How the Columbus Partnership Leads

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Held up as a national model of civic engagement, the Columbus Partnership continues working on its stewardship.

Leadership-at least the brand practiced by the Columbus Partnership-is a verb, not a noun. And it can be taught, L Brands founder, CEO and Chairman Les Wexner believes firmly.

How and why the Partnership leads helps explain its success as a civic empowerment organization and just why the Harvard Business School holds it up as a national model of public-private cooperation.

The Partnership is the city's premier business body, but simply gathering power brokers together is not what makes it effective, members says. They first had to go slow to go fast. That's one of several leadership principles that bubbled up asColumbus CEO talked with members and close observers of the Partnership to examine how it works.

Wexner, who helped found the group in the late 1990s, says he started studying leadership after success with his Limited stores four decades ago prompted people to begin touting him as a leader.

"I didn't see a leader when I looked in the mirror. I was the founder, I got there first, but I didn't think I was a leader. And so when people were calling me a leader, I felt very uncomfortable. It would be like saying 'you're a great athlete' and I'm really not. I might be in the uniform and I might be on the team, but I'm not really an athlete," Wexner says.

Go slow to go fast

One of the areas where an approach of patient progress is playing out is in education. The Partnership was stung by overwhelming defeat of a Columbus City Schools levy it supported in 2013. Some business groups might have taken that as a sign to turn their attention elsewhere, but the Partnership chose to continue supporting efforts by then-Mayor Michael Coleman and then-City Council President, now-Mayor Andrew Ginther to dig deeper.

"We learned about some mistakes we'd made in trying to move certain initiatives forward and we learned about things that we thought could move the needle," says George Barrett, a Partnership executive committee member, CEO and chairman of Cardinal Health and co-chair of the now-concluded Columbus Education Commission.

"The levy was only a very small subset. There was a lot of learning from that commission but one of them was to try to keep it a little simpler, our work," Barrett adds.

Out of the commission grew FutureReady Columbus, a new public-private initiative supported by the Partnership and co-chaired by Barrett with Ginther. The initiative has undertaken a comprehensive look at education best practices not just in the United States, but in the world.

"We spoke with people from Singapore who came in to see us, folks from Finland, two of the great countries in regard to public education, and we tried to do some work to understand best practices and what we could import here and what we could do to support the work being done here in the school system," 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," Barrett says.

With the Partnership's arduous work in education, "we know, as a business group, probably not enough-but more than any other group like ours-about what's worked and what's been tried and how groups like ours have succeeded and failed in support of public education," Wexner says.

Earn respect

"One of the aspects of being a good leader is that you have followers and the followership comes because people trust you. You have to earn that, you can't command it," Wexner says.

The Partnership says on its website that it "provides strategic approaches to turn vision into action…without taking credit for accomplishments." But many point to Columbus 2020's success in revving up economic development in the region as evidence of the Partnership's influence.

Even Harvard recognizes how the Columbus Partnership has earned community trust. It created a case study on the Partnership for use in the Young American Leaders Program at the Harvard Business School.

"There's no question that communities differ in how well organized they are and how clearly leaders are expected to make a public contribution," says Jan Rivkin, who leads YALP at Harvard. "My sense of Columbus is there's simply an expectation that leaders in business and elsewhere should be doing what's best for the community," with the Partnership being a big part of the infrastructure that supports that notion.

"The Partnership is very sensitive to the fact that it's a powerful group, so if it gets misdirected, it could do terrible mischief. Unintendedly, but it could do it," Wexner says.

"You have to earn the right to think of yourself as a leadership organization," Wexner adds, and he employs a sports metaphor to drive home the point.

"When Jack Nicklaus was 6 years old, he was a little kid that played golf. When he was 10 years old, he was an older kid that played golf remarkably well for a 10-year-old. When he was 16 years old, he was remarkable for a high school golfer. By the age of 20, wow, he's really an athlete!"

Similarly, leaders must be patient and focused to achieve goals and demonstrate success in order to attract followers, Wexner says.

"When it's five guys in the room saying 'we could do better' (as the Partnership was in the beginning), evangelizing isn't a great thing because we haven't done anything yet. Now you get the kind of economic development that we have had, the influences that we have had, the Partnership is solid and working together, it's healthy, it's remaining curious. Then I think the byproduct is we can leverage that, but we still have to stay on task," Wexner explains.

Be curious

Just as leadership is not a noun for the Partnership, being curious is more than an adjective for these business leaders. It is an ongoing exercise and a fundamental activity that its members practice with vigor. In fact, Partnership members' visit to Silicon Valley last October was labeled its Curiosity Trip.

