is a senior director of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and the Brookings Institution, and vice chairman of the InterSector Project. Matthew Thomas, who has worked at Morgan Stanley, the Department of Finance Canada and McKinsey, is the executive director of the InterSector Project, the chairman of Young Canadians in Finance and a member of the World Economic Forum community.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.




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