Setting The Stage for Public Sector Leadership

Young, Alison 150

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are going to have the Honorable Alison Young, Setting The Stage for Public Sector Leadership. She serves as the Managing Director for Leadership and Civic Engagement at Drexel University, LeBow College of Business and as the Executive Director of the Institute for Strategic Leadership. She is responsible for the Institute, including strategy, operations, and programming to position Drexel as a global leader in the study and practice of collaboration and leadership.

She is recognized nationally for her expertise on community engagement, she also oversees the Leading For Change Public Sector Fellowship Program in Drexel’s Lebow Civic Engagement Initiative. Alison represents Drexel’s leadership programs to domestic and international partners and writes for various news and media blogs.

Prior to Drexel, Alison was a Whitehouse official serving as the Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Acting Director of the Whitehouse Office of the USA Freedom Corps. With a $2 billion federal budget for domestic and international service programs, she was the chief advisor on volunteering and service, corporate social responsibility, building a corporate culture of civic engagement and enhancing the capacity for the nation’s non-profit sector.

In today’s show Alison will discuss the challenges for setting the stage for public sector leaders including Not-For-Profit and Women Who Lead.

Cathy, excited about as you introduce Alison more, how did you and her connect and reconnect?

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well, Alison is a very special woman, a very special leader and I am just honored to know Alison through our community at Drexel and in what you and I know as the military and the community scene.

We came into contact last year when Alison was rising to the top of the organization at the LeBow College of Business Institute For Strategic Leadership. It was very funny because I had founded that organization back in 2003 and Alison was now coming into the fold, and she was looking for someone who could help her at the institute as a director. She had put out an APB to some of our colleagues in the community, one of them a former mayoral candidate, and he contacted me and said hey, I think I have a perfect job for you.

He sent me the bio and I was just smiling ear-to-ear. I called Alison and I said, hey Alison, this is Cathy Greenberg and I would be delighted to work with you but I founded that institute back in 2003 and I’m not sure if you really want me back.

We had a good laugh about that and we have become very good friends since then. Alison is just an amazing woman with energy. She’s a new mother and a community leader and she is doing some fantastic things in the community which we are going to talk about on the show. I can’t wait to share with your more. So, Alison, welcome to the show.

Alison Young: Thanks Cathy. I had forgotten that story and I’m so grateful for the reminder. What and interesting history we have had. I’m so glad to be with you today.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Well thanks Alison. I’m really intrigued to get to know you more. Usually one of the first things that we do ask people right away because it kind of gets into a little bit of who you are is, who have been some of the key people that have influenced you to be the leader you are today?

Alison Young: Thanks for that question. I actually have three responses to that question.

The first is my parents. I’ve actually written a few things about this about how my parents have been so influential. I grew up in a small town, they were small business owners. I learned a lot about my parents knowing that they had all influenced me, I was writing a piece about small businesses and about a year ago I started asking my parents questions, never of course seeing them as a resource. I asked them what were some of the lessons and I realized that this is exactly how I grew up too. The lessons we learned from running a small business.

So I’d like to say parents, they taught me the importance of things like doing the hard things first. If you need to go out on a sales call, or there are some awkward things, you do those first, and then the other things become very easy after the fact. Then my parents also taught me the importance of civic engagement and being involved beyond your business. That, frankly, has been the underlying through-line through my whole career.

The other person that I have told frequently who has always been professional mentor to me and I like to share that with him. I think one of the great things about having a good mentor and influence is that you let them know the impact that they have had on your life, is a gentleman by the name of David Eisner. I first met David about 10 years ago when I went to work for a Federal agency that he was the head of. We have stayed friends now for close to 15 years.

I worked for David for about 5 years and he taught me how to grow a backbone professionally. A lot of people who are attached passionately to their jobs tend to approach their jobs very emotionally. David is one of those people that mentored me and supported me and helped me basically grow a backbone and learn how to be a good leader.

The funniest part about David Eisner is that after a number of years working for him, he actually worked for me when I went to the Whitehouse, that is he reported to me. He’s the reason that I came to Philadelphia because I came several years later to then work for him again. So he is still winning the war about who works for who.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That’s actually very funny, and I think we do have mentors in our lives that are like that and isn’t it nice when you can also flip the switch and people learn from each other. That’s what you are doing a lot of. Before we get into what you are actually doing right now with your program, can you tell us a little bit about all the roles that you have had to date? You’ve been at the Whitehouse, with the community in many different ways, the Constitution Center which has been a huge undertaking and the city of Philadelphia was an area where you focused, and now executive education. Tell us a little bit about your experiences and talents and all that good stuff that has evolved for you over the years.

