This guest blog is written by Paul Thallner, an independent leadership and organizational development consultant.
Imagine that you are an incredible and gifted athlete, and you become a fantastic baseball player. Then, because you like a challenge, you decide—after a decade of high performance in baseball—to switch to cycling. Think about it: what would you need in order to be effective as a cyclist when you’ve spent all your time playing baseball?
In the world of work, transitions like that are happening all the time, and are becoming more common. A September 2013 Harvard Business Review article, “Triple Strength Leadership,” highlighted the growing trend and need for leaders who can “engage and collaborate across the private, public and social sectors.” Authors Matt Thomas and Nick Lovegrove, point to organizations – from all sectors – that are developing early, mid-career, and executive leaders to take on roles that require cross-sector collaboration.
For example, federal programs like the White House Fellows, the newer Presidential Innovation Fellows; nonprofits like Fuse Corps, Code for America, and Coro Fellows; and private companies like IBM’s Corporate Services Group are all cited as evidence of suppliers working to fill the cross-sector leadership need. In essence, these programs are the equivalent of giving the baseball player some exposure to, and maybe some practice with, cycling.
But, as any cyclist would tell you, there’s a big difference between a training ride and a race. Similarly, there are major hurdles a cross-sector leader faces on day one that a training or fellowship program cannot really help with. Everything from the operating philosophy and objectives to the language and culture are all new and all at once.
I know first hand that cross-sector leaders start out ignorant of their new organization’s rules and norms. They must establish credibility with people who may not understand or appreciate their career accomplishments. They live under added pressure to “prove” that the hiring decision was wise in the first place. This all leads to skepticism and second-guessing from people up and down the hierarchy when the leader falters (as all leaders do). Imagine you were pitching in Yankee Stadium in October, learn to bike over the winter, and then race the grueling Paris-Roubaix in March!
So, what do triple-strength leaders or tri-sector athletes really need in order to be effective in their new roles? In my view, the answers can be found in Triple Crown Leadership, by Bob and Gregg Vanourek. Leaders need to work on their own capacity to lead in three very specific areas:
Head and Heart. Cross-sector leaders will be put into a dizzying and frustrating context. They will need to use all they have learned and their capacity to think on their feet in a variety of new situations. Similarly, they will need to have tremendous compassion for themselves and others during the intense early days. They must understand and live their own values with fidelity. Personal integrity is the cornerstone of a house of trust.
The Colors. Cross-sector leaders are likely to experience heightened anxiety. People will be recounting the organization’s history in vivid detail. The new leader must take this in, but also figure out what to ignore. Here being new is an advantage, and he must seize the opportunity to articulate a clear unifying goal for the organization. This will build engagement, reduce complexity, and dial back the anxiety. She must be explicit in connecting the work to a higher purpose. She must work daily to ensure all employees see themselves as integral to the success of the organization. Just as the leader needs to be guided by her own values, so must she clearly articulate the organization’s values.
Steel and Velvet. A cross-sector leader may be seen as vulnerable, and therefore he will be tested early and often by those who want to see him fail or who simply want to “know what he’s made of.” So, walking in the door, the leader needs to carry high expectations for excellence from everyone. With that, the leader needs to be prepared to call out sub-par performance; he cannot fear conflict, and must – especially at the beginning – ensure his expectations are understood. At the same time, the leader needs to allow for other leaders in the organization to express themselves. He needs to collaborate, be open, cultivate positive relationships, and look for like-minded stewards of the organization.
These three practices are critical to a cross-sector leader’s success in a challenging role. They put the leader in a position to be effective, but also they build personal and organizational resilience. The leader will falter – think of that first-time cyclist– but a well-led organization will see the potential, the vision, the values, and will be committed to support its leader through the transition.
Paul Thallner is has worked in non-profit, corporate, and government roles. He studied how human systems reach their potential at the Weatherhead School of Management, Ashridge Business School, Stanford Design School, the Presidio Institute, and elsewhere. He’s a certified executive coach, and holds certifications in many organizational assessments and human-centered design methodologies. He works with public, corporate, and non-profit organizations in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Twitter: @pthallner
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations.