Building a Cross-Sector Career

Building a Cross-Sector Career

Want to lead a more satisfying professional life? Widen the types of organizations you join.

By James Daly

What makes a seasoned leader? Increasingly, it’s a career that spans the corporate, public, and nonprofit sectors, gleaning important lessons and perspectives from all three. Such a varied path not only broadens your professional seasoning, but can also lead to greater satisfaction.

That’s the finding of a new study by Haas Adjunct Professor Paul Jansen and Nora Silver, adjunct professor and faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership. Their research—the result of observing the career arc of more than 2,000 executives—showed that holding diverse roles in a wide variety of organizations creates a strong foundation for managing the complex leadership challenges of modern business.

The report highlighted the work of many executives who led careers built not on a singular scramble to the top but a path that zigzagged up the mountain, enjoying the view each step of the way. “A wide variety of experiences and organizations not only created a more meaningful career, but it often creates more satisfied people,” said Silver.

Alberto Ibarguën, for example, is the former publisher of the Miami Herald who also serves on the board of PepsiCo and American Airlines. More recently, he was appointed CEO of the John and James Knight Foundation, a large nonprofit designed to create engaged communities. Ibarguën said his career was guided by curiosity rather than Machiavellian intent. “I never had a master plan,” he confessed. “I built on myself, thinking about what kind of activity this new role would engender, would it allow continuous engagement with the community, and whether it is an organization I might want to lead someday.”

“There is no longer a stable career marketplace. To have a great career you sometimes need to get out of your comfort zone.”

—Nora Silver, faculty director, Center for Social Sector Leadership

Multisector experiences help build a wide professional network which “helped to create a flow of very interesting opportunities,” Ibarguën said. Exposure to a wide range of leaders and problems is becoming an essential executive skill, he noted.

Experience in varying sectors also creates more internal satisfaction. Roger Ferguson was an attorney and business consultant who later became vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and headed the insurance company Swiss Re. More recently he became CEO of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association–College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA), a nonprofit retirement provider for people who work in the academic, research, medical, and cultural fields.

Such a wide range of experience “has been transformational for me,” Ferguson said. “It helped create a range of skills and a network that differentiated me from other financial leaders and serves me well in my current role.”

Jansen and Silver took multiple approaches to collecting data. They started with the Leadership Directories database, examining the careers of Fortune 200 company CEOs and management team members, as well as a random sample of 300 elected and appointed public sector officials (from federal to state), top nonprofit sector 100 foundation presidents, and top 100 nonprofit executive directors. They supplemented that dataset with public data, including online research and bios on company websites.

The data revealed that many larger firms—such as Cisco, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America—actively encourage cross-sector experience as they groom future leaders, suggesting that the nature of careers themselves is evolving. Being able to see through the eyes of others leads to more informed and empathic leaders, Silver said.

But there may be downsides. The number one constraint cited by leaders was time. A cross-sector career may also not allow the deep technical and professional understanding of an organization that the singular devotion to a field or company provides. Those who’ve grown accustomed to the sometimes lucrative salaries in the private sector may be discouraged by the comparatively skimpy compensation packages from a nonprofit organization.

But those may be small sacrifices. “There is no longer a stable career marketplace,” Silver noted. “To have a great career you sometimes need to get out of your comfort zone.”

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