Alison Young: Well Cathy, I was one of those kids that by about 4th grade knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. For me that was, my goal in life was always to get to D.C. to either work for Congress or the Whitehouse. I found myself in those positions early. I chose a university based on their Washington, D.C. internship program, and three days after I finished my undergrad I was in D.C. working for the Congressman that represented that area.

My first job was working on Capitol Hill. The thing that I learned most about that is, for people who are unfamiliar with the environment, it’s very high-stress, high-pressure and a lot of people that work there are very young because it doesn’t pay well. People go there and pay their dues and then move on to different things.

That was a really important start for me because I graduated undergrad and learned right away that I had to open mail and answer phones and it taught me really early on to dig in and always be willing to do what I would later on ask others to do. That was a good foundation for me.

Of course I love D.C. and life in politics and that led to other opportunities because in the D.C. culture, and I think in a lot of others, it’s all about networking. I, for the next 15 years of my career, never applied for a position. It was always one thing led to another, and I like to look back and say it was because of smart choices of where I went to work based on who I would have as a mentor.

After that I worked for a number of years in the private sector and then to pay for graduate school, because you can’t work for the government and afford graduate school, then I went back to government and that is where I met David Eisner and the Corporation for National Community Service, which is a Federal Agency.

From that Agency I became known as someone who has a deep knowledge of civic engagement and leadership and strategic planning. That led to a role at the Whitehouse at a very young age, I think I was 30 or 31 at the time, as a Special Assistant to the President and became one of the Nation’s foremost experts on civic engagement and volunteering and service.

That was really, I think, where I won my battle scars and was tested at a very young age. But then to take it back to your question, this was my goal always in life. So, if Mayor in my early 30’s, then what? How do I reinvent myself? So my transition to Philadelphia and the Constitution Center, which is a large museum, and then into higher education is what I like to say my encore career is and that’s where I am now.

Dr. Relly Nadler: That’s really fascinating. Especially at such a young age. You were saying that this idea that you were tested early on. Maybe just give us a quick example for folks that are trying to picture what you are actually doing, what would be some of the tests that you had especially I know how those are those formative tests and experience. Just give me an example of what would be some of those tests that you had.

Alison Young: Sure. I can give you from my time at the Whitehouse, let me give you an internal and external one. I think the internal one is the most compelling and rewarding of stories.

When you work in an environment like that, regardless of politics and which Whitehouse I worked for, you are working with people who are genuinely the best and the brightest at what they do and they have given up most of their private sector lives, even the time with their families to come and do something at a very high level that matters to them. They are very passionate about it. I think one of those important tests for me, and I was younger than a lot of my colleagues at that level, for me the test was how do I persuade, how do I become a good listener, how do I become a better collaborator and colleague and therefore leader for my agenda when frankly there were several other competing agendas. Everybody is working for the same goal and for the betterment of the country, but yours might be more urgent than a colleague and sometimes recognizing that theirs might be more urgent than yours—that kind of pressure internally to be surrounded by people who are always faster and stronger and brighter and passionate just like you are, is, I think, a really good way to get baptized by the fire and hone your communication style so that you can communicate most effectively when it matters. I think that was an interesting point in my life for my own professional development and learning about my leadership style and the importance of communication.

External to that: when you are working at that level there are pressures that in daily life the rest of us take for granted. My agenda was on volunteering and service and that was something that the president cared deeply about and it was part of his compassion agenda. So, when there was a major hurricane or an earthquake somewhere on the globe and we had to do the humanitarian response, that kind of pressure that quite literally impacts lives is extremely tough to manage, particularly when there is little to no preparation.

Thank kind of immediate, urgent time pressure and having faith in yourself and your skills and experience and knowledge to have the courage to make decisions in a time like that, those are the things that I take away from that experience and I think have led to my ability to talk more about my own leadership style and what works in different environments in the space where I am now.

You can listen to the entire discussion with Alison, above.


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