Partnership member Melisa Miller, retail services president for Alliance Data, had heard Partnership Executive Director Alex Fischer and other members talk about curiosity and humility as leadership virtues. Then, she says, "I had the privilege of witnessing both in action on a trip the Partnership took to Silicon Valley. It was so energizing to be with the titans of the technology sector, the best of the best from Columbus."

Miller adds, "The questions posed by our Columbus Partnership family went something like this: 'I am curious about…' or 'Can you tell me more about…?'Think about that-all successful men and women, and the inquisitiveness was genuine and from a place of 'How can we best leverage this new knowledge and creativity to better central Ohio?' It was truly a lesson in humble learning and servant leadership," Miller says.

The leadership potential of curiosity has also fascinated Partnership member Lisa Ingram, president and CEO of White Castle. She says practicing curiosity has been enlightening to her work with the Partnership, as well as in her business.

Of the Silicon Valley trip, Ingram notes, "We went to Stanford. We went to Google. We went to Facebook, so we got to see a lot of different experiences and that to me was very eye-opening in how everybody out there really, their whole mission is to change the world, and they're all talking about disruption."

The trip underscored for Ingram how good leaders exercise curiosity.

"I never would have thought it would be an appropriate use of my time to go to Silicon Valley and know what Google or Facebook are doing, but it was very eye-opening and put a different perspective for me on things that we should be looking at in the business and trying to figure out how do we make sure we're relevant to this new generation in a much more focused and practical way than we were doing probably two years ago.

"That's been a very beneficial part of me being involved in the Partnership that I didn't necessarily have before," Ingram says.

Wexner says he has learned curiosity is a key foundational characteristic of leaders, "And curiosity takes doing…Curiosity is not a state of mind. What do you do to be curious? Where do you go? What do you read? What do you see? Who do you talk to?"

The Partnership has been practicing curiosity for years by sending members and future leaders to Harvard and working with the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Wexner and his wife, Abigail, founded the center in 2000 and co-chair its Leadership Council.

"I think the lesson for the community is that if you're well-intended, and you have organizational skills, is there culture in the community to say we have to be individually curious and collectively curious?" Wexner says.

Stay focused

Partnership member Tanny Crane, president and CEO of Crane Group, sees remaining committed to long-term issues and leveraging relationships as key leadership principles the Partnership practices. She cites the group's work on improving urban education as an example.

ThePartnership's long-term commitment, Crane says, is to keep working on the issue from early education to-and through-high school graduation, college and career.

"We do not strive to be in the forefront, but work hard to insure issues are being identified; seek best practices globally; identify partnershipsand experts to bring to the table, and tackle the work.We work hard to partnerwith our school leadership, who are experts in the field, as well as nonprofit leaders, public and private funders and, importantly,partnerwith the community to develop long-term, sustain able solutions," Crane says.

She adds, "It would be easy for us to turn our attention to the next 'shiny red ball,' but we remain focused and committed to this vital issue, as well as many others, because we care deeply for our children and for the long-term success of Columbus."

Partnership executive committee member Alex Shumate, managing partner, North America, Squire Patton Boggs, also cites focus as one of the group's primary leadership principles.

"As a founding member of thePartnership, I have had the privilege of participating in its evolution as an organization with a singular focus on our community's economic growth, development and prosperity," Shumate notes.

Initially, he says, the focus was on setting objectives and implementing strategies to increase the community's competitiveness. "From that base it has expanded to include emphasizing the critical role thePartnership's members can play by actively leading and participating in organizations that can help move the community forward," Shumate says.

He cites his leadership of the Ohio State University board of trustees, which he chairs, as an example. "Ohio State is clearly one of the most important engines for growth in Columbus and an asset that is the envy of communities around the world," Shumate says.


Some Partnership members cite collaboration as a primary leadership principle.

Executive Committee Member Steve Rasmussen, CEO of Nationwide, says collaboration is a philosophy that works for the Partnership as well as for his insurance company. "Nationwide was founded on the idea that people can accomplish much more working together than when we work alone," he says.

"Public-private partnerships are vital to the strength of our community. Working together, we're solving big problems and seizing opportunities that make Columbus a better place to live, work and raise a family," Rasmussen adds. He cites examples of "how the community has worked together to raise the national profile of Nationwide Children's Hospital, how we've worked to revitalize Downtown as a destination and how we're working to position the region as a technology hub through the Columbus Collaboratory." Nationwide is one of seven founding members of the Collaboratory, which is tackling common issues across multiple sectors in advanced analytics and cyber security.

Partnership member Nancy Kramer, founder and chairman of Resource/Ammirati, an IBM Company, says she finds the Partnership to be "a very open minded, curious and collaborative group that truly puts the interest of the community ahead of any self-interest."

