By Susanna Kislenko

To foster effective, holistic leadership, we must break down the silos between the for-profit, non-profit and public sectors

Over a decade ago, I sat in my business school accounting class learning about the latest profit-counting technique. As I had already developed an interest in, and had some experience within, the non-profit sector, I asked the innocent question of how this particular technique would work if we were to apply it within a non-profit organization, or a charity.

The answer I received from the professor was something along the lines of “Oh, you will never have to worry about that,” followed by a light round of giggles from the audience in the class. I felt both foolish and as if I was on the stage of the wrong play. At the time, the stab felt personal and invalidating, and now I know that these same kinds of door closings are happening in classrooms in business schools all over Canada. In many ways, statements like this close the doors of opportunity.

What does it do to students of various levels (secondary or post-secondary) if we send the message that the strategies that are taught in their classes can only be applied within one context? What does it say that we preach that the particular box/silo of the discipline which we choose to focus on in our respective education stream is the only one we can remain within throughout our careers?

Though we have come a long way from the time when people committed to one company for 30+ years and never looked in any other direction, the idea of individuals moving across the non-profit, for-profit and government spheres during their career trajectories is still fairly taboo. For some reason, there is fear around business principles being brought into either the public or non-profit sphere and, by the same token, fear within the private sector of “warm and fuzzy” ideals being parachuted in by “non-profit types.”

This kind of framework simplifies the complexities of the respective contexts of each sphere where, on a daily basis, leaders are challenged in balancing competing interests, and therefore needing the skill set that is gained by exercising “muscles” from different sectors. Like with any muscle, the more we work it, the stronger it gets.

This concept was recently explored by Matthew Thomas and Nick Lovegrove in a Harvard Business Review article. The idea presented within the piece is that to survive and thrive in the current world system, one that is truly borderless, we need to train our leaders differently. We need to think beyond borders and silos and open our training systems up to a focus on transferrable skills rather than sector-specific ideals. On expanding networks and communication styles. On seeing possibilities rather than obstacles.

What if we all did this? Imagine if we taught certain concepts and then, right along with it, showed examples of how to use them within different contexts. What if this was the norm instead of the exception?

There is an underlying prevalence of thought that each silo and the formal first level education within it, as well as the future executive training categories, all have to stay within their initial respective boxes. What I mean by this is that there are often leadership development programs for specific groups, such a government leaders or non-profit leaders, but ultimately the fundamental leadership principles we come back to are those that have been tried and tested within the single-bottom line model of a traditional for-profit enterprise.

Though it is true that business principles can be brought across “borders,” in many ways, when it comes to leadership as a whole, I am not as convinced. What I have experienced and witnessed is that the three respective sectors have very specific guiding principles and motivations. Within business, everything comes down to the bottom line (single, not plural) and maximizing profit for shareholders. In non-profit settings, it is all about serving the community and maximizing social impact for the specified beneficiary group. Within government, the focus is on serving the public benefit. If we step back and look at these motives objectively, they are polar opposites and thus impact the way that leaders in these respective fields function on a daily basis.

One interesting place where some of this is happening organically is among what are known as hybrid organizations (a term which has, in recent years, been used interchangeably with the word “social enterprise”):

“Whereas profit-seeking organizations such as corporations follow a commercial logic and together constitute a commercial sector, organizations that pursue a social mission such as non-profits follow social welfare logic and together constitute a social sector. Hybrid organizations combine aspects of both, and therefore exist between institutionally-legitimate categories of organizations.” 1

As interest in hybrid enterprises continues to grow, the nature of the leadership that supports such organizations must be prepared for the competing motives that co-exist within such organizations. The seemingly divergent motives impact daily decisions in a way that can either cause tension or, if treated with care, create a diverse and rich learning environment.

Since that fateful moment in the accounting class, I have spent the last 12 years working within the non-profit sector to prove that all the same business principles that are taught in business schools across Canada apply to organizations of all sorts, including charities and government bodies. As of today, I can confirm that they do.

My only outstanding question is around leadership itself.

In the years to come, my aim is to dig into this further and support collaborations across sectors of all sorts by supporting the leaders themselves.

If positive societal change happens at the crossroads of non-profit, for-profit and government, as I believe it does, then we need to find ways to support current and future leaders within these spheres and to ensure that each stays open to the other.

Keeping the doors closed is no longer an option.

1 Lee, Matthew, and Julie Battilana. “How the Zebra Got Its Stripes: Imprinting of Individuals and Hybrid Social Ventures.” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-005, July 2013, p.2.


After 12 years in the non-profit sphere in Canada, Susanna Kislenko is now focused on the crossroads of the non-profit, for-profit and government sectors across the world. With degrees in both international business and politics, Susanna is convinced that the answer to our greatest societal challenges lie in supporting leaders to travel easily across the three spheres. Susanna resides in Barcelona, Spain and works between Europe and North America.