A little more than sixteen years ago, the cover of Madison Magazine featured a group of Madison leaders including the mayor, fire chief, Dane County executive and district attorney, presidents of Madison Area Technical College and the University of Wisconsin System and others in positions of prominence. All were women. Every one. It was a vivid and powerful image of a historic, cultural change.
Here we go again. Madison leadership is going through a transformation as significant as the gender-dominated change of the late ’90s, only this one is far more diverse and reaches deeper into the civic structure. The image on this month’s cover is equally powerful and meaningful. The new face of leadership in Madison is younger, more colorful and more diverse by a much broader definition of diversity. Its impact on our community is already being felt in very important ways, and yet there is a clear sense of having just scratched the surface of what is possible. Make that what is probable. Change is here. More change is coming.
New leaders are emerging throughout Madison’s business, nonprofit, education and government sectors. While many positions of power, including police and fire chiefs, the head of the Urban League, county executive and, of course, Madison mayor, are held by, shall we say, more seasoned professionals, those same institutions also include young folks with important jobs, and many of them have relationships with the New City Leadership we’ve identified here.
The problem with starting such a list is ending it. It necessarily includes people for the positions they hold and/or the institutions they represent. Everett Mitchell, who recently announced his candidacy for a Dane County Circuit Court seat, is a community leader in a growing number of ways, but as director of community relations is also an important representative of new leadership at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Likewise, Amy Gannon at Edgewood College, Sandy Morales at Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kevin Little at the Chamber of Commerce and Brennan Nardi at the Madison Community Foundation all combine personal and institutional leadership roles. Madison East principal Michael Hernandez is an example of the dynamic young talent superintendent Jennifer Cheatham is putting in leadership positions within the Madison Metropolitan School District even as Cheatham herself assumes a major leadership role with her vision for our schools and our community. Brandi Grayson is a new Madison leader who really emerged in the past year, giving a powerful voice to a new generation through her work with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition. Others straddle the admittedly arbitrary dividing line of age and title and are already respected civic leaders, like Michael Johnson at the Boys & Girls Club, Henry Sanders at Madison365 and Annette Miller at MGE.
The eleven people featured in this story are therefore examples of a wider new leadership paradigm as much as they are singular leaders. However, collectively they represent something much greater. Put them in a room together and one realizes Madison has changed, profoundly and permanently. Perhaps a half a century of civic leadership has turned over, names that are or will be on buildings, schools and walls of honor. They have been succeeded by a new generation of leaders with new ideas, new values and new ways of leading. And the sheer breadth of this group is quite amazing.
Think about it: Madison schools, the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, Centro Hispano, the Madison Community Foundation, the Madison Common Council—some of Madison’s most important, influential and powerful institutions, all with new leaders. All are keenly aware of the issues we face together and they bring a fresh perspective and approach to those issues. All are fluent in cultural diversity, social justice, equity in opportunity, achievement and reward. All share a comfort with disruption, risk and change.
No one’s work depends on the makeup of civic leadership more than the head of the Chamber of Commerce, arguably the most important salesman in the city. Zach Brandon, just forty-two years old yet already three years into his tenure as president of the region’s most important business group, is mindful of the scope of the change. “It’s interesting to watch,” says Brandon, “because many cities, when a changing of the leadership guard occurs, they’ll go from [age] sixty-five to fifty or fifty-five. It’s generally an incremental change. It’s not a generational shift. It generally takes two of those changes and you really never get [to where we are now] because the people coming into these leadership positions are almost always in their fifties. So what’s exciting about what has occurred here in the last three or four years is we’ve jumped from incremental to fully disruptive. People who you would not have expected to get these jobs are getting these jobs. People who think a little bit differently and challenge the norm and the status quo, which is what the city needs.”
Madison Community Foundation president Bob Sorge is the oldest at forty-eight. Twenty-nine-year-old StartingBlock executive director Scott Resnick is the youngest. Madison alder Maurice Cheeks is thirty-one, United Way of Dane County president and CEO Renee Moe is thirty-nine. Centro Hispano executive director Karen Menéndez Coller is forty, Urban League of Greater Madison board of directors chair Nia Enemuoh-Trammell is forty-three, Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham is forty-four, as is University Research Park managing director Aaron Olver. Alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff is forty-six and YWCA Madison CEO Rachel Krinsky is forty-seven. Not a Baby Boomer in the bunch.
