Thursday, February 20, 2014

We've Moved!

We've recently switched platforms and from this point forward will be blogging through our main website at Please head there to continue reading and/or subscribe to our new post feed.

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Our new blog includes the entire post history of this Blogger site, and will continue to feature new information about Leadership Austin's programming and the alumni, partners, and participants engaging in collaborative, inclusive, and sustainable leadership for our community. We hope you will join us!

Friday, February 7, 2014

February 2014 ENGAGE Recap

Guest post from 2013-14 ENGAGE Breakfast Series guest blogger Alicia Dietrich. Alicia is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. See the end of this post for the podcast from the breakfast.

As Austin prepares for a new era of single-member city council districts, Leadership Austin hosted the February 5 ENGAGE breakfast panel to explore "Countdown to 10-1: The Changing Face of Austin City Governance."

Austin voters approved a plan in 2010 to restructure the city council from eight at-large positions to 10 single-district members and a mayor elected at-large. The new structure takes effect this fall.

Panelists included former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco; Dr. Regina Lawrence, director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin; and Bill Spelman, current Austin City Council member and a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. The discussion was moderated by KXAN News Anchor Robert Hadlock.

Here are eight takeaways from the discussion:

1. New city council members are going to have a learning curve their first year as they learn how difficult it is to balance campaign promises made to their district constituents with city governance.

"When you run for public office, you make outrageous promises," said Delco. "You tell people, 'If you make sure that I'm elected to that council, your street will be paved, your lights will be on, when you call, I’ll come within 15 minutes.' So, when you go on to a council representing a specific district, then you feel compelled to look at that district rather than the big picture."

Spelman agreed: "The first time somebody runs for office, if they're a newbie and they haven't had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the building on a board or a commission or a task force, they don't know very much about city government. They think their job is to make promises, and they don't understand that you can't always keep those things."

2. Council members must learn to work together and cooperate.

Spelman grew up in Los Angeles and talked about his experience working with city council there in the 1970s. "The city council actually represented their districts, but most of them recognized that they had an obligation to the entire city, in part because some of the money that they needed in order to run for their rather large districts had to come from downtown and Westside. So they had to represent other parts of town or at least be aware of the problems in other parts of town."

Delco also talked about her experience working in the Legislature, and how she convinced conservative lawmakers to vote for early childhood education in exchange for her vote to allocate funds to help eradicate a cattle disease. "You get those tradeoffs where your issues aren't important enough for me to oppose, and then I'll trade that for something that's very important to me. I think that's a good thing. It gives you a bigger picture of an issue that's not important to you, but is important to someone else."

3. The new 10-1 structure is an opportunity to engage new voters who have felt left out of the process.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to get people talking about what does city government do, and why does it matter?" said Lawrence. "Now candidates have something to talk about that they didn't necessarily before. You have an opportunity now to talk about neighborhood and community and very specific concerns for specific areas of the city."

4. The new 10-1 structure isn't perfect, and some groups will still be under-represented on the council.

"Unless you have 25 districts, you're not going to represent the diversity of the population," said Delco. She also pointed out that many minorities are not concentrated in any single district, and that the new structure doesn't guarantee representation for those groups.

5. This is an opportunity to increase voter turnout.

"Levels of voter turnout have plummeted in Austin and in Travis County over the last several decades," said Lawrence. "This may not be an ideal opportunity, but it is an opportunity to try to begin to reverse that trend." Panelists also pointed out that moving the election date to November will very likely have a positive effect on turnout.

6. The new mayor will have to work to unite council members on citywide issues.

"I wouldn't want to be mayor if they paid me in gold coins tomorrow, because that's the person who's got to juggle all those commitments that people have made in order to get [elected]," said Delco.

7. Sign up to serve on a city board or commission.

"You guys—who need to be on boards and commissions—have not been telling us you want to be," said Spelman. "If you want to be on a board or commission, we can probably arrange that. But not enough people are interested, and as a result, we're going to have an increase in the number of people we have to appoint, and without increasing the number of people who are interested, we're going to have some trouble."

Said Delco, "One of the things I think the council has to do is—right off the bat—start educating these new council members who, again remember, ran for and were elected on their issues and not the issues of the city at large. One of your first jobs is going to be to explain to [your constituents] what all these boards and commissions do and how important it is for them to have representation on them."

8. Keep educating yourself about these issues.

Lawrence encouraged voters to attend the "Why bother? Austin City Government 101" informational session hosted by the Strauss Institute, KUT, and the League of Women Voters to answer questions and teach voters how to make their voice heard at City Hall. You can also continue the conversation and build skills for community collaboration at Leadership Austin's Skills Booster Shot on February 28.