Kramer adds in support of her observation, "The group has worked together to recruit a national political (both parties) convention to Columbus, been willing to put significant time and resources to help advance the Columbus City Schools and is open to traveling across the country to observe and learn what makes Silicon Valley tick, to name just a few. This group has cultivated a culture of collaboration between the various constituencies-both public and private-that did not exist in our community 20 years ago."

Be inclusive

Partnership Executive Committee Member David Blom, president and CEO of OhioHealth, sees inclusiveness as "one of the most important leadership philosophies of the Partnership."

Blom says, "We have gravitated to be more inclusive of younger leaders in the organization, including governmental leaders-city, county and state-in our economic development contemplations and realizing that small employers are just as important as large employers within the context of determining an economic development strategy for the community."

As the Partnership works on its primary objective of economic development, Blom says "being inclusive of all parts of the community within that thought process is not only the right thing to do but important as to our ability to execute on the strategies we have."

White Castle's Ingram says she has found the Partnership frequently seeks outside viewpoints "to help us have more thoughtful and robust discussions and dialogues. I think the Partnership realizes it's not as diverse as it would like to be, and so if we're going to solve real problems and help make an impact, we really need to have other perspectives at the table."

That may help explain the Partnership's willingness to embrace groups like Columbus chapters of the Young Presidents' Organization and the World Presidents' Organization. Ingram's spouse, Greg Guy, CEO of Columbus HVAC company Air Force One, is credited with initiating a two-day joint leadership symposium in April between the Partnership and YPO/WPO. Guy is the education chair for YPO and will be the chapter chair next year.

"We've got a great start. It all starts with relationships. If you don't have relationships, you can't make any progress," Guy says.

"Some of the young leaders in YPO very well could be future leaders in the Partnership," said Sue Zazon, WPO education chair and CEO/president of the Columbus Region for FirstMerit Bank. There is about 20 percent overlap between members of the Partnership and YPO/WPO, but there are still others in the groups who don't know each other, Zazon says. She plans to encourage the YPO/WPO boards to support continued programming with the Partnership.

The Partnership is also teaming up with the Columbus Foundation to send a second YALP class of 10 young business and civic leaders to Harvard in June. Chris Crader, CEO of Grow Restaurants, which operates the Harvest pizzerias and Salt & Pine, is in that class and appreciates the investment the Partnership is making in leadership development.

Partnership members "have literally shaped, honed and molded the city of Columbus as we know it today," Crader says, adding, "The most impressive and terrifying thing about being a young leader in Columbus today is the size of the shoes to fill."

Leverage city power

Over time, Partnership members have come to appreciate that cities can do more to improve local vitality than state and federal forces. That fires their desire to work even closer with local government leaders.

It's not just a US phenomenon but a growing global recognition that cities can do more, says Wexner. He says he didn't anticipate the "whole shift in thinking that the power of the country and countries around the world is in the cities. The cities can actually get stuff done. Governments at a state and local (level) increasingly can't, so whether you're the mayor of a Chinese city, large or small, or a city in the Mideast…everybody is coming around to that way of thinking."

The most visible demonstration of how the Partnership embraces that principle is with the Smart City Challenge, in which members are supporting the mayor's efforts to win a $50 million grant from the US Department of Transportation to pioneer future transportation systems in Columbus.

The power of cities is central to Harvard's YALP, which grew out of a 2011 business school initiative called the US Competitiveness Project, says Rivkin. The project asked, "What can leaders, especially leaders in business do, to improve the odds that companies in the US can thrive in the global marketplace while also lifting the living standards?"

Rivkin says Harvard learned large companies have exited the recession well but working class Americans and small businesses continue to struggle. "We have an economy nationwide that's doing kind of half its job. And that's bad news. The second piece of bad news is there is not a lot happening in Washington" to help, Rivkin says.

"The good news is there are lots of very innovative, creative and effective things going on at the local level. So, if you piece together the best of American cities and spread those best things across the entire nation and layer on a little bit of federal progress, we would be in fantastic shape," Rivkin adds. And that is the intent of YALP.

"So how leaders emerge," Wexner says, "they're people who are curious about themselves and curious about how they lead and they're always trying to improve their skills. Leaders have the ability to think about leadership as a subject and coach themselves."

Wexner calls himself a tough grader and gives the Partnership a "B or B+" for "evaluating where we are and what the potential is now, so the notion of the leverage of the leadership, can we influence the next generation? We haven't proven that."

As the Partnership welcomes new members and works to help develop future leaders, sustaining its success becomes more challenging as the organization gets more complex, Wexner cautions. "Alex (Fischer) and I and other leaders of the Partnership are very careful to make sure we're really thinking about what we're doing."

Mary Yost is the editor.