AN OPEN LETTER TO A
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A NOTE FROM ED O’MALLEY President and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center
Leadership is difficult, especially in civic life. That’s why the Kansas Leadership Center exists. We launched the KLC with intense listening to Kansans. They told us leadership is necessary to create stronger, healthier, more prosperous communities. That leadership, they said, must be more engaging, purposeful and provocative. We can’t settle for talk. We need action and results. The Kansas Leadership Center is committed to fostering that type of leadership in Kansas. Join us. Explore our program offerings. There is nothing like the Kansas Leadership Center in the nation. Onward!
ED O’MALLEY PRESIDENT AND CEO KANSAS LEADERSHIP CENTER
The following Open Letter to a Young Professional was created using data offered by young professionals from a presentation by KLC President and CEO Ed O’Malley at last year’s YP Summit. This piece was featured in The Journal, a quarterly magazine created by the Kansas Leadership Center to provide “inspiration for civic leadership in Kansas.”
Dear Young Professional,
As someone who is quickly aging out of your ranks, I am writing with a simple message: YOUNG PROFESSIONALS (YPs) NEED TO LEAD IN COMMUNITY LIFE NOW.
As a young aide to a governor, member of the legislature and now a CEO of a statewide organization, I have made plenty of mistakes, including some really big ones. I have had some success plus witnessed other generational peers succeeding also. That is why I know YPs can lead. I believe in it so much that YPs represent more than half the Kansas Leadership Center staff. We need YPs leading in communities and organizations across our state. At the recent YP Summit in Topeka and at another recent YP event in Hays, I was struck by the intellect, character and talent of YPs and found myself hopeful – for their futures, for our communities and for our state. With both audiences I explored the issues and concerns on their minds about their communities. We also explored the type of leadership needed from YPs to move the needle on those issues. YPs are concerned about big issues such as rising poverty, population decline in rural communities, job opportunities for new college graduates, funding for education, the quality of health care, affordable housing, strengthening families and a “bigger is better” mentality that permeates our thinking.
They talked of the established power structure in communities that is often caught in divisive, short-term politics, exasperated by egos and a “we have always done it this way” attitude. Civic officials mean well but lack the skills and understanding to engage the community and truly understand the challenges and solutions. YPs are quick to point out problems but find it hard to actually engage on big challenges like these. The discussions surfaced four barriers that get in the way of YPs leading on those tough civic issues. I am sharing them with you with the hope you’ll learn to overcome them.
FIRST, viewing current civic officials and others with significant authority in the community as the “leadership” or the “established power structure” is getting in the way of making more progress on the issues that concern YPs the most. Just because they are the power structure doesn’t mean others can’t exercise leadership. YPs need to develop the gumption to get involved, whether or not they are in the perceived “power structure.” SECOND, not having a clear direction for how to make progress on those daunting issues holds YPs back. The truth is that no one, whether young or old, knows exactly the direction or way to start on those issues. These challenges require exploration, experimentation and improvisation, three things that YPs tend to be more comfortable with than established professionals, which is all the more reason why we need YPs more involved. THIRD, the typical YP view of change is all wrong. People don’t fear change. They fear the loss they perceive will come along with change. Rather than reciting the “people don’t like change” mantra, YPs should spend energy trying to understand what people think they might lose because of a given change. FOURTH, establishing a career and raising a family can squeeze out time for working on community issues. As a husband and father of three, I understand this challenge. YPs need to find a way to engage more, care more and risk more on behalf of creating stronger communities. Think of it this way: 2.
TO CHANGE COMMUNITIES,
YPs MUST BE: X Passionate K X K Steadfast X Informed K X Collaborative K X Courageous K X Credible K X Action-oriented K
Engaging on a nonprofit board or city commission will take time from a young family but also will model civic engagement for children. Also, ask an employer for time to engage civically. Many will see that it’s in the company interest to have a higher community profile. In the long term, community engagement will benefit a YP’s family and career.
