Committed to Lead: George Barrett all in for Columbus' future, starting with education

Mary Yost

Those who know George Barrett probably aren't surprised by the extent of his work for the Columbus Partnership.

"In the absence of anybody stepping up on any issue, things tend not to happen," Barrett observes.

And so he steps up repeatedly.

The chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health, Inc. is one of 10 executive committee members of the Partnership, but his commitment doesn't stop there. He co-chairs FutureReady Columbus with Mayor Andrew Ginther and previously co-chaired the Columbus Education Commission created by then-Mayor Michael Coleman and Ginther as Columbus City Council president.

"The mayor had reached out to me and it was hard to say no. It was something I felt strongly about, and I felt a sense of broad commitment from my colleagues in the Partnership, which is very important. You never want to jump into something without feeling that people really care about (it), because if you're going to do it, you have to do it fully," Barrett says.

For Barrett, doing something "fully" doesn't just mean devoting his own time and attention. He is known to put the efforts of his global healthcare improvement company behind worthy community causes as well. For instance, Barrett loaned his then-Executive Vice President Shelley Bird to the Partnership for two years to help support education and other initiatives.

"We knew that if I was going to co-chair this commission, given the responsibilities that go with this job, that we needed to really commit to do that and that I would need some help and the Partnership would need some help. I had in Shelley Bird an extremely talented, experienced executive with passion around this subject and extremely good skills for coordinating and aligning people. I thought this was a unique opportunity for her to support the work of the Partnership particularly as we got focused on education."

That's just how Barrett works, and it's consistent with how the Partnership leverages leadership of the 57 corporate and nonprofit executives who are its members.

Education is one of the Partnership targets Barrett is most involved with; he also is a proponent of developing civic engagement among future corporate leaders and ensuring a strong arts community. Running through his efforts is a bias for action.

"There's a tone that has been established about our using our collective voice to influence the future of the city and the region. It wasn't conceptually a new idea to me, but I got to see it happening in practice. Most people talk about it, very few people do it, and I think the Partnership does it," Barrett says.

Having worked previously in New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia and traveled the world for Cardinal and other global companies, Barrett says without qualification, "I've never seen a place where the business community is more collaborative." That suits his belief that community engagement is good business.

"When Cardinal is involved in issues that are important to the city and our communities-not just here in Columbus, wherever we are-our employees feel more connected to us. And honestly, we want our cities to want us to be here…The Partnership has been the vehicle for many of us to express that," Barrett says.

Taking on the challenge of improving education in Columbus is a passion for Barrett. "I've got some of this in my blood. My mother was a teacher. I actually taught briefly. But more important than that, I just felt that this is an obligation we have as a community."

It is more the norm for business executives to avoid complex local education issues, but Barrett sees FutureReady as a way to support education similar to how the Partnership created Columbus 2020 in 2010 as an engine for economic development in the region. "Our experiment was to create FutureReady, but recognizing we had had some success with creating Columbus 2020 as a model for public-private partnership. Again, it's going to look different, but it does give us a little bit of a template," Barrett says.

He stresses FutureReady, which embraces a "cradle-through-career" approach to education and workforce development, is just getting started and will evolve, "but the basic principle was to say we want to create a public-private partnership to engage in this work to create opportunities for all of our kids. It's not to do the work of the school system…, but it's to help identify best practices, be a convener, highlight programs where we might want to say to the business community: 'Here's a program that's working. Here's the metrics. We've actually done the analysis, and we want to really get behind this.' That's the kind of work that FutureReady can do in its earliest stage."

With the Partnership focused primarily on economic development, "you can't separate education from that," Barrett says.

"Our future workforce is in those schools, and the quality of our city is tied to the idea that children see a life in front of them that presents opportunities."

One of Barrett's biggest fans is Lillian Lowery, recruited to head FutureReady. With a doctorate in education, she brings to the task deep experience of heading public education for the states of Delaware and Maryland and having earlier been a teacher, high school principal and superintendent.

