Grad Students Learn From Experts, and Each Other, in Leadership Program

So-called “tri-sector” leaders, much like triathletes, are highly skilled in several areas, can pivot and nimbly navigate a complex environment, and – because of their versatility – will deliver unique impact to the organizations they lead. 

With this in mind, University of Virginia students and faculty last September formed the Tri-Sector Leadership Fellows program, an innovative effort that brings together students and professors from three fields of graduate study – law, business and public policy – to learn about each sector and gain a competitive advantage and a more expansive network as they enter the workplace after graduation.

Annie Medaglia, a second-year MBA student and president of the Business & Public Policy Club at U.Va.’s Darden School of Business, was instrumental in creating the new program. She brought a unique perspective from her own cross-sector education at U.Va., as a 2009 graduate of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy master’s program and a 2008 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences.

“Twenty-first-century business and policymaking require individuals who not only can effectively interact and communicate across functions, but also bring diverse toolkits to solving problems,” Medaglia said. “The [Tri-Sector Leaders] program allows the next generation of legal, business and policy scholars to build those networks and skills now, enabling them to be on the forefront of change in the workplace.” 

Administered by Darden’s Institute for Business in Society, the program is facilitated by professors Marc Ferzan of the Batten School, Mary Margaret Frank of the Darden School and Julia Mahoney of the School of Law. The inaugural cohort of 24 students participated in a series of nine program sessions that spanned two semesters and included high-ranking business, government and nonprofit leaders as guest speakers.

The student fellows examined relevant public, private and social sector issues that touched upon a host of economic, political, legal and other considerations, from natural disasters and financial crises to diplomatic sanctions and beyond. Throughout the year, the sessions met at all three schools and also traveled to Washington, D.C., allowing the students opportunities to interact with leaders such as Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern, former SEC Commissioner Troy Parades, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine Carlos Pascual, as well as U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan, among others.

While hearing firsthand about the experiences of these leaders and how they handled specific challenges that spanned sectors, the students also gained exposure to different leadership styles.

“I liked having the opportunity to interact with speakers from a variety of different perspectives,” said second-year Darden student Sarah Armstrong, who particularly noted the enlightening and valuable leadership lessons during the session with McGovern of the Red Cross.

In addition to gaining insights from practicing experts and University faculty, the fellows also learned from each other.

“I really enjoyed watching the reaction that other students would have to the speakers’ presentations and ‘seeing the lightbulbs go off,’” Armstrong said. “Seeing how they approached the different situations we discussed was eye-opening.”

For Armstrong, this started during the very first session. “I was surprised by the very different places we all started at.”

The students’ motivations for joining the program were as varied as their backgrounds and future interests. Throughout the course of the fellowship, however, many of the students began to recognize more similarities than differences across their various academic areas and prospective fields of work.

Courtney Warren, a second-year student in the Batten School’s Master of Public Policy program, observed, “In talking with a friend who attends the Darden School, I realized that we had a lot more in common than I had previously thought.”

Warren said the Tri-Sector Leaders program could help future leaders entering any of the areas. “A lot of times we put ourselves in a bubble in our academic and professional environments,” she said. “But a lot of issues that we face today are not in one discipline.”

Before becoming a student at the Batten School, Warren volunteered for the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. After graduation, she plans to work in juvenile justice and education policy.

Describing the impact that the Tri-Sector Leaders program has had upon her, Warren said, “It’s changed the way I analyze situations now and it’s broadened my understanding of how other sectors look at things.”

Third-year law student Andrew Lanius said the program was attractive because he is a “businessman at heart, but I have an interest in law and policy. TSL was an opportunity to bring all of those areas together.”

Prior to law school, Lanius worked in business at an international accounting firm, and since becoming a law student, has volunteered for several political campaigns. After graduation, he will clerk for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and hopes to work on a presidential campaign in the next election before settling into a legal practice.

“A tri-sector leader needs the ability to see the big picture and get things done,” Lanius said. “In addition to gaining insights about the inner workings of each sector, I learned that it is important to ‘know what you don’t know’ and to find out who else might know that to help you achieve your goals. And that knowledge might come from outside your sector.”

Armstrong worked for U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey and served various other roles within the government and policy spheres prior to attending to Darden. She noted that she “didn’t realize how valuable that background would be” as she obtained her MBA and pursued a career in business. After receiving her MBA, Armstrong will work within the banking industry.

According to Armstrong, “Being a tri-sector leader makes you stronger from a strategy perspective. It helps you understand what various scenarios may come forward and how you can pivot and react to them. You can’t just plan for what you know; you have to plan for what you don’t know.”

Warren added, “I came to realize how innovative this program is in helping students evaluate effective leadership approaches, especially as the challenges confronting society are becoming ever more complex. I will carry what I learned with me throughout my career.”

A competitive application process in each school recently filled the 2015-16 cohort. The next application period will open in spring 2016, with students applying online through their respective schools. Currently, only eight students per school are accepted into the program each year.

Media Contact

Laura Hennessey Martens

Senior Associate, Research and Programs Darden School of Business