What Seattle teaches Gilroy

I was fortunate to attend the National Main Street Conference in Seattle in March with three  fellow board members and Nancy Maciel, coordinator for the Gilroy Downtown Business Association. One of the more inspiring seminars that I attended was, “Downtown Collaborations, Using Transformation Strategies to Unite,” presented by the downtown development association of Owosso, Mich.

The presenters told their story of how they had partnered with nearly all of their community’s  organizations, city government and stakeholders in order to enhance cross-promotion across social media; foster collaborations to increase program reach by introducing new ideas; create and foster old and new shared resources; spread the workload among  partner organizations; develop shared strategies by sitting at the same table and developing new programs; and open up the community to the power of partnership and leading by example.

Case studies were presented detailing how collaboration had created events that exceeded what any organization could have accomplished  individually. One member of the audience asked if every organization in their city partnered with them. The response was that only one organization wouldn’t collaborate, their point being that sometimes it’s impossible to get all leaders outside of their silo mindset of thinking about “me” instead of “we,”  and sometimes you have to just accept that and move on.

As part of our annual strategic plan, the Gilroy Downtown Business Association adopted a goal to engage community groups, individuals, businesses and government to enhance partnership opportunities. Having seen what Owosso accomplished reaffirms the benefit to our organization and greater community that would accrue by partnering and collaborating with other Gilroy constituencies on overlapping goals.

Although optimistic, we understand human nature and the pitfalls and blindspots that go along with initiating collaboration: identity, legitimacy, control and recognition that each party at the table is concerned about losing. Asking two employees, departments or organizations to come together on one new initiative requires addressing these concerns.

Asking  groups to come together can be tough, but the key to success begins with outwardly reinforcing that we are not a threat, that they are a valued entity and that they will retain control of their own area. We often hear slogans about working together such as, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” but the best leaders have learned they must move beyond these lofty statements and specifically address fears and concerns early on.

As president of the business association, I strive to become a better leader by being honest and transparent in my dealings with partner organizations, moving from silos to collaboration by addressing my own and others’ fears, and by being more intentional at the very beginning. The result is a better downtown, a stronger community, increased trust and a level of success that no one individual or organization could achieve alone.

If Gilroy is going to be a successful community, we need all our organizations, individuals and leaders rowing together in good faith for the common good. The result of building more and new meaningful relationships will gradually dilute the strength of those leaders and organizations that choose to remain intransigent. So where do we intend to start?

As part of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association’s strategic plan goal of strengthening existing partnerships, and our desire to create new ones, we will be conducting a workshop soon to delve into this topic in more detail. In the meantime, if you are a leader of any Gilroy organization and would like to explore the possibility of partnering or collaborating with us before then, we would love to hear your ideas and thoughts.

Gary Walton is president of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association.

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