Training the Tri-Sector Athlete

An interdisciplinary fellows program at UVA helps graduate students acquire the skills they will need to work across the business, government, and civil sectors.
Training the Tri-Sector Athlete

LAST YEAR, THE Business Roundtable, an association of American CEOs, highlighted the need for business to play a vital role in addressing social issues such as education inequities, income inequality, food security, and climate change. On its website, the organization further communicates its support for policies that would increase the national minimum wage, improve access to education, update infrastructure, and reform immigration laws.

But none of these objectives can be achieved by business alone. Such complex social challenges can be addressed only through cooperation among the business, government, and civil sectors. But these sectors are driven by different incentives, cultures, and languages, which can impede trust and collaboration. That means that we must prepare MBAs to overcome these differences and promote cross-sector collaboration.

In short, we must train MBA students to be “tri-sector athletes.”

This term—coined by Joseph Nye, former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School—refers to individuals able to cross and connect private, public, and social sectors with ease. In their September 2013 article “Triple-Strength Leadership,” published in the Harvard Business Review, Nick Lovegrove of the Brunswick Group and Matthew Thomas of McKinsey outline six common attributes of tri-sector athletes. They are able to balance competing motives, build integrated networks of contacts, and develop skills that transfer to different environments. They also possess “contextual intelligence” that allows them to understand each sector’s language and culture, “intellectual threads” of expertise that are applicable across sectors, and “prepared minds” that allow them to say “yes” to new opportunities, even at a moment’s notice.

Championed by a group of MBA students and faculty who believed in the importance of these leaders to society, the Institute for Business in Society (IBiS) at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville created the Tri-Sector Leadership (TSL) Fellows program. Launched in the fall of 2014, this extracurricular program brings together graduate students from UVA’s Darden School of Business, School of Law, and Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy to meet with executives and discuss sector-specific challenges.


Each spring, we hold a reception to inform prospective candidates of the program. During the summer, a program director at IBiS communicates with interested students and collects résumés and essays from applicants; faculty leaders at each school then choose which of their students to accept to the program. We limit each year’s cohort to eight fellows per school to ensure that participants will be able to engage in intimate discussions.

Throughout the fall semester, our 24 TSL Fellows meet approximately once each week for a three-hour session; past cohorts also have enjoyed an off-campus overnight experience in Washington, D.C. During these sessions, visiting executives from business, government, and social sectors speak with the group about challenges of their work. Our faceto- face meetings are held in classrooms with roundtable seating to encourage interactive discussions.

Executive participation is a crucial component of the TSL Fellows program. We seek out executives who are willing to be open and honest about their struggles. Our fellows say they find this level of honesty one of the most meaningful aspects of the program. “The best TSL speakers let us ‘get into their heads’ and encouraged us to second-guess their own decisions,” said one fellow. Another noted that “the candor of our speakers [gave us] a look into what leaders consider in their decision making, how they develop themselves and those around them.”

Our TSL Fellows tell us that these conversations help them appreciate the importance of fostering collaborative cultures, where people feel free to share opinions and information across sectors. Only then can leaders have access to the timely and accurate information they need to make good decisions. Plus, students learn that, while leadership can look very different in different environments, all tri-sector leaders must have the “societal emotional intelligence” to recognize that their decisions will affect a wide array of stakeholders. The TSL program now encourages such interactions beyond graduation by hosting an alumni event for graduates from all three schools.

Early on, we began holding casual receptions after each session so that the fellows could engage with each other in small groups. Over time, these receptions evolved into “learning teams,” in which participants continue their session discussions in small groups over dinner. Our fellows appreciate building relationships with peers in other disciplines as much as engaging with the executives. Both types of interactions widen their perspectives beyond their disciplines, while generating collaborative discussions and problem-solving. Said one fellow, “So much of what I gained from participating in the program came in small conversations and seemingly minor interactions, rather than in big, distinct lightbulb moments.”

We invite professors with experience with nonprofits, government, public-private partnerships, social entrepreneurship, and other relevant areas to volunteer as faculty leaders—work that qualifies as service to the university. These faculty members provide expertise in topic areas, curriculum development, and teaching, as well as champion the program to their schools and the wider community.


So that we attract the most interested students, not just those interested in earning credit, we have chosen to keep the TSL Fellows program extracurricular. The program’s design also allows us to minimize administrative and budgetary hurdles and be respectful of faculty’s many demands.

Another benefit of the program is that it increases interactions among the three schools. For example, the Batten School’s Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming created the Situation Room Experience, in which the fellows assume the roles of journalists, White House staff, and members of the intelligence community during an international crisis. The simulation is so popular that the program added another simulation addressing refugee migration for 2019.

A significant unexpected benefit is the opportunity it gives us to engage with UVA alumni—especially those who have followed nontraditional career paths. So far, more than 40 leaders have spoken to our TSL Fellows. They include alumni of Darden’s MBA program like Margaret Graves, who is now the Federal Deputy Chief Information Officer of the United States; Carolyn Miles, now president and CEO of the nonprofit Save the Children; and Justin Jones, former speechwriter for U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. Students also have heard from leaders such as Luis Fortuño, former governor of Puerto Rico and a graduate of UVA’s School of Law.

We recognize that the world increasingly needs more tri-sector athletes who can work and communicate with people outside their expertise and view complex problems through a multidisciplinary lens. Schools of business, law, and public policy each have unique assets to help develop such leaders—but, like the students in their programs, they can generate greater value for students and employers by co-creating programs than they can generate on their own.

Mary Margaret Frank is the academic director of the Institute for Business in Society at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in Charlottesville. Maggie Morse is the associate director of programs of the Institute for Business in Society.