The New Face of Madison Leadership is a generational blend of Gen Xers and Millennials. We need to understand that. In 2016—this year—Millennials, people born after 1980, will become the largest American generation. The significance of that looms large for Maurice Cheeks.
“In 2016, Millennials, immigrants, single women and minorities are considered the rising American electorate. So in 2016, this rising American electorate will be the majority of the voting age population in November. In 2020, Millennials alone will be the largest voting population in America.”
Cheeks defines Millennials as accustomed to a world of embracing diversity. “We grew up in a world that was rapidly changing. I think we’re particularly nimble and for as much as the Millennial generation gets a rap about being anti-establishment—which is not untrue—Millennials volunteer and participate in community service at a higher rate than any other generation. So they’re looking to serve. They’re looking to make our community better.”
Brandon doesn’t disagree. Rather, he views his generation, Gen X, as “the bridge generation.” “We’re the generation that can get Millennials to understand the power and value of foundations and institutions and enterprises of scale,” he says. “And we can hopefully get Boomers to understand inclusion.”
The bridge is built on a foundation made up of values that every one of these new leaders expresses in one form or another sincerely, comfortably, seemingly effortlessly. Diversity, risk, collaboration created with a comfort in disagreeing and a deliberate checking of egos at the door.
Cheatham said when she came to Madison she didn’t know “exactly what it was going to mean to be a leader among leaders in this city. I realized that there was something special going on and that I wanted to create some strong connections with this incoming group of new leaders because I felt that I might have an opportunity to create a kind of sounding board.” Cheatham said she knew she was “going to be learning a lot on the job,” and she wanted to be able to connect with people she could “talk honestly with about things like how to lead.” And that’s been exciting, says Cheatham. “I would say it is not only a group that is unafraid of discussing explicitly issues of racial equity, really taking on this question of innovation and systemic change, pace of change, but it’s a group that is willing to disagree with one another, too. We support one another and I feel that support every day. But, we’re not just patting each other on the back. This group really pushes each other’s thinking. Which is, I think, really unique.”
Rachel Krinsky describes the group as having these conversations “on purpose, directly and accurately.” “We don’t always agree with each other; we’re still willing to talk to each other. Some of us are really sticking our necks out. All this talk is critically important, but we all also have to be working strategically. We all have to have actual plans for how we’re going to make change in places that we control.”
This group follows at least one familiar Madison leadership pattern: Some came here for school or professional opportunities and stayed. Some were born here. Krinsky knows she is in part viewed as “the local girl done good.” “I am white, I grew up here and when I go to speak to the Attic Angels or whoever it is, those people were my teachers, and I can say stuff to other white people and to the white Boomers, and because I speak like they do and I probably grew up with their daughters, they will hear me.”
Nia Enemuoh-Trammell, too, is a native, with a different perspective that feels more complementary than opposite. “This is my home and it means a great deal to me and I think that’s one of the main reasons why I do everything that I do beyond my nine to five. As a child growing up here, I never imagined in my life that I’d be in the position I’m in right now. I mean, I grew up in the Northport Drive apartments, and if I didn’t have the right interventions, if I didn’t have the right people mentoring me and molding me, I’d probably be a statistic.” In other words, she knows the importance of role models. “I hear a lot of discussion about how young people of color may not necessarily see where they fit in into the city and I want to change that.”
So the journey to this place, to Madison and to leadership, is another example of diversity, and it also influences one’s perspective on what it means to lead.
“If you ask me,” says Karen Menéndez Coller, “I’m from Los Angeles and people laugh, my husband laughs, because I don’t say I’m from El Salvador. I’m from L.A., that’s where I’m from. But I feel like because of that, when I see things here going a certain way for our community, it’s frustrating, so I feel like I need to be more vocal. And I think because of the stage of migration where our families are at, our families aren’t at the place where they can be loud and advocate. They just aren’t because they’re still trying to be a part of this culture and adjusting to Dane County.”
Over the past few months, she’s recognized that Centro Hispano “has to play that role because otherwise we’re not going to be creating a system that understands our families and that allows them to grow and to eventually speak out the way they need to. So I’m not as comfortable with that. This whole leader in town is a little odd, because I’ve worked in programs before, and I’m always about ‘What are we doing with the community?’ And here I feel like a title is put on me, but it’s more because I’m associated with this place. So I do accept it and I think it’s important to have it, otherwise we won’t be moving the needle eventually with our programs, which is important.”
