"Reversing" Cross-Sector Leadership Exchanges

"Reversing" Cross-Sector Leadership Exchanges


By Jeff Raderstrong

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the White House Forum on Cross-Sector Leadership, which was co-hosted by the InterSector Project. The day was devoted to exploring the need for greater cross-sector collaboration, and how cultivating individual leaders can help bring the sectors closer together.

We spent most of the time in a design workshop hosted by Fuse Corps on how to develop a successful fellowship exchange program to encourage cross-sector leadership. During this workshop, it was clear that most people were thinking of these fellowships primarily as improving the performance of the nonprofit and government sectors, either by placing private sector leaders in those types of organizations, or by exposing social sector leaders to private sector ideas. There was not much consideration of the benefit to the private sector by exchanging experiences with the social sector.

To be fair, this is an appropriate assumption, because almost all current fellowship programs focus on improving social sector performance by gaining talent or lessons learned from the private sector. But by not considering the reverse—improving the performance of the private sector by importing leaders from the social sector—we miss out on a huge opportunity.

The InterSector Project noted this missed opportunity in the briefings for the event, saying, “cross-sector programs in the United States are primarily designed to benefit non-profit and public sectors and…focus less on how an exchange of skills and knowledge may explicitly benefit the private sector. There may be informal benefits to the private sector, but they are relatively unexplored.” I would push this further to say that there most certainly are potential benefits to the private sector, and they could be quite substantial in nature.

Consider the 2008 financial crisis. I would wager that if there were more leaders in the financial industry at that time who were less focused on short time horizons (as social sector leaders tend to be), things wouldn’t have gotten so bad. (Actually if there were just more women in the financial sector, things probably wouldn’t have gotten so bad.) As stakeholder engagement becomes more important to businesses as they grow globally and attempt to serve an ever-more socially conscious consumer base, leaders who understand how to form coalitions and work with local communities can be a huge benefit for a for-profit company. In the digital age, the simple act of developing new products requires communication and dialogue with consumers, and facilitating these conversations is a “strategic advantage” of the nonprofit sector.

Ultimately, I think people are going to start recognizing the value of importing the lessons and values of the social sector into the private sector regardless of the work being done to encourage it. Private sector managers are beginning to realize that workers are motivated by things other than financial rewards, and will structure their core activities to serve that need. And the fact that people will have around 11 jobs in their career—and the millennial generation’s increasing sector agnosticism—will create more sector-crossing individuals. Cross-sector leadership is the future, regardless of the number of fellowship exchanges promoting it.

But I do believe it is important to challenge our assumptions at every step of our transition to a more collaborative society. Which sector (or organization) can best be served by an open exchange of best practices and information? I would argue each can learn from the other, and we can’t get caught up in our preconceived notions that the private sector is more “effective” than government or nonprofits. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses that can be supported by the others. Until we have a fundamental understanding of this fact, we can’t fully transition to a truly collaborative, cross-sector society.

Photo credit: itchys