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What I Learned in Boston

Random thoughts written on the plane ride back to Philadelphia after attending the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (October 5-8)

Over the past three days, I had the opportunity to participate in the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange (GPLEX) in Boston.  The GPLEX serves as an annual experience that allows Philadelphia leaders in business, government and non-profit to learn about economic development initiatives underway in other cities with the hope that we can bring back useful ideas to apply to the challenges facing the Greater Philadelphia Region.  This trip was an eye-opening experience for me, and I wanted to share some of the highlights.

First and foremost, I found that there are a lot of incredibly talented people in Philadelphia who are deeply committed to improving the prospects for our Region and its residents.  Our delegation was comprised of approximately 120 outstanding leaders who I believe have the capacity to successfully address the challenges facing Philadelphia – such as educating our children, promoting the growth of our businesses, addressing income equality and modernizing our decaying infrastructure.  I would put these folks up against the brain trusts of any other major metropolitan area in the country.

Second, while there are a number of striking similarities between Philadelphia and Boston, we are very different communities.  Our region is much larger and more diverse than Boston.  As a result, our problems are more complex and our stakeholders are more numerous.  That being said, our friends in Boston seem to have grasped the veracity of the statement of the Founding Father whom we both claim as our own, Ben Franklin:

“We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Over and over, the GPLEX delegation observed a collaborative approach to problem solving from our Boston hosts.  Whether it was promoting economy development in Chelsea or Dudley Square, or addressing the challenges of public education, or dealing with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, leaders were committed to working together.  If there is anything I have brought back from this trip, it is the fact that we here in Philly need to stop worrying about how big our slice of the pie is and just bake a bigger damn pie… together.

Jay Ash, the incredibly impressive and charismatic City Manager of Chelsea, said something to our delegation that really struck a chord.  He asked us to think about our most fundamental belief and how much we would be willing to move away from it in order to achieve a goal that significantly improves the prospects for our community.  Because, it’s that type of self-examination and, potentially, compromise that it takes to affect real change.  Without it, such change just isn’t possible given the number of stakeholders involved in big public or public/private initiatives.  A rigid adherence to ideology may satisfy our own constituencies, but it won’t allow us to tackle the daunting challenges of a broken public school system or a tax code that encourages businesses to flee our city rather than invest in it.  The most powerful tool that the GPLEX delegation brought back with us to Philadelphia is not a desire to replicate what Boston has done but rather how it did it.

If you get the likes of Renee Cardwell Hughes, Craig Carnoroli, Rob McNeill, Eva Gladstein and Tom Woodward in a room together and give them an unsolvable problem, I am confident they can do what initially appears to be impossible.  But, only if they truly look at it from the vantage point of what makes the most sense for the Region as a whole versus what may be in the best interests only of Bank of America or the American Red Cross or the University of Pennsylvania.  There are 120 energized, talented believers in the Philadelphia Region making their way back home at the moment.  Let’s make sure we put them to work.  After spending the past three days with them, I know they are up to the task. 

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