Beantown Meets Brotherly Love: Lessons from the 2014 Leadership Exchange

Executive Director Steve Wray offers reflections and insights from the 2014 Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange in Boston, MA. 


It’s been a few weeks since we returned from Boston after an eventful four days at the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. This year marked the eighth iteration of the Exchange, an Economy League initiative that now claims well over 500 alumni who are leading organizations and institutions across the Greater Philadelphia region. With more than 110 business and civic leaders in attendance, the 2014 Exchange featured its largest and most diverse group to date. While we are all still digesting much of what we saw in Boston, I’d like to offer some of my initial reflections on the experience and what we can take back to our region.


Boston and Philadelphia share a number of important similarities – both regions are steeped in history; both are strategically located along the Northeastern seaboard; both are burdened by aging infrastructure systems and growing income inequality; and both share similar core economic assets, including strong education and medical anchor institutions. Yet perhaps one of the most striking characteristics about Boston has been its ability to reinvent itself, to craft an innovation ecosystem that adapts with seeming ease and foresight to the fluctuations of the knowledge economy. To some extent, Boston’s success is a product of an indefinable alchemy – the region is more than a sum of its parts. Yet during our discussions with leaders in Boston’s public, private and civic sectors, certain central themes – what I’ll call “the key ingredients to reinvention” – emerged.


In metropolitan development, trust is an invaluable commodity


Keynote speaker Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, challenged us to rethink how our institutions operate and interact. Dr. Edmondson explained that, in a rush to implement teaming strategies, too often organizations and institutions try to cut corners, failing to lay the crucial groundwork of building trust and fostering the psychological safety of employees. Dr. Edmondson encouraged us to create institutional cultures that reward constructive feedback, embrace “execution as learning,” and exist by dynamic teaming. Her clarion call to “aim high, team up, fail well, and learn fast” set the tone for this year’s Exchange.


One Fund Boston, the nonprofit set up to support victims of the 2013 marathon bombings, is a prime example of this approach. Recognizing the need for a single charitable fund from which to collect donations for bombing victims, Mayor Thomas Menino and his staff, with the support of Governor Deval Patrick, established the One Fund less than 24 hours after the attack. Their resources were rudimentary – a spreadsheet to track donations and a P.O. Box to collect them – but according to former Menino Chief of Staff Mitch Weiss, the simplicity of the operation enabled the team to be agile and responsive during an unpredictable and fast-changing time.


What they lacked in technological sophistication, they more than made up for in enormous public trust – a precious resource accumulated over the course of Mayor Menino’s 20-year tenure. With its mission now complete – over $80 million dispersed directly to victims and their families – the One Fund will voluntarily cease operations at the end of 2014, an extremely rare move for most charitable organizations.


Sustained leadership is important to staying on track


A common theme throughout the course of our trip was the value of sustained leadership, with repeated reference to the two-decade tenure of Mayor Menino. However, we also learned that Boston relies on a variety of forms of leadership, and in the absence of sustained political control (which can bring its own set of challenges), there is tremendous value in long-termcivic and institutional vision.


The Boston Foundation, for instance, has made a lasting investment in the Greater Boston region and has helped to move the needle on education, public safety, cultural vitality and affordable housing issues. The Foundation has embraced its role as a civic catalyst, by actively engaging with partners in the private, nonprofit and public sectors. At the end of this year’s Leadership Exchange we heard from the Foundation’s president, Paul S. Grogan, who contended that leaders have a moral imperative to take action when they know what needs to be done. “It’s one thing not to know what to do,” said Mr. Grogan. “It’s another to know and not to act.”


In addition to sustained leadership, Boston is also recognizing the need for diversity in its governance structures. During much of the 20th century, Boston had a highly influential leadership club made up of a small group of white businessmen called “The Vault” – named literally after the underground safe in the downtown bank where they met. Since the group disbanded almost two decades ago, a new crop of younger, more diverse leaders have been making their voices heard in the region’s government, civic and entrepreneurial sectors.


Regional reinvention is a team sport


While the value of a clear and singular vision cannot be understated, it’s collaboration that gets things done. However, true collaboration comes at a price: progress takes time and all parties must be willing to compromise, even when this means relinquishing deeply held beliefs and ideologies. Yet the fruits of successful collaboration are unmistakable in Chelsea (a small Gateway City just outside of Boston) and Dudley  (a Boston neighborhood at the intersection of Roxbury and Dorchester) where organizations such as RocaThe Neighborhood Developers, and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) are helping to transform Greater Boston’s historically underserved communities.


Through communication and partnership, the leaders in these communities are helping to strengthen housing markets and expand affordable housing; increase resident prosperity through asset management support; reduce crime, poverty, and blight; and build a civic infrastructure. What is notable about the approach taken in Chelsea and Dudley – and what distinguishes it from many economic development strategies – is its focus on and empowerment of the local community. The goal of these efforts, as articulated by DSNI, is to help each “community […] successfully achieve social and economic goals while maintaining control over its destiny.”


Boston’s remarkable reinvention has largely been driven by the explosive growth of its innovation economy, led by its life science, biotech and high-tech sectors. The good news for Philadelphia is that many of these pieces are already in place in our region, including an impressive contingent of “eds and meds” institutions; a growing innovation and entrepreneurship hub in University City; and a strong, diverse network of civic and business leaders. Our challenge moving forward will be to magnify the scale, scope and impact of these assets.


However, the unintended consequences of Boston’s economic success also provide a cautionary lesson for our region; that is, with rapid expansion also comes the associated threats of exclusive growth, lack of diverse leadership, and an unchecked rise in the cost of living. Greater Philadelphia must guard against these hazards as our own economy grows and expands. As I reflect on the intellect and passion of the leaders in our region, I firmly believe they are well positioned to make Greater Philadelphia a world class region that values both economic growth and opportunity for all residents.