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Five Lessons in Cross Sector Leadership

Thursday, Mar 17, 2016 Category Education

By Alison Gold

In November 2014, I moved my life from Washington, DC to the Bay Area and joined the team at the Presidio Institute as the Manager of Leadership Education. What has energized me the most has been connecting with and learning from others working to solve complex social problems, and using this learning to develop leadership education offerings to support their success. As I thought back on these last 16 months, I wanted to share some of these insights of what I have been most struck by on cross sector leadership and collaboration.

One:  Cross Sector Collaboration Always Comes Down to Trust

At the Presidio Institute, we describe cross sector leadership as the work of building and supporting alliances of individuals working within and across sectors that together have a role in solving a problem and achieving a shared goal. This work requires leaders who can facilitate the members of these alliances in becoming a team, understanding and solving problems, and achieving impact.

During the last year, that work of building teams—particularly the role of developing trust—has become even clearer to me. Cross sector collaborations are fundamentally different than working within organizations, because organizations have structures of accountability and authority. When individuals and organizations enter into cross sector collaborations, there are no such structures, and thus they must commit the time and energy to develop trust if they are ever going to work together and hold each other accountable. Research indicates that building trust is one of the big differentiators between collaborations that have measurable impact and those that don't.

I was discussing this with my colleague Alice Chen, who leads Values Based Leadership Development at Teach for America, and she introduced me to the Trust Equation, a simple, but powerful framework:

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)/Self-Orientation

Developed originally as a framework for consultants, the Trust Equation immediately struck me as useful and relevant for cross sector collaborations. It can help changemakers identify where trust is breaking down—is it what's being said (credibility), follow-through (reliability), connection and understanding of one another (intimacy), or that people are putting their individual interests ahead of the collaboration and its goals? Once diagnosed, the collaborators can turn their attention to trying to find a cure.

Two:  Sometimes You Need to Be a Cross Sector Intrapreneur First

In the Presidio Institute's curriculum on cross sector leadership, there is an explicit focus on personal leadership development. But there is also an implicit idea that before you are able to engage in cross sector collaboration, you have to be operating in an organization with the internal capacities to collaborate to learn, to solve problems, and to achieve impact. And this is especially true in large and/or bureaucratic organizations.

Recently, I was having a conversation with Jane Hodgdon, a 2015 Presidio Institute Fellow, who works at the U.S. Department of Education (DoE). Jane has been working to bring together program officers across Federal Government agencies who are managing and funding place-based initiatives. She wants to change the way that the Feds work with local communities in order to achieve better results. But she recognizes that before the Federal government can change the way it works with external partners, it has to change the way it's working within and across its own agencies. That's why Jane has been doing something that seems so simple, but is actually quite innovative in a large bureaucracy like the DoE.  She's been bringing together program managers who work with local communities to share information about the different programs, and help map when multiple programs are working with one community.​

Three:  If We Want to Solve Problems, We Have to Work Across Differences

"Whatever we do together will make us different." – Philip Glass in the NY Times Magazine

The thing that makes cross sector collaborations so promising is the very thing that makes them so hard to do: difference. There's decades of research that demonstrates that diverse teams are better at solving problems than homogenous ones. Yet, often when we build collaborations to take on some of the toughest problems in the world, we only invite people and organizations that we consider "on our side."

One of the richest opportunities I had to explore this idea was in helping to develop a session for the Presidio Institute Fellows in DC last July on how politics has made strange bedfellows on the issue of criminal justice reform, and how a wide array of organizations have come together in the Coalition for Public Safety. Through conversations with funders and members of the Coalition we learned that what brought them to the work was very, very different. For instance, The MacArthur Foundation was focused on the health and community impacts of incarceration whereas Koch Industries was focused on government overreach and escalating costs. The Center for American Progress was focused on racial and socio-economic disparities while the Faith and Freedom Coalition was motivated by how the conditions of prisons are inhumane and cut off opportunities for redemption of the incarcerated. While these organizations disagree on and actively work against each other on some issues, they are able to find common ground around how the criminal justice system needs to be reformed. And their ability to make progress toward this goal is directly related to their ability to understand and explain one another's motivations and, knowing them, identify opportunities to make change together.

Being able to recognize when it is our own mindsets and values that prevent us from understanding the point of view of others is part of the challenging work of cross sector leadership. If we are able to come together and understand one another, it increases our comprehension of the problems we're trying to solve, and the probability that we'll be able to develop effective solutions to solve them.

Four:  No One is Neutral

In 2015, I created an online course called Intro to Cross Sector Leadership: Building Teams. It introduces learners to the concepts of developing trust, managing power dynamics and conflict, and fostering an innovation culture through short video lectures, podcasts and reading, individual assignments, and team-based work. My favorite part of the course is the final project, when the teams are given a real-life case study and asked to develop a "Building Teams Strategy" for it. All the strategies are reviewed by a small group of cross sector changemakers involved with the case study, who later join us for a live webinar discussion to wrap up the course.

This December, the case focused on building an equitable entrepreneurship ecosystem in Albuquerque, NM. The live discussion featured 2015 Presidio Institute Fellow Robin Brulé, a vice president at Nusenda Credit Union, and 2016 Fellow Frank Mirabal, who works in the Mayor's office.

In their strategies, a number of teams recommended "neutral facilitators" as a tactic that can be used in managing power dynamics and conflict. At the end of the webinar, Robin raised a great point that has stuck with me: No one is neutral. By virtue of where they're from (the community/elsewhere), who they work for (university/consultancy/government), and who they are (gender/race/age), a person is not neutral to everyone. While facilitators can be incredibly useful, keep in mind that conflicts may emerge no matter who is facilitating.

If you're interested in checking out an audio recording of the live webinar, visit:

Five:  Cross Sector Leadership is Radical

Today, we have systems that are set up to produce our toughest social problems, whether that problem is poverty or global warming. These systems are made up of the interactions between sectors, organizations, people, and their policies, practices, mindsets, funding flows, and behaviors. We live in a time where our politics are more focused on ideological victories than solving problems, where businesses by-and-large have embraced Friedman's assertion that increasing profit is business's sole responsibility, and where non-profits are so fragmented and limited in resources that they are extremely limited in their ability to have impact. Even within our sectors, organizations, and agencies, we often compete against each other.

So how can we expect to work across sectors to solve our world's most difficult and seemingly intractable problems? Cross sector leadership and collaboration calls us to trust, to change ourselves and our organizations, to seek to understand where other individuals and organizations are coming from, and then figure out how to work together—to recognize the impact we have as it relates to others and acknowledge it. And then, once we've done all that, it calls us to learn together about the nature of the problems that we're going to solve, and to have the audacity to go out and solve them.

If that mission and way of working isn't radical, I'm not sure what is.

What are you learning about cross sector leadership and collaboration? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this piece, and more about what you're learning through your own practice via email at or on Twitter using #xsector. (I'm @AKGold11 and the Institute is @PresidioInst).

Alison Gold As Manager of Leadership Education at the Presidio Institute, Alison leads the development of curriculum, manages the faculty, and directs leadership education offerings including the Presidio Institute Fellows.  She has 13 years of experience as a funder of and practitioner in cross sector collaborations on issues ranging from emergency preparedness and response to health care to urban poverty. Alison is the author of What Barriers? Insights from Solving Problems through Cross-Sector Partnerships. ​