Leading change: Seven tips from two decades of civic and personal reinvention - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Leading change: Seven tips from two decades of civic and personal reinvention

Throughout MPC's 82-year tenure, the region has faced many fiscal, political and cultural challenges. Our job is to help Chicagoland face these challenges head on, and grow stronger in spite of and because of them.

As the middle child of five, growing up, I had lots of practice in negotiation. I recall sharing a room with my sister where the "center court line" meant the closet was on one side and the door on the other, so we literally bartered every time one of us needed access to the other side.

My upbringing also instilled a strong sense of fair play and a driving desire to make a difference in the world. These experiences drew me toward public service, first in the governmental sector, where a newly-elected Mayor of Chicago named Richard M. Daley took a chance on a then 25-year-old with a bit of public policy and legislative experience. Seven years in the Office of the Mayor gave me multiple crash courses on a broad range of issues and taught me to adapt my style to work with and appreciate all sorts of individuals.

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Twenty years ago, another group of Chicago visionaries took a chance on me. They comprised the search committee for the next president of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), a group with an impressive 60-year history that was looking to "up their game." They challenged a 31-year-old me to build on MPC's reputation for well-researched ideas and to reinvigorate our advocacy voice to transform metropolitan Chicago.

Chicago is a region that's constantly reinventing itself. MPC has been around for 82 years and seen a lot of that change. We’re planning right now for the next 82, so that the many challenges the region faces today can become future opportunities. In a city that's faced its share of crippling challenges, we here at MPC are confident that the Chicagoland of tomorrow can be bigger, better, brighter and happier than ever.

This is my two-decade anniversary year. That milestone prompts this tactical reflection, joined with the conviction that bold and coordinated local civic leadership is the only way to ensure Chicagoland's upward trajectory. We are at a high-stakes crossroads—struggling with persistent poverty, sluggish growth, unacceptable violence—yet sharing a commitment to inclusive growth. My hope is that every emerging leader, in the Chicago region and beyond, can adapt and use one of my top seven takeaways:

1/ Act on that curious voice inside.

Complacency is the enemy of innovation. I'm referring to curiosity both to try new things (count me in for seeing a new play that's snagged a good review or exploring a Chicago neighborhood's local arts scene) as well as to challenge myself (if I warm up, I can still do a one-handed cartwheel!). In the context of urban and regional challenges, that means reading a challenging range of viewpoints, reserving time to get to know leaders outside familiar sectors and recharging through travel and new experiences.

2/ Approach the powerful with a focused agenda.

My formative years in Chicago's Mayor's Office instilled a fearlessness about approaching people I didn't know, starting from an assumption that a succinct ask and a clear pathway forward could result in buy-in. Building trust through shared progress on a focused agenda, many of these folks have stuck with me through the years, from a governor to a cardinal to a CEO.

Examples include Lester Crown, Jesse Ruiz, John Gates, Kent Dauten and Ann Drake—all busy executives who have bowled me over with their willingness to strategize on convincing legislators to invest in our infrastructure or motivating governments to share staff and services. Chicago truly does function like a big small town, so I try to be a connector for others.

3/ Build coalitions among diverse people and groups.

As a corollary to the above point, we bring diverse leaders together, gathering "unusual suspects" across sectors and around a clear and compelling strategy, always mindful of the imperative for win-wins. I'm proud that the Metropolitan Planning Council is known as a place where anyone can attend an event and hear provocative ideas, a place that balances innovation and pragmatism.

Leaders like Dr. Byron Brazier, former Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner and Gloria Castillo have taught me that life is too short to be lived in an echo chamber filled with those who share a similar background and beliefs. Breakthroughs happen when you name the conflict and invite residents of disadvantaged communities, suburban mayors, real estate developers and environmentalists—along with many others—to broker solutions together across race and class barriers.

4/ Ask for help . . . and more help.

A motto with my two teenagers is "ask for what you need." It's a frequent reminder that none of us are mind readers. And that, happily, the human instinct is to help others. We are fortunate to have hundreds of active volunteers serving on MPC Boards and committees, leaders who are very busy with their professional and civic commitments, yet say yes again and again to deeper engagement. I'm reminded by the inspiring remarks of a Leadership Greater Chicago colleague, who when accepting an award earlier this year said, "The more I do, the more we achieve, the more I want to do." That's exactly what our city and region need at this fragile time.

5/ Take a stand, even if it's uncomfortable.

Boldness commands respect. Whether opposing my former boss Mayor Richard M. Daley's recommendation to relocate the Chicago Children's Museum to Millennium Park or highlighting the folly of former Governor Pat Quinn's expectation that private funds would cover the cost of an Illiana expressway, I've learned that any near-term discomfort yields long-term respect. It's nice to be liked. But it's better to be respected. Today, MPC is deploying data and relationships to tackle the economic costs of segregation to all of us and charting a bold vision for Chicago's 150 miles of riverfront.

6/ Share stories along with data.

Fellow Northwestern University alum Rob Biesenbach reminds us that visuals are six times more memorable than statistics. While I may be labeled a policy wonk (guilty!), I prefer to think of my job as a storyteller. Retaining a statistic can be fleeting, like the cost of flooding in our region. But I hope you might remember the story of Helen Lekavich, whose yard in south suburban Midlothian has flooded repeatedly over the past two decades, earning it the moniker “Lake Helen” and prompting her to start the group Floodlothian Midlothian. She'll benefit from the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, a group of governments and organizations paving the way for more coordinated stormwater management in Chicago’s Calumet region.

7/ Celebrate successes and deconstruct mistakes.

Our mantra at MPC is about personal responsibility in the workplace. It's been our North Star as we've made many internal changes over the past three years. As I've become more honest about my weaknesses (I am prone to move too quickly from "great job!" to "what's next?"), my staff has paid me the compliment of recognizing the rarity of a learning organization that understands we will all make mistakes—and doesn't freak out when we do. I have tried to reciprocate by becoming more timely and blunt in providing feedback.

My omnipresent state of mind is gratitude. I'm grateful to be part of a civic community so dedicated to questioning tactics and reinventing ourselves so we can reinvent a more equitable, sustainable and competitive region. I honor all those who have coached me by mentoring the next wave of change agents.

Change is wrenching; being a change agent can be draining. But there's nothing more rewarding than helping a family secure decent, affordable housing or knowing that a transit improvement opens up job opportunities for deserving workers. Together, we can all be a part of the plan to make this a city and a region that works for everyone.

Thank you to my family, friends and colleagues for joining me on this 20-year journey. Now let's go out and use these takeaways to help our city and region change our trajectory and unleash our potential.


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For more than 85 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has partnered with communities, businesses, and governments to unleash the greatness of the Chicago region. We believe that every neighborhood has promise, every community should be heard, and every person can thrive. To tackle the toughest urban planning and development challenges, we create collaborations that change perceptions, conversations—and the status quo. Read more about our work »

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