President’s Welcome: Cities tackle blight issues at the Community Progress Leadership Institute

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Tamar’s Welcome-Spring Newsletter

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Breaking Ground, our quarterly newsletter. To receive Breaking Ground in your inbox, please join our email list

In mid-March, more than sixty professionals descended on Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss solutions for blight and vacancy in their cities at the Community Progress Leadership Institute. All sixty were leaders in their fields: councilmembers, commissioners, attorneys, department heads, and nonprofit directors, and had taken the time out of their busy schedules to attend.

The three days included many meaningful exchanges, but Michael Braverman, Deputy Commissioner of Permits & Code Enforcement for Baltimore, catalyzed one of the most powerful moments of the institute.

“How did you do it?” was the question at hand. Just the day before, Braverman had shared Baltimore’s code enforcement story: his department has developed a model that has dramatically decreased blight and boosted responsiveness, without any corresponding increase in budget. It was the result of efficiency, sophistication, organizational culture – and leadership.

Now, Eric Martin of Cambridge Leadership Associates was interviewing Michael to dig a bit deeper into how these changes were achieved and what kind of leadership skills had been required.

One lesson I’ve learned in this field is that it doesn’t matter very much if a city has all the latest tools and technical knowhow, if it lacks strong leadership that can drive change even in the face of obstacles and skeptics. And this leadership can be exercised by people at all levels of government and outside of government, not simply by those at the top.

This is part of the reason why we brought these sixty leaders from eight different cities to our Community Progress Leadership Institute (CPLI) on the campus of Harvard Law School in March. CPLI is an intense leadership and technical training program that prepares city and civic leaders to return to their communities with both the tools and the leadership skills needed to have a positive impact on their communities by reducing blight and vacancy. Delegations from Wilmington, Delaware; Springfield, Massachusetts; Battle Creek, Michigan; Detroit, Michigan; Jackson, Mississippi; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Huntington, West Virginia; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin joined us at CPLI to learn from faculty and each other.

Community Progress Leadership Institute - Group PhotoCPLI’s technical sessions cover everything from land banking and code enforcement to tax foreclosure and neighborhood markets. Just as importantly, the entire program is tied together by leadership training sessions that give participants the chance to take a step back and think about how they can most effectively lead change and by a series of small group action meetings for each of the city delegations at which they begin to jointly develop next steps to take back at home.

As participants learned, and as Michael demonstrated, leadership isn’t about exercising authority. It’s about being willing to take risks and disrupt the status quo, regardless of title or position. In Baltimore, leaders both inside and outside of government demonstrated a willingness to adopt a new approach to vacancy – one which recognized the need to make tough, sometimes unpopular, strategic decisions driven by market data. As Michael Braverman explained, successful adoption of these changes required several key leadership skills, among them a willingness to demonstrate flexibility in the face of constant change and an ability to build trust and wide-spread support over time through improved responsiveness and positive results. The change in both organizational culture and strategic decision-making that resulted has had a transformative impact on operations and outcomes.

It’s challenging to find the space to think about what it takes to be an effective leader amid the stresses of daily work life. It is our hope that CPLI creates one such space, where partners and colleagues can contemplate and develop their important role as leaders.