Full Audio from the Event

Download this audio file (MP3)

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Message from New Leadership Austin CEO Christopher Kennedy

I am honored to have the opportunity to serve as Chief Executive Officer of Leadership Austin. For 35 years, we have been developing and connecting community leaders in our effort to build a better region. Now, as the fourth CEO, I am anxious to build upon the organization's accomplishments and to continue to focus on exploring critical community issues, developing leadership skills to address those issues, and fostering relationships that help facilitate positive, collaborative civic engagement.

I joined Leadership Austin in 1995, when it was still part of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. I was not accepted into the ESSENTIAL class until my third application, but it was well worth the wait. My Leadership Austin experiences continue to influence how and where I spend my time. In addition, it has been a privilege to serve three terms on the Leadership Austin Board of Directors in 1996, 2001 and 2009. As I assume hands-on management of the organization, I plan to draw upon my perspective as someone who was served by Leadership Austin and someone who helped set direction for Leadership Austin.

My central belief is that we all share a role and responsibility to help shape our community. For the last 32 years, I've been fortunate to call Austin home and to work with smart people on exciting projects that have made a positive impact on our region. I look forward to working with each of you to shape creative experiences through which Leadership Austin can continue to make Greater Austin the best possible place to lead and live.

For over 35 years Leadership Austin's shared belief in the civic health of Greater Austin has been reaffirmed in our core values of Community Trusteeship, Inclusiveness, Collaborative Decision-Making and Personal Responsibility. These values have been our firm foundation as we have grown from the single program in 1979 to the five programs today.

I will continue the Leadership Austin legacy of energizing one another to create the community we call home. Our home is growing, changing and expanding. It attracts some of the brightest minds, most ambitious entrepreneurs and most dedicated community-builders. The challenges are many, but the opportunities provided by this growth are unmatched in any city in the United States. I look forward to diving into my new role with incredible support from the Board, staff, alumni and our community. As we celebrate our 35th Anniversary year, we can look back with pride on what we have accomplished and know that the best is yet to be realized.

Christopher Kennedy
Chief Executive Officer
Leadership Austin

Thursday, January 23, 2014

EMERGE 2013 Session V Takeaways

Guest post from recent EMERGE 2013 graduate Jessica Sager, reflecting on the December 5 EMERGE program day on community engagement. Jessica is an account manager with the International Matrix Management Institute.

To effectively recap the power and magic of our 5th EMERGE classroom session, it's important to know that the seeds for Session V were sown back during Session III. It was during that class when, having learned about and identified our core energies (Maven/Relater/Evangelist), we were grouped into triads of the three energies and given an envelope. Within it, there was the name of a Leadership Austin alumni member who had generously contributed their time to meet with us. Our assignment: to meet with these leaders and learn how change takes place in the community, including insight on how the leader's own core energy, values and guiding principles influenced their effectiveness. We all knew what an opportunity this assignment and classroom represented—to be able to connect and network with some of the giants of the Austin community, spanning all aspects of the nonprofit, corporate and public sectors. We met with leaders like Cookie Ruiz (ESSENTIAL 1995), Kelly White (Honorary Alumni 2007), Kirk Watson (ESSENTIAL 1984) and many other passionate leaders connected with Leadership Austin who are a large part of what makes Austin so great.

During our 5th session, we reconvened to share the insights that we had gathered through our interviews. The classroom experience was amazing and rich, like getting a "daily dose of wisdom" on steroids. Each group shared highlights of the advice, wisdom and humor of the leaders they had interviewed, whom cumulatively have centuries of experience causing change, being the difference, and leading in the community. The resulting wisdom and anecdotes ranged from pithy advice, such as the words shared by Clarke Heidrick (ESSENTIAL 1982), "Be Humble, Be Merciful, Do Justice," to the good humored humility offered by Sam Planta (ESSENTIAL 1991), encouraging us to "Do a daily gut check," to self inquiry, such as Suzanna Caballero (ESSENTIAL 1993) asking "What do you want to be known for?" and Pastor Joe Parker’s (ESSENTIAL 1985) deep question on responding to the call to leadership, "Am I willing?" And, lest we were to get carried away by all the inspiring causes we are now aware of because of our time in this program, we can reflect on the wise words of Eugene Sepulveda (ESSENTIAL 1988): "There is an infinite number of good causes, but only a finite number of resources." A good reminder to choose our causes wisely.

