What many top leaders have in common: cross-sector careers

By Susan Petty

Want to be truly versatile? A two-year study that looked at the career paths of more than 2,000 of the country's top executive leaders found that half of them had rounded out corporate experience with work in the nonprofit or public sectors—or vice versa.

In this Q&A, study co-author and Berkeley-Haas Professor Nora Silver, faculty director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas, discusses the importance and benefits of this cross-sector experience, along with some steps that rising leaders can take to build a multi-sector career.

How does cross-sector experience help career development?

Professor Nora SilverBuilding upon experience in one sector with work in another exposes you to a new set of factors that potentially impact your industry or organization. Broadening your knowledge in this way makes you more valuable.

Another benefit is that when you work with constituencies and peers in another sector, you get better at communicating with a wider range of people.

Gaining experience across sectors also helps you develop diverse networks that create professional opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have.

What are the personal and professional benefits of gaining experience across corporate, public, and nonprofit sectors?

Cross-sector affiliations can lead you to clarify your personal priorities, resulting in greater fulfillment at work. Many leaders we spoke with said how much they loved what they were doing and how they felt they were making a difference. 

Changing sectors also engages you in continuous learning, increasingly important in today's workforce. We had one leader from the financial field who, because he sat on the boards of different kinds of nonprofits, learned more about what his clients on the financial side valued and thus was a more effective leader in both spheres. 

How do organizations benefit from leaders with multi-sector experience?

Having a diverse range of experience allows you to bring thinking and ideas from one sphere to another, applying nontraditional approaches to solving problems in each. And by having access to a broader pool of workers, you can help your organization recruit talented employees.

What are potential tradeoffs of building a cross-sector career?

There can be financial costs if you choose to forgo a high corporate salary to work in other sectors, such as nonprofits, and there can be time costs if you add to your experience by serving on a nonprofit or corporate board. Also, you won’t develop the same depth of knowledge about one particular industry or role, as someone who remains in that sector.

How do you build a cross-sector career?

Start early and explore. Great career outcomes don’t start at age 50; they begin at 25.

Also, begin to build networks in very different ecosystems. This will help you increase future career opportunities. Make sure you get involved with ideas and organizations you are passionate about. This is important due to the time cost.

You also need to look not just for new opportunities, but for unusual ones. Cross-sector executives tend to see something on the radar that is a little out of their comfort zone, that is a little different, or that takes some effort, as an opportunity, not a burden. That makes them better leaders.

For more fresh insights and ideas from Berkeley-Haas, see our faculty research news.  

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Topics: Evening & Weekend  |   Full-time  |   MBA for Execs  |   Career
Susan Petty
Susan is Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. She has nearly twenty years of experience in marketing and advertising, having worked in several different industries including technology, travel, healthcare -- and many others from her media planning days at J. Walter Thompson where her clients included Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Nestle, and Ford. She enjoys advising prospective students and guiding them through their personal MBA experience.