Five Competencies Needed for Tri-Sector Athletes in Education

Since coining the term "Tri-Sector Athletes in Education", I have received requests to "make plain" the skills and competencies needed to make the transformation in education. Tri-sector Athletes in Education are leaders who are able to leverage multiple sector partnerships to make significant change in educational institutions, communities and the lives of young people. So I tend to switch between the term "athlete" and "leader" since I see them as the same.

Now, in the past I tended to avoid reducing leadership qualities to a "Top #" list, fearing that it will come across as too glib or anti-intellectual. But that was my own insecurity, my own concern that I would not be taken seriously in the academy I ultimately wanted to transform. As I learned over these years, if you can't reduce complex ideas into simple language, you run the risk of losing the very audience you hope to influence.

I argue that in education, context and mission are everything to leadership, that environments bring out leadership qualities in students, teachers, professors, community activists, executive directors of social enterprise organizations and college presidents, to name a few. It is only in the opportunity to lead do we really know what we are made of as leaders. The challenges we face pull on both latent as well as recognized skills.

Over the years, in the work of tri-sector leadership in education, five (5) competencies stand out: 1) Leading by Influence, 2) Patience, 3) Cultural Competency, 4) Vision and Strategy and 5) Working With and Through Others

  1. Leading by Influence: Leading by influence is the ability to compel others to act by modeling leadership that is aspirational, inspirational and appeals to an individual's desire to see and effect change. It's leading by example with a catalytic function. For example, I have witnessed an executive director at a large, national non-profit organization engaged in multi-sector partnerships dedicate time and resources to develop clear career pathways for her frontline staff (front line or entry level positions in youth serving organizations tend to be rife with burnout and turnover because of under-investment and are disproportionately held by young professionals of color) and inspire other executive directors in other organizations in the network to do the same. There was no mandate or grant to do this, simply the desire and ethical action of one passionate executive director who became a catalyst for others. The result had a cascading effect where partner organizations began to mutually see the importance of developing front-line staff and eventually saw less turnover and greater outcomes for young people.

  • Patience: Tri-sector leadership in education requires the discipline of patience. I stress patience as a discipline and not a virtue. Most partnerships with multiple sectors require a longer time horizons and experience cycles of challenges and triumph. Leaders must not only develop patience, but also educate others to what are realistic priorities and goals with long-term collaborations. Funders want results, of course, given the terms of investment. However, leaders have the power to set the pace and benchmarks for their organization. Setting realistic goals of what is achievable is about having a clear time frame for what is possible, and leaders can set the tone.
  • Cultural Competency: Understanding the culture and historical context of the communities and people you are serving is vitally important to tri-sector leadership. I have witnessed time and again leaders engage mostly poor and working class communities of color with assumptions about what is "good" for the community or with tremendous hubris about what money can do. These relationships tend to not end well. A tri-sector leader in education needs to understand the cultural context, language, racial/ethnic history and value proposition of the communities s/he wishes to engage, and dedicate time to relationship building to sustain that engagement. As whites shift into the minority and communities of color become the majority across the United States in the next decade, leading with cultural competency is an imperative.
  • Vision and Strategy: Developing a vision and strategy for tri-sector work is essential. Leaders from multiple sectors engaged in a collective impact initiative, for instance, tend to develop a shared vision. However, it is equally important for a leader to create and articulate a vision and strategy that will educate and serve as a guide for the work of others. I always require leaders on my teams to develop a vision and strategy document (usually in the form of a PowerPoint deck) for their respective department or role. This becomes a compass for our collective work and a reference point if we encounter competing priorities, which often occurs in tri-sector partnerships.
  • Working With and Through Others: Tri-sector leaders in education must work with and through others. This notion moves beyond just simple management into deep collaboration with teams and organizations, and is premised on the idea that expertise is not concentrated in one person or one organization. Many of the tri-sector leaders in education who are engaged in collective impact work share that they spend most of their time identifying and leveraging the network and skills within the organizations with which they collaborate.
  • The work of Tri-Sector Athletes (Leaders) in Education requires that we pull on the 5 competencies above. Each is attainable and each can make a difference in the lives of others.