As a quintessential Relater myself, I was in heaven; this was not only an opportunity to personally meet with outstanding members of the community, but it was also the classroom equivalent of having 18 deep and meaningful conversations about leadership and change with the Who's Who of the Austin community—getting to talk to the people who do things that matter, about what matters to them.

Beyond their generosity with sharing their time and stories, what I was most struck by—as I listened to my peers share stories from their interviews—was the incredible multidimensional and diverse energy of leadership in the Austin community. In previous classrooms, we had dialogued about what kind of energy was needed to be a leader. Must you be an Evangelist, and have the drive to get things done? Or perhaps being a Relater is key, as they are the connectors of the community. Or should you be more Maven, to be able to correctly address the problems? Through this assignment and the sharing in classroom, it was clearly evident that leadership is not about you having a particular kind of core energy. More so, it's about your willingness to bring your energy—in its totality—to the cause that calls you the most. To make a difference in the community you need to be able to integrate the energy of everyone; as Kerry Tate (ESSENTIAL 1995) shared with her group, "You have to collaborate… you cannot stay in silos."

Lastly, this session brought home in a new way what it means to be a part of Leadership Austin, and to soon take our place among these distinguished alumni as our program comes to an end. The words from one interview shared ring so true: "We are a part of something much bigger than ourselves."

For other highlights from this EMERGE session, check out my classmate Ethan Brisby's summary of quotes.

NOTE: The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni, faculty members, and guest bloggers are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Leadership Austin CEO Selected

A message from 2013-14 Leadership Austin Board Chair Brian Dolezal (ESSENTIAL 2001).

Dear Friends of Leadership Austin,

It is my pleasure to share some exciting news today: The Leadership Austin Board of Directors welcomes Christopher Kennedy as Leadership Austin’s new Chief Executive Officer effective February 3, 2014.

We are thrilled to have Christopher’s talent and skill leading Leadership Austin in this role. We are confident his business experience, vision and proven commitment to our community will enable Leadership Austin to strategically explore critical issues, build leadership skills to address those issues and foster relationships that help facilitate positive, collaborative change in Central Texas.

Christopher was selected following a comprehensive search that included a stakeholder survey, staff input, nearly 40 resumes of interest and 15 interviews. The Leadership Austin Board of Directors unanimously selected Christopher after a process led by the Leadership Austin Search Committee with our external recruiter Bacon Lee & Associates. Since June 2013, Christopher has served as Leadership Austin’s Interim CEO after serving as last year’s Board Chair.

An accomplished leader with more than 20 years of progressively responsible experience and successful results in executive positions, Christopher has a proven track record in developing and implementing strategic plans, and exceptional interpersonal and communication skills with the ability to forge successful working relationships with customers, employees, boards and community leaders.

Previously, Christopher served as Chief Administrative Officer for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and most recently has been busy as an equity partner in two start-ups with a philanthropic focus. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Communications from The University of Texas at Austin, and is a graduate of the Leadership Austin Essential Class of 1995. He served three different terms on the Leadership Austin Board of Directors in 1996, 2001 and 2009.

Please join me in welcoming Christopher to this new role!

Brian Dolezal
Chair, Leadership Austin Board of Directors

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

January 2014 ENGAGE Recap

Guest post from 2013-14 ENGAGE Breakfast Series guest blogger Alicia Dietrich. Alicia is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. See the end of this post for the podcast from the breakfast.

The January installment of Leadership Austin’s ENGAGE breakfast series explored the best ways for leaders to move Austin forward during this period of tremendous growth and change. Panelists Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe and University of Texas at Austin Professor Jeremi Suri sat down with moderator Shannon Wolfson of KXAN to discuss the challenges Austin faces as it grows, and what it will take for leaders to address those issues.

Suri outlined what he believes to be the three greatest leadership challenges facing Austin: the challenge of success and how to lead beyond that, diverse groups in Austin not living in integrated ways, and the uneven growth of the economy and lack of opportunities for upward mobility.

January 2014 ENGAGE breakfast at the Long Center

To address Austin’s greatest challenges, Biscoe advocated for better collaboration between the city, government agencies, nonprofits, and community leaders. He noted the improved state of mental health care in the city after local hospitals worked with the county jail to make sure that patients were getting appropriate treatment instead of jail time.

However, he said that while the city has high aspirations for cooperation, we often fall short on implementation.

"We've always done a good job of studying and putting together reports and plans," he said. It's the next step that’s key, though.

He explained that government tends to respond to issues and problems, and if you have a problem you want solved, you need to get it in front of the right person and work to build consensus.

