Our most significant societal challenges – public health, sustainability, education and poverty, to name a few – are highly complex. They affect and involve many community members, stakeholders, organizations and governments. For too long, many leaders in business, government, and the nonprofit sector have tried to solve these complicated challenges using siloed solutions. 

But that fragmented approach doesn’t work – not completely and not long-term. A single organization doesn’t have the expertise, skills or capacity to effectively solve these problems alone. Complex leadership challenges require cross-sector collaboration, partnerships and leadership to achieve success. 

What is Cross-Sector Collaboration? 

Collaborative problem-solving across sectors involves two or more stakeholders from different types of organizations – private, government, NGO, nonprofit – working together to solve a complex problem that affects each member at the organizational level along with the communities they serve.  

The key to cross-sector collaboration is developing partnerships. Cross-sector partnerships share a common challenge or goal. Each partner brings their unique expertise and resources to the collective group. This enables the group to co-create a multifaceted approach to resolving the issue that leverages the strengths of each contributor.

Three Benefits of Partnering Across Sectors 

Developing cross-sector partnerships doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and collaborative effort and involves finding the right partner or partners. However, social partnerships of this kind have the capacity to move the needle on some of the world’s most substantial problems, such as extreme poverty and climate change. 

The benefits include: 

  1. Increased scale – Successful partnerships utilize the combined resources of each stakeholder to reach more people in more places. An individual organization is limited to its own network, expertise, tools, funding, skills, community, leadership and system of governance. Cross-sector partnerships enable organizations to expand and combine their unique value with the complementary assets of their partners. The main benefit of this coordination is enabling the group to have a much greater collective impact. 
  2. Innovation – Multi-stakeholder groups bring different perspectives and ideas to a shared problem. When people look at a challenge from all angles, it opens the door to innovating solutions. It drives stakeholders to look outside their own box and see other points of view and goals. Successful partnerships foster innovation by creating a collaborative environment, encouraging sharing and open-mindedness, and utilizing all collective resources and talents available. 
  3. Systemic change – Cross-sector partnerships are great enablers of systemic change. Partnerships have the benefit of seeing every facet of an issue. They can also address the unique strengths, shortcomings and goals of each collaborator. Because cross-sector partners look at problems with this interdisciplinary lens, they can begin to fix each leg of an issue and ultimately rebalance an entire system from the base of the pyramid upward. Take childhood obesity for example. There have been many initiatives in recent years to bring healthier foods into schools. But simply providing healthier school lunches does not solve the problem. Childhood obesity is a family system issue, an economic issue, a public health issue, and an education issue. Making healthy foods more affordable and accessible for families and schools, teaching health and nutrition in public institutions and ensuring that everyone has access to quality healthcare, provides a much stronger framework to improve obesity in childhood and beyond. 

Cross-sector partnerships form a strong foundation to problem-solve, innovate and impact change on a large scale. However, to achieve effective cross-sector collaboration we need cross-sector leaders. 

What is Cross-Sector Leadership? 

Cross-sector leadership is essential to cross-sector partnerships and collaboration. Cross-sector leaders recognize the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to complex issues. They also have experience coordinating with different sectors to lead their organization toward success, whether that means building a sustainable business model or bringing a new product to market that helps solve a tough social dilemma.

Here are four essential cross-sector leadership skills:

  1. Communication – Communication is an invaluable skill in any leadership role, but especially across sectors. Successful leaders foster, emphasize and exemplify good communication within their organization and with their partners.
  2. Team building – Building effective partnerships with dissimilar enterprises requires a team mentality – fostering collaboration, communication, accountability, trust, power balance and delegation. Team building starts with developing a strong internal core team. Once that is established, it is easier to work as a team with partners.  
  3. Empathy – Leaders with high levels of empathy are compelled to see and understand different perspectives, a key component of cross-sector partnerships. Empathetic leaders work to understand their partners and their unique set of experiences, barriers, motives and goals. They can also empathize with the people being affected by the issue at hand, which improves buy-in and participation. 
  4. Foster innovation – Cross-sector leaders encourage their teams to look outside the box, engage problems outside of their comfort zone, explore new ideas and set ambitious goals. Innovation takes an agenda and turns it on its head. It means being open-minded and thinking about all the implications of every possible action. Sometimes cross-sector solutions fail at first. Innovative leaders push on, revise and try again until they’ve developed a strategy that maximizes impact.  

Cross-sector collaboration and partnerships are important in solving our biggest, global challenges. But success depends on developing cross-sector leaders. At Thunderbird, we are committed to educating and training leaders for the future. Our degree programs emphasize cross-sector leadership and prepare leaders for careers in the private, public, non-profit and NGO sectors. 

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