Through different paths and with different perspectives, these new leaders are ultimately creating better support and a stronger community. Brandon says “almost unintentionally,” this group builds off each other’s thought leadership.
“That’s where the noncompetitiveness manifests itself and allows us to see that the path forward is without a lot of internal conflict. That’s not to say people won’t get hurt and people won’t get bumped, but overall, it’s a group of leaders who embrace each other’s thought leadership and build upon it and aren’t afraid to say, ‘This is somebody else’s idea but I think I can make it happen.’ Mo [Cheeks] says we have to become discontent and I say we need to put that on a platform somewhere. Aaron [Olver] says we need a new vision for how we build and create density around our research enterprises and we’ll stand ready to do what we can and make each other better. Everyone on [this] list, I have one-on-one conversations with that have not really anything to do with the Chamber and the United Way, or the Chamber and Centro Hispano, or the Chamber and the school district. A lot of times it’s us asking questions about what would you do? There’s a confidence that’s built into that to say these are people I don’t spend every day with, but if I need advice I can put down my shield, I can lower my guard and I can ask a colleague who’s not on my board or not even in the same space I’m in and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ That makes all of us better. Not just the eleven of us, but the whole community better.”
Scott Resnick says he also “can say something complimentary about every leader in this group. “It’s the vision of thinking bigger than oneself or one’s organization. It’s also using each other as resources. It’s not this competitive nature that you might see in another city or another community that is saying this faction against that faction. It’s trying to build a better Madison. But any one of us, whoever needs anything, we’re there to support each other.”
Bob Sorge views that support as giving added dimension to the role of the Madison Community Foundation. “When I look at this common shared vision and when I talk about our unique value and when I look at others and where their unique value is, it’s this acknowledgement that [the Community Foundation] can’t do everything. We wouldn’t be successful trying to take everything on, but we need to know where to go and we need that trust. I think it’s going to come down to trust and it always comes down to trust. I want other leaders to be able to trust me and the Community Foundation to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish in this community.”
These new leaders have worked and continue to work with each other in different groupings, in part because of past relationships and in part because of current jobs. Brandon was an alder. He and Olver worked together at the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. Enemuoh-Trammel is on the Madison Police and Fire Commission. Resnick co-owns a successful tech business and is a former alder (and mayoral candidate, the first out of a sub-group of qualified candidates in this group of eleven). Moe has been with United Way for what feels like forever, and thus knows everybody. Menéndez works closely with Cheatham. Cheatham does the same with Brandon and Sorge. Cheeks just took a new gig at the Madison office of the global technology company MIOSoft. You get the picture.
These folks are connected to the community, to sectors of interest and influence and to each other. “It goes back to wanting to really have relationships, meaningful relationships and really good conversations and a sense of approaching challenges together,” says Madison alder and UW Health director of community partnerships Bidar-Sielaff.
“Some of those challenges were not figured out by the previous generation of leaders,” she continues. “And it’s not a criticism, it’s just they’re such big challenges. I think it’s the sense of responsibility and opportunity and a vision that we can live in this world that’s so diverse and we can talk to each other [understanding that] we all come from different backgrounds, race, ethnicity, places that we’re working.”
Leadership is not about “dictating or using the structure of power to get what you want,” says Olver. “It’s about building some consensus rounded in facts that helps people get to a new place that they couldn’t have gotten to without it.”
Menéndez Coller sums it up: “We work very well together,” she says. “It’s funny, I’m never drawing color lines with them. We’re almost generationally at that point, and the reason I feel I get along with Jen [Cheatham] is because we see the world the same way. I was told one time that everybody sees the world in a different way, but I feel like with this group of people, we all see it the same way. So there are some understood values that we all have, and then, okay, what do we do next? We’re ready to take the next step.”
So, what does come next? If this next generation leadership change means anything, it means change begets more change.
“That’s what’s interesting to me,” says Brandon. “What’s coming next are the thirty-year-olds: Kevin [Little], Brandi [Grayson], Mo [Cheeks]. “But it’s also prodigal sons like Henry [Sanders], who have been focused nationally and are now coming back and becoming locally focused, talking about doing a newspaper or an online presence that is so laser focused. Those are the people who I’m excited about because there seems to be a five-to-ten-year span of the next generation that is equally as good. That bodes well.”