Our fellow YPs in Topeka and Hays articulated a type of leadership we need from you and other YPs. It’s the type of leadership that can overcome those four barriers and others, too. It is big, provocative and desperately needed in our communities. H E R E I S H OW THEY DESCRIBE D I T :
PASSIONATE - Get involved in the community not out of obligation but out of passion. Think through your life and experiences, your hopes and dreams for yourself and your community, and discover what brings you passion and how it intersects with your community’s needs. A passion for sports becomes improving athletic opportunities for youth. A passion for business becomes involvement with the economic development efforts underway. A passion for faith becomes helping your church make more of a difference in the community. STEADFAST - The things that concern you the most can’t be solved quickly. You must be steadfast in your commitment to exercising leadership on these challenges.
INFORMED - While YPs may have access to more information via comfort with social media and the internet, they aren’t always up to speed on the complexities of the issues facing your communities. You must do a better job developing knowledge of community issues.
COLLABORATIVE - Progress on the things that concern you the most can’t be solved alone. You must engage with other factions in the community, including the established power players. Seek first to learn their perspectives and needs before trying to mobilize them for change.
COURAGEOUS - Some confuse this with “fearless,” but courageous seems more appropriate. Courage is action in the presence of fear, not the absence of fear. Exercising civic leadership on the big challenges is risky. Don’t ignore that risk, but find ways to mitigate it and exercise leadership anyway. CREDIBLE - You must be credible with many if not all the relevant factions connected to the things that concern you the most. It’s possible to build credibility with the older generations. ACTION-ORIENTED - Leadership is not a position, but rather an activity. Specifically, leadership is the activity of mobilizing others to make progress on daunting challenges.
The Young Professionals of Wichita website proclaims: “YPs are ambitious, educated, and wired; those ready to work hard, play hard, and make a difference in their community.” That sounds right to me. And the “making a difference” part will take lots of leadership. The first step is deciding it’s your time. Our communities can’t wait, and neither should you.
ED O’MALLEY President and CEO Kansas Leadership Center
Tips for Building Credibility in Your Community as a
YOUNG PROFESSIONAL 1. FIND MENTORS
Cultivate mentors. Find older professionals you admire and ask them to breakfast. Learn about them. Ask about their past and about how they got were they are today. Ask for their advice. You’ll flatter them and learn a lot of wisdom, too. In the process, you may well develop a relationship with someone who might open doors for you.
2. GET CURIOUS Be curious. Ask about other people’s work, and ask their advice for yours. When you are bored in a meeting, get interested. It was socially acceptable to check out during boring college classes, but doing so in the real world makes you look like a college kid dragged to a business meeting with your parents.
3. READ NEWSPAPERS
YPs tell me they get their news from other sources, but then when there is a big local issue of civic concern, they are often clueless. Even with the diminishing quality, reading a local daily paper is a must. Paging (or clicking) through it, reading headlines and stories, is how you’ll know the news. (I understand this tip may be irrelevant in 10 years, but for now, it’s still important.)
4. VOTE OFTEN
It’s a civic responsibility. You want to be thought of as responsible and credible, right? Be an active voter. Vote in all elections, not just the big ones.
The Kansas Leadership Center equips people with the ability to make lasting change for the common good. KLC is unique in the field of leadership development with its focus on leadership being an activity, not a role or position. Open to anyone wanting to move the needle on tough challenges in the civic arena, KLC envisions more Kansans sharing responsibility for acting together in pursuit of the common good. The Kansas Leadership Center is committed to fostering civic leadership in Kansas. Our nearly 2,000 program alumni are representative of Kansas. They come from every level of government, non-profit community-oriented circles, faith-based groups, main street and the corporate board room.
The Kansas Leadership Center opened in 2007 with a multi-year, renewable grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, a private philanthropy dedicated to improving the health of all Kansans.
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