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Q&A with Elizabeth Dow, President and CEO of Leadership Philadelphia

By Erin Kane |

Liz Dow

Elizabeth Dow, the longtime President and CEO of Leadership Philadelphia, has made it her personal mission to connect Philadelphians for the greater good. Through a range of leadership and networking opportunities, Leadership Philadelphia mobilizes the private sector to serve the needs of the community.

Dow worked with NewsWorks in 2011 to identify the Creative Connectors in Philadelphia. The city is full of what she calls “exemplary leaders doing extraordinary things.” The problem is that these people often work in “silos,” and never cross paths. According to Dow, breaking down these barriers will encourage people to get good things done without taking credit for it. (To explore the full list of 76 Creative Connectors, click here.)

We sat down with Dow to talk about “connectors,” people who seem to know everyone and get things done under the radar; the role of her Midwestern roots; and why our long-forgotten passions still matter.

Nineteen years ago, you left a corporate job and took a significant pay cut to take the helm at Leadership Philadelphia, then a struggling nonprofit. Why?

I had this fabulous job and I was making more money than I ever imagined, and it didn’t feel meaningful in any way. I was getting antsy. I felt like I was out of alignment with myself.

I got a call that Leadership was going to go under…it took me 24 hours to figure out that I wanted to be President. This is an extraordinary career where I get to touch lives in a meaningful way.

Why Leadership Philadelphia? How were you connected?

It’s got a great mission. It was in financial distress. And I love the subject of leadership. It all fit together. I was also a former student. I went through the program, and I knew what the mission was — to mobilize and connect people to serve.

Are you a native Philadelphian?

No, I’m from St. Paul, Minn. I think part of the value I bring to this work is a philosophy of the heartland and a Midwestern openness. Midwesterners are a little more aggressive about helping each other.

Who are connectors?

Connectors are the people who know everybody and quietly help people behind the scenes. They are optimistic, they are confident, and they don’t take “no” for an answer. Connectors are not just people who are well educated. I love that it’s democratic — it’s all over the place. People know it when they see it. It’s not about being wealthy. It’s a way to help society without money.

I had no idea that any of those skills had any value whatsoever. It’s just the way I am. Under the radar. You can get a lot more done if you don’t care who gets credit for it.

Why is it important to nurture connectors and link them to the community?

It’s what the world needs now. We’re living in silos. There needs to be some people who are activated to help each other.

What is your definition of leadership?

I think a leader makes another person want to be or do more. A leader sparks passion and courage in other people. It’s a skill set that gets people excited about themselves, or excited about an idea.

Can leadership be learned?

Yes, absolutely. In 2006, after we identified the first group of emerging connectors, we created a competency model of how they behaved. We found that the original connectors connected in order to get things done, while young connectors see connection as an end in itself. We created a model of the ten key behavior characteristics of connectors so that we can teach these behaviors. So much civic work gets done in committees of equals, where you have no formal leadership hierarchy. Connector traits, such as building rapport, demonstrating curiosity, and listening, are critical to success in these situations.

What is your leadership style?

I think the strongest thing you would observe is the connector thing. I listen intently to what people have to say, and I know what they are all about. What’s different about me is the way that I listen to people, remember them, and help them see themselves more favorably. I am probably more positive than most, and I can help people see the positive side of what’s going on. I can show them what’s great about Philly.

What’s great about Philly?

I love the diversity here. There are so many different kinds of people, and a lot are doing work for the community. I love the way Philadelphians love Philadelphia in such a gritty way. I find it charming. It’s fun. It would be too simple if everybody were positive. When I go back to St. Paul, it’s a wonderful city, but it’s vanilla. This place is infinitely interesting.

Leadership Philadelphia’s Core Program is an intensive, multi-week course that immerse participants in leadership development. Who is the ideal applicant?

We are looking for people who want to serve the community. We take a person who is already good at their job and we convince them they should do more. We show them that this city has a heartbeat. We are trying to ignite their passion for something.

What types of passion are you hoping to ignite?

There might be a person who likes art, for example; we might get them involved with Jane Golden. We’re trying to help people find a quiet space to figure out what they were passion about when they were younger and convince them they have the time to apply that passion now. It’s this magical journey where [participants] are reclaiming passions from their 20s.

Leadership Philadelphia also connects private sector leaders to nonprofit boards. What should nonprofits know about your services?

People take our course because they want to serve the community. They are more ready to serve, more able to serve. This is about getting talent onto nonprofit boards. These are roll-up-your-sleeves people.

What are the characteristics of a “good” board of directors?

They are aligned behind the mission and they’re clear on what’s expected of them. And they do what’s expected. Everything about it should be professional. You want a board that’s like a well-oiled machine.

Which nonprofits are you personally engaged with?

Mural Arts. I’m always associated with them. I am on the Sunday Breakfast Club steering committee and on the board of the local Knight Foundation. And then I’m on the Eisenhower Fellowships selection committee. They take Philadelphians that are already accomplished and give them a global perspective.

What keeps you up at night?

I do a lot of thinking about how we can get more people to act in the interest of the common good, as opposed to their own self-interest. Also, the focus on the negative in the Philadelphia news media: that keeps me up and makes me angry. What are ways to focus on the good things about Philadelphia? Because that’s what matters.

Photo by Andrew Reiner Photography

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