The critical challenges society faces — such as water scarcity, access to education, and the rising cost of healthcare — increasingly require the business, government and nonprofit sectors to work together to create lasting solutions. But this is only possible if the senior executives of our leading institutions are what Dominic Barton, Worldwide Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, refers to as "tri-sector athletes" — leaders able to engage and collaborate across all three sectors.
Our research at Tri-Sector Forum shows that these leaders often have prior experiences in each sector and a unique ability to navigate different cultures, align incentives and draw on the particular strengths of a wide range of actors to solve large-scale problems.
Take water scarcity. A potential 40% gap between global freshwater demand and supply by 2030 puts billions of lives — and dollars — at stake. And all three sectors have skin in the game. For agri-food and beverage businesses, fresh water is an essential ingredient in their production process. Governments are often the stewards of water and regulate its use. Nonprofits work to ensure access to clean water and conservation of watersheds and the environment.
The Coca-Cola Company has a deep interest in creating sustainable sources of fresh water, as it takes over two liters of water to make one liter of product. Muhtar Kent, the company's Chairman and CEO, recently wrote on the company's blog: "It's challenging for one business — even one industry — to make a material difference on its own. Instead, we must rely on partnerships that connect across what I call the 'Golden Triangle' of business, government and civil society. Water is [a] Golden Triangle focus for us, as we work with our partners to become water-neutral by 2020."
Coca-Cola understands the tri-sector approach better than many. A decade ago, a lack of collaboration adversely affected its business in South India, when the Indian government and several NGOs protested the company's level of water usage and banned production in the region. Senior management at Coca-Cola recognized the need for the company to create a strategy for sustainable water stewardship, and hired an outsider — Jeff Seabright — who could help them craft a practical response and engage with partners across sectors.
Seabright was a relative newcomer to the private sector, having had extensive experience in the U.S. Foreign Service, U.S. Senate, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the White House Task Force on Climate Change. "To help gain alignment of my new colleagues," Seabright told us, "I combined skills I learned from my days at the U.S. Senate and USAID to collaborate when making a case for change."
He started by translating a non-financial issue like water scarcity into the kind of business language his colleagues understood. By overlaying a water stress map with Coca-Cola's operational plants, Seabright found that almost half of their global volume was in high stress and high growth areas. In other words, as Seabright told us, "margins are going to expand exactly where water pressures are going to be most intense. So we either act now, or limit our growth." Coca-Cola's leaders had not seen such a disciplined piece of work on non-financial aspects of the business — and gave him the budget to fund several water sustainability initiatives. Today Coca-Cola is 35% of the way to meeting its 2020 target for water neutrality and is regarded as an industry leader in this area.
Seabright also built highly effective partnerships with government and nonprofit organizations. He used his knowledge of USAID's Global Development Alliance to create a $20 million partnership that addresses community water needs in developing countries, and he fostered trust with World Wildlife Foundation leaders by making a "consistent effort to sit down with country heads and compare notes, just to talk. No agenda." Since joining Coca-Cola in 2003, Seabright has helped facilitate hundreds of community water projects across the world.
Jeff Seabright is a model tri-sector athlete but they come in many forms. Some start in business, others in government; some operate at the highest of global organizations, others in their local communities; and some are starting to build tri-sector careers at a much younger age than previous generations.
Regardless of their backgrounds, we have identified six characteristics these leaders have:
- Balanced motivations. A desire to create public value no matter where they work, combining their motivations to wield influence (often in government), have social impact (often in nonprofits) and generate wealth (often in business)
- Transferable skills. A set of distinctive skills valued across sectors, such as quantitative analytics, strategic planning and stakeholder management
- Contextual intelligence. A deep empathy of the differences within and between sectors, especially those of language, culture and key performance indicators
- Integrated networks. A set of relationships across sectors to draw on when advancing their careers, building top teams, or convening decision-makers on a particular issue
- Prepared mind. A willingness to pursue an unconventional career that zigzags across sectors, and the financial readiness to take potential pay cuts from time to time
- Intellectual thread. Holistic subject matter expertise on a particular tri-sector issue by understanding it from the perspective of each sector
So how can you become a tri-sector athlete? First identify a tri-sector issue of interest and cultivate a network across sectors to learn from and meet your counterparts. We've noticed there are no shortage of major conferences (e.g., Concordia Summit), hackathons (e.g., Random Hacks of Kindness) and city building organizations (e.g., Toronto's CivicAction) where tri-sector issues are discussed — and acted on — by representatives from all three sectors.
Or consider joining a growing number of cross-sector fellowship programs — such as Fuse Corps, Code for America, White House Presidential Innovation Fellows, Coro Fellows, and Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Teams — that pair top innovators with mayors, governors and federal officials to address pressing public challenges.
But most importantly, follow your passions and seek to leave the world a better place than how you received it. Before you know it, you'll be working with leaders and organizations across sectors to see your vision realized.
Insights from HBR and The Bridgespan Group