"He gives of himself and of his time to make sure he's in the room and he understands the thinking. He is also present to ensure that the right questions are being asked about any strategic plan of action," Lowery says of Barrett.

"Just having him there as someone who runs a large corporation, who understands the dynamics of bringing disparate interests together-that expertise coupled with his passion around sharing that 'all' really does mean 'all'-has been one of the most rewarding experiences for me of my career," Lowery adds.

Barrett is equally dedicated to growing future civic leaders. "I'm probably most involved in making sure that we have a next generation of leadership that reflects broadly the community. So it's not just about the next generation, it's also about diversity and making sure that we reflect our community," he says.

As he explains it, "Whether they are at a stage economically to contribute the way a major corporation is yet doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. That time will come. What we want them to do is get engaged, however that means, with their time or their talents. There will be a time where every business will get to a stage where they can do more economically, but what a number of us are very committed to is this idea of making sure that we have a next generation to follow us."

The third baton Barrett carries for the Partnership involves the arts in Columbus. Having seriously considered a career in opera, he recognizes "part of being a great city is having great restaurants and great facilities and great sports teams…, but it's also a great arts scene. If we want to be that smart, open city, that's an important part."

Barrett likes that the Partnership embodies Columbus' stated values of being smart, open and collaborative.

"There's this general sense that we're all here to support one another. That's a really unusual thing. I think it explains a lot of the success of the Partnership-the willingness to work for the collective good, for the good of the community. And I think that does have a benefit back to the companies, because the communities see them as engaged, and that's always a positive thing."

You said education is in your blood. What did you teach?

My first year, I taught music and coached baseball. I was largely teaching electives in (a private) high school. I taught a course on the symphonic form. I taught a course on music appreciation. And then the next couple of years I taught history at a different school…and I coached the varsity soccer team and baseball and taught history to 10th graders, American history. It was an interesting thing to do as a 22-year-old. I never necessarily saw myself as staying in (teaching), but it was a fantastic experience and I'm glad I did it.

How can the Partnership ensure its work will continue with future leaders such as those in the Columbus chapter of the Young Presidents' Organization?

That's part of the reason we had those meetings like the YPO meeting. That's about educating. In a way, we have to set a model for what civic leadership looks like…They're very excited to participate and to be involved, and it's also a statement of our respect to them: We treasure what you're doing, you're building jobs here in central Ohio, you're devoting your time and your heart and your energy and your money to doing it and we should reward that.

There are many of us who think this is a very important issue, and so we can talk about it, but it's helpful to take action. We were happy to be able to host that group and for me to get a chance to talk with them was really fun.

Where does the work of the Partnership get done?

A lot of the work happens between meetings. It's a group of us getting together and saying, 'How do we want to move forward on this?' It's not really about the meetings necessarily. It's about what happens in-between and the real rolling up of sleeves, by us and by our organizations. It's not just the CEOs that are present but it's their organizations understanding that this is a commitment by our companies to make the city a great place, and so we're trying to encourage that.

What should the Partnership focus on in the next five to 10 years?

There's a consistency that's important. Economic development is at the heart of it, meaning if we can create jobs for people, good jobs for people here in central Ohio, then we're right on our mission. But there are connected pieces to that, and so it means getting our education at K-12 improving so that every kid has an opportunity. It means making sure that we've got continuity in the leadership of the community coming from the Partnership and that we have a next generation of leaders who believe that it's part of their civic responsibility to look after the greater good.

These are sort of the highest priorities, but there will be subtext to this: How do we make sure energy policy is aligned? How are we supporting the arts communities? How are we attracting big events? Those are all to me subset but the broad question is economic development.

What value do you get from the Partnership?

It's hard to say 'as a person new in town,' because it's been eight years, but I'm transplanted into town. That group has helped essentially introduce me to this community, and welcome me to the community, and I felt very welcomed by this group.

Is this the longest you've lived in one place in your career?

I'm now bumping up against my Philadelphia tenure, which is probably a little bit longer, but close.

We want to create a public-private partnership to engage in this work to create opportunities for all of our kids.

Mary Yost is the editor.