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Ideas Made to Matter

Change Management

How to engage your business in community and economic development

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There are benefits to engaging in business-led community and economic development, but many corporate leaders aren’t sure how to start.

At a recent convening of 70 leaders from business and academia, MIT Sloan senior lecturer shared principles to help companies foster this mutually beneficial development.

“As business leaders, we want the local economy to perform well because that is good for business. And for some leaders who want to leave a legacy that is bigger than themselves and their companies, it’s about investing in the potential of people and places,” said Isaacs, who advises senior leaders and teams on organizational strategy and stakeholder partnerships.

In a follow-up interview, Isaacs discussed how to start investing locally in community and economic development.

1. Build a ladder to your bigger vision.

Begin by identifying a concrete goal to be achieved or a problem that needs solving. Picture what the finish line looks like and then create smaller “ladder rung” goals with memorable names that advance you to the ultimate goal, Isaacs said. This helps people orient themselves and understand how they can contribute to each step along the way.

For example, consider the 1961 goal set by the late President John F. Kennedy for the U.S. to get to the moon before the end of the decade. Rather than immediately attempting a crewed landing on the first try, NASA started with Project Mercury, then went on to Project Gemini, and finally embarked on Project Apollo.

Isaacs said a frequent oversight of leaders is that they stop to evaluate a process only when there’s a problem or when things have already gone off the rails. Another is forgetting to celebrate and communicate small wins, which are sometimes all that exist at the beginning of a complicated change effort. Building preplanned check-ins into project plans encourages leaders to consider whether they’re accomplishing what they set out to do and the investment is paying off the way it’s expected to.

“Be clear-eyed when you fall short, and be just as clear-eyed about your progress,” Isaacs said.

2. Act with curiosity and sensemaking.

Once a vision and purpose have been established, leaders should approach the local community with the intention of listening, a spirit of curiosity, and an understanding of — or sense of — the context in which the community and its people operate. This approach allows business leaders to hear what is going on in the community directly from its members, and understand the issues and concerns before suggesting a solution and trying to get buy-in.

While there might be some shared experiences and common trends across different communities, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and leaders cannot “cut and paste” something that worked in one location and expect it to be successful in another. Business leaders must recognize that their company and local community are unique and that they will need to adapt their plans to reflect local history, culture, and community and assets, Isaacs said.

When Nate Streed began visiting Kroger food manufacturing facilities as part of the grocery chain’s sustainability leadership team, he was unsure how he — as a leader from corporate — could connect with employees at local plants. But Streed wasn’t there with an agenda; he was there to be a student and do some sensemaking. In the mid-2010s, Kroger had set a companywide goal to meet and exceed a zero-waste threshold of 90% diversion from landfills by 2025. As a first step to implementation, Streed toured seven facilities identified as early adopters of the goal.

“He spent a lot of time just listening, watching, and asking questions to learn from local employees how they produce food and where waste comes from,” said Isaacs, who interviewed Streed in 2023. “He did not dictate solutions but instead asked questions, such as ‘How would you do this differently?’ The result was a variety of creative new tactics for waste reduction that were unique to each locality.”

Leaders also need to be prepared for unpleasant answers as they act with curiosity. They could very well end up hearing an airing of grievances when they open the door to listening, Isaacs said. However, “it’s actually worse if people won’t talk to you at all,” she said.

When leaders from the Rush University Medical Center wanted to improve the health and lifespan of residents in the community around the Chicago hospital, they had to learn how to respond to neighbors who told them, “We don’t fully trust you,” after experiencing other organizations’ overpromised and underdelivered development plans. To build that trust, the medical center’s team met with local leaders in their respective neighborhood spaces and on their schedules.

“If people are willing to talk, even if they’re venting, that’s actually a good sign; they are willing to engage,” Isaacs said. “Your job at that stage is just to listen and believe their experience, whatever it is. That’s how you lay the foundation for real dialogue.”

Isaacs said leaders who find themselves in this situation should listen and communicate back that they have heard what the community has said and that they believe the experience of community members.

“This is the key to unlocking collaboration, especially if there is historical distrust or trauma in the community. If people experience you as someone who’s willing to hear them and believe that their experience is true, then you have a starting point for building trust,” she said.

3. Bring the right people to the table to lead the effort.

The right person to lead this kind of community and economic development is someone who has credibility and influence, nurtures relationships, helps mediate when trust starts to break down, and has the patience and power to drive change in a way that’s human-centered and aligned with the values of the community.

“Engagement is a conversation between you and the world,” Isaacs said. “It’s all about being clear about what you are passionate about, what you’re good at, but not just imposing your great ideas onto the world as if you have all the answers. When you really listen to what people want and need, that sparks your own creativity, and the solution is better in the end. It’s about business and community leaders cocreating the future.”

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216