Building Bridges

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2009

Our cover story this month—Best Bosses, page 16—highlights the connection between good leadership and business success. If there’s any common element among our winning bosses, it’s that they listen and communicate with their employees.

Our city of Sarasota leaders—elected, civic and business—could learn from their example. Right now, the political climate in the city is hostile, with business pushing for growth and development, and neighborhoods resisting almost any change in the status quo. Last month, we interviewed Mark Wilson, head of the Florida Chamber. Wilson urged the business community to get more involved as community leaders. Yes, you are time-stressed, turned off by political campaign tactics and discouraged by financial disclosure laws, he said. But nonetheless, businesspeople have the vision and skills to be effective and responsible leaders, he said.

At least one reader disagreed.

“They [business people] talk of "working together," but they have become the most divisive element in the community,” the reader wrote to me. “The walls they have built are very tall and very thick… they seem to work in their own hermetic chamber, reinforcing their own notions that they are still the Masters of Sarasota, while the broader community simply ignores them and passes them by…The bridges have been burned; any effort to rebuild them will have to come from “them.”

But who is this arrogant “them”? Yes, that attitude and those tactics apply to a small group of businesspeople here, and the rest of us should publicly distance ourselves from such people and tactics when they occur. But the majority of men and women I know in this region’s business community don’t fit that bill. They create jobs, serve on boards, donate to local causes and supply us with products and services that enrich and improve our lives. And many of them do want to build bridges with the larger community, including angry neighbors.

Take just one example: The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce created its Sarasota Tomorrow campaign last year in part to improve its relationship with the neighborhood leaders who seem to oppose so many developments and pro-business ideas.

Former chamber chair Pam Truitt, and current board chair John Cranor regularly attend the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) with the intention of building mutual trust. “We all need to check our egos at the door,” says Pam. And John Krotec, the owner of the outdoor store Environeers, has started the Olive Branch Forum to bring neighborhood activists, businesspeople and elected and government officials together.

Krotec, who spent time in the military, says he was trained in conflict situations to avoid casualties on both sides. It was the highest priority. “We went in and found the community leaders. We listened and talked to them,” he says. “It was about building trust.”

That sounds a lot like what our best bosses do.

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