"We respond, by and large, to specific issues that we try to fix," he said. "I don’t know if we as a county ever sit down and think, 'What kind of Travis County do we want?'"

He noted that building consensus and compromise are crucial: "If you have five persons responsible for a decision, you'll see that often what we approve wasn't what was brought to us. But you'll see what got consensus and what we had resources to back up."

KXAN's Kate Weidaw interviews
panelist Judge Sam Biscoe
Suri noted that it was important that people learn that compromise is necessary and that they shouldn’t feel shut out of the process if they don’t get everything they want. "When people come to believe it's a process where the decision of today isn't the last decision—if they only got 20 percent of what they wanted today, maybe tomorrow they'll get something more. When it's a process and you have credibility, that's what works."

Suri also discussed the importance of crossing lines in politics to get things done. "We need to talk to people who think differently and see things differently. We need to make a conscious effort to cross lines because you can't [create change] if you're only talking to people who already agree with you. You need to make a conscious effort to cross lines, and the beauty of Austin is that we have such an intellectual diversity here all around us."

As Austin moves toward a new City Council structure next year with single-member districts, both panelists stressed the importance of asking tough questions of potential leaders to make sure they can articulate a vision for the city’s future and how they will include everyone in that vision.

"As an elected official, your attitude should be 'I represent all county residents,'" said Biscoe. "From the neighborhood association level on up, inclusion should be part of everything we do. If we err, it should be that we included too many people."

Suri said, "We desperately need people in this city now who can continue to talk to groups who have been dominating dialog but are also able to bring other people in and connect them. Successful politicians are connectors. Second, I think it’s time we ask our politicians to say not just what they promise to do about a problem, but what they envision the city looking like. I think we do need a vision. I don’t mean a visionary in terms of pie in the sky, but an ability to articulate, to tell us a story about how you see our city with all these changes, institutionally and economically, growing in the next five to 10 years and how we can all be part of making that kind of city."

Both panelists also emphasized the importance of mentoring and incubating future leaders, through encouraging students to pursue public service and by implementing permanent succession strategies at the government level.

"We need to remind people at all age levels, but particularly young people, that public service is a noble calling," said Suri. "Leadership has to involve politics in your organization and in your city."

Full Audio from the Event

Download this audio file (MP3)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

December 2013 ESSENTIAL Class Day Takeaways

Guest post from ESSENTIAL Class of 2014 participant Leslie Wingo, reflecting on the December class day on Austin's diversity and inclusion. Leslie is a partner with Sanders\Wingo Advertising.

We define others and ourselves by how we see the world and how we see our place in it.  For as long as I can remember, I have always been "the only" one in the room. Often I feel as though I am the only female, the only African American or the only person who feels singled out. As I learned from our December ESSENTIAL class day, being the only one in the room is not a unique feeling. I learned that others seem to have the same feelings, and this shift in my perception is like jumping into Barton Springs on a hot Texas night—surprising and refreshing.

The day had a lot of great content and reflection. Some of the information was new and unexpected. And some of it was really hard to hear. In my mind, I have been the only one for so long, it was great to get a different perspective from others who where the only one in their demographic or culture.

We each seem to have our own boxes, which shape how we are perceived and how we see the world. Ms. Joyce James explained during our session that this begins at a very early age as we learn to socialize with others. Think back to the last time you filled out the required paperwork for the U.S. Census. The form asks very specific information about what box you see yourself and your household fitting into. Needless to say, I have spent a lifetime of having people (including myself), advertisers, and others putting me into some type of labeled box.

There are over 170 of these types of categories (culture codes), which shape our opinions and beliefs. Culture codes are not monolithic and cannot be applied or assumed to the only people in a particular group, economic background or zip code.

Perceptions and assumptions about groups of people can be changed; however, there are many challenges such as institutionalized thinking, lack of resources, and historical policies and procedures, which prevent change or make it difficult at best.

In order to make positive changes within our community, we need to have honest and difficult conversations regarding race, diversity and inclusion. Stepping out of our own comfort zones and taking the time to listen to others who are different. As the demographic makeup of Central Texas continues to change, diversity and inclusion must work together in creating a cultural competency.

The ESSENTIAL Class of 2014 is comprised of sixty amazing and diverse individuals, who want to continue to make Austin and Central Texas a great place for everyone to live, work and play.

I cannot wait to see what The Best Class Ever will do this year.

NOTE: The opinions of Leadership Austin alumni, faculty members, and guest bloggers are their own, and do not represent an official position of the organization.