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The Three Truths of Change

I’m not really sure how fifteen years went by so quickly. That’s a lot of years spent listening to people in our communities, learning and becoming more familiar with how we humans and our institutions cope with the forces of change, much of it outside our control, and either resist or embrace it.

A number of people have asked me if I could pass along any important lessons I’ve learned during my time as Valley Vision’s CEO. My answer comes with a big smile and the words: yes, about a million lessons! Change work is often challenging but always humbling. If you are truly open to hearing from the people who are most directly affected, unfiltered, it is absolutely the best education you could ever hope for in your life. So, as space constraints will prevent passing on a million different lessons, I would like to tell you instead about three big patterns or “truths about change,” that I have uncovered over my many years.

The first is simply that change takes time. It’s a hard truth. When we see a celebrated announcement about a new downtown renaissance, a school system back on track, or a politician pat themselves on the back for a major win, it almost never happens overnight, nor by those actually celebrating. In truth and real practice, the conditions for change take many years, not days, and are built on the back of efforts from people who came before us. This heritage is important to recognize, and to respect.

One of my many mentors Jane Hagedorn noticed in her highly effective 30-year nonprofit career that major change efforts took seven years, and there’s much truth in it. That is, several years to get all the stakeholders on board, recognizing that there’s a real issue that deserves their attention and then building a warrant for change. Then, there are still a couple more years with data and hard-nosed meetings to get clear on how to address the issue effectively and to assemble the team and investments necessary to make new things happen. Then, finally, a few more years to pilot, test, fail, adjust, and make the change permanent. Change takes time, and we must embrace it rather than hide it, even though our hurry-up, fix-it-fast culture encourages otherwise. Plan for it. When things look bleak or seem to be taking “too long,” keep the faith; be unwavering. With dedication, time is on your side.

Second is the insight that regions of a million plus people each have distinct leadership models or approaches for how change happens in their communities, but that we do best when political, business, and civic sectors are working together. It’s important to recognize this. For me this truth was brought to light by the many study mission trips I have attended, organized by the Sacramento Metro Chamber and also by the El Dorado County and Folsom Chambers. On these multi-day learning exchanges leaders in Seattle, Austin, Charlotte, Vancouver, Brooklyn, Nashville, Portland, Atlanta, and Indianapolis told us their success stories. After six or seven trips, I came to recognize that leadership could spring from multiple sources to achieve the goals of a city or region.

  • Most often, leadership sprang from government when a dynamic mayor (or mayors) held sway over their entire region with a uniting vision and the power and respect to convene and direct regional action and investment.
  • Next most seen was a business-led leadership model, where a community with dense corporate headquarters had a few wise leaders who banded together to drive change because they understood the importance of community health to their overall bottom line. Leadership came from the private sector, working with elected officials, with an emphasis on measurable results and a clear return on investment.
  • Last was a philanthropic or nonprofit leadership model, where regional leadership emanated from a major foundation or nonprofit CEO or group of CEOs who helped set the regional agenda and the focus of change.

In my 30 years in the Capital Region and now 15 at Valley Vision, I have witnessed the source of leadership in the Capital Region shift from sector to sector and evolve over time, largely reflecting the leader and their skills and whether their vision was large and inclusive enough. Secondary factors have to do with whether our region is on an up or down cycle of the economy, and therefore the presenting challenges that must be confronted, but also the availability of leadership. The lesson I draw from this is that, without question we are at our best and accomplish the most good when political, business, and civic sectors are teamed up. This seems to be happening more and more, which is a good sign.

Third, there is a big new cadre of leaders in top positions across our public, private, and civic institutions in the region just in the past few years, right as our region is coming into its own. There’s always some degree of turn over, but in the last five years we’ve seen virtually a wholesale change of who’s in charge. At Valley Vision we counted more than 30 top positions that had changed hands from one long-serving leader to the next — core business groups, leaders of our top universities, as well as vital government institutions. That’s a lot of institutional knowledge walking out the door. But importantly, we have a big new set of leaders at the helm of our region and its institutions with fresh ideas and emboldened by fresh mandates for change. I am part of this outgoing class. I am leaving the CEO seat in order for the next leader to bring the energy and fresh ideas we need to make a more prosperous, just, and sustainable region, adding their contribution to the groundwork laid by others.

I leave Valley Vision deeply optimistic about our future, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Bill Mueller was Valley Vision’s Chief Executive through January 31st, 2020.