Sustained positive change in the communities we care about -- the kind of change that meaningfully alters the quality of life, vibrancy and appeal of a community -- is achieved either by serendipity or alignment.
Serendipity -- Bill Gates and Paul Allen both attending the same school in Seattle or John D. Rockefeller's mom moving to the outskirts of Cleveland -- cannot be influenced much by those of us who work within our respective community's civic infrastructure. But we can influence the level and quality of alignment achieved. Indeed, in many communities a base level of alignment of diverse stakeholders is so common that we often don't notice that it's been achieved. We don't notice this alignment because it isn't accompanied by influence -- the ability to change behaviors in ways that will result in sustained positive change.
A city official recently brought this de facto alignment to my attention by recalling how she had walked into a meeting of civic leaders within a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood who were exploring workforce needs. Nearly everyone in the meeting was also part of an effort to better align workforce efforts across the entire county. Throughout the meeting no one connected the two efforts. Instead they talked as if the neighborhood's workforce needs were somehow disconnected from the surrounding neighborhoods, and somehow weren't dependent on the possible solutions being explored at the county level. The city official said the clout in the neighborhood meeting was likely sufficient to shape the county's workforce efforts. But that wasn't going to happen because even though the stakeholders were aligned, no one was seeing the opportunity for influence.
Similarly, a coordinator of a workforce collaboration inquired how she might get a local chamber of commerce engaged in their effort to increase its ability to influence policy and behaviors. Since the workforce collaboration was employer-led this shouldn't have been a challenge. And since the CEO of one of the employers involved is chair of the chamber, it should have been even easier. Alignment had been achieved. But influence remained elusive. And change was minimal.
Most civic leaders wear multiple hats -- corporate hat, committee hat, non-profit-board hat, political contributor hat, etc. But rarely do they wear their hats simultaneously; rather they wear each one separately -- reflecting the silos that make up the community's civic infrastructure.
Connecting those silos -- and getting leaders to identify the opportunities for influence that are possible through this de facto alignment -- are key roles for those of us who strive to strengthen the civic infrastructure of our communities so that we can achieve collective impact.