For Cheeks, who is both there, and here, it’s about getting it right—in less than ten years. “When I say get it right, I mean, we’re going to absolutely experience above-average-paced growth and significant increase in diversity. It’s my passion to look forward to help us appreciate what we have today in Madison. Being relatively new to the community, I don’t have the benefit of resting on the nostalgia and the fondness that so many people feel for this community. I appreciate that vicariously, but I feel that it’s really important with the unique lens that I have as a professional, as a biracial man, as one of the few minorities in this leadership position. And as a young homeowner, as someone who’s just starting a family, I feel that I have a unique lens that’s not better than anyone else’s, but I’m looking forward. It’s not enough to appreciate how cool this city has been. It’s important for me to ensure the kids in third grade are going to have awesome treatment and graduate in ten years, a city that appreciates everything they bring together as the next generation of Madisonians, as the working class, the professional class.”
“Yes, we are doing lots of things and trying to make a change and we still have room to go,” says Krinsky. “If we can learn to say that over and over and over again and mean it, that would be huge.”
Moe says to do that, build on the last three decades of thinking evolution and then “break systems down and build them back up again, take the best of what has been and build the best of what’s to come. I think that’s just a really remarkable and wonderful opportunity for all of us to grab those batons and run the next leg.”
Resnick agrees we’re not there yet. “Transportation is one of the biggest mistakes we’ve been making. We’re a good biking city. Are we a great biking city anymore? Or, where’s the rail? Where’s the community transportation or public transportation? These are all big threats. It’s a livelihood—we all want to live here in Madison. We all care about this community. There are some challenges ahead. I think the one really positive side is you have a number of leaders working toward these bigger challenges and willing to take on new ideas and willing to talk about action instead of just plans.”
Enemuoh-Trammel says that unlike some, she really believes Madison is a unique place. “For people who are considering leaving Madison because they don’t think culturally it provides them what they’re looking for or professionally they’re not able to grow, I want them to know that there is a place for them. It’s about connecting with the right people and the community and I think that there’s room for all of us to be at the table and to do something tremendous for this community, and that’s what I love so much about Madison.”
“The city has so much potential,” says Brandon, “but it requires not just the people, but the leadership to be discontent with where they are and to say it’s not good enough to just sit around and talk about how good we are, how good we have been. It’s important to think about how good we could be and where we’re falling short in the pursuit of that.”
After several decades—a generation—“how good we are” and “how good we’ve been” have been exposed in various ways. That sentiment is an example of a community resting on its laurels to the point of calcification. It is an excuse for not seeking and eventually embracing new ideas and for shunning risk. And, perhaps most importantly, it is not shared. Criticizing any individual is neither useful nor necessary. But there is a connection between an over-appreciation for the good old days and the sense of surprise, if not disbelief, that Madison has some of the worst racial disparities in the country.
These new leaders praise their predecessors and express admiration for their contributions, while at the same time recognize the value of, and need for, change.
“I don’t want to make too much out of generational differences,” says Olver, “because I admire my parents’ generation, the Mark Bugher [who Olver succeeded at University Research Park] generation. I directly admire Mark Bugher as an example, so I don’t want to make too much out of the passing of the torch. But I think it might be fair to say the Baby Boom generation sort of viewed the opportunity of joining the Peace Corps and getting involved in government and changing the world that way. This generation thinks, ‘I need to start an organization or start a company and create something new that interacts beyond a formal structure.’”
Create something. These are perhaps the two words most descriptive of the vision, explicit or implicit, of Madison’s new leaders.
The history of Madison is built on appreciation of the many shoulders upon which we all stand that feels unique even in a country that has mythologized its forbearers. Doty begat Nolen, who begat Frautschi, who begat Nelson, who begat Soglin. The New Leaders of 2016 are respectful of these self-made, white men who built—yes, let’s get it over with—the Best City to Live in America. But we were getting perilously close to caricature, the civic equivalent of the movieGroundhog Day, stuck in the ’60s, with fifteen-minute commutes, unlimited job openings at Oscar Mayer and in state government and plenty of parking.
Like many more self-aware cities, Madison is now viewing its future through the lenses of innovation, diversity, creativity, globalism and change. Our physical landscape is beginning to reflect that future. And, now, our leadership is as well.