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Finally, A Business Leader Steps Up…

…In Los Angeles. But a new face on the Philly school board provides hope that private sector expertise might be on its way

…In Los Angeles. But a new face on the Philly school board provides hope that private sector expertise might be on its way

For the longest time, our business community has chosen to lead from behind, to resurrect an old Obama-era complaint. While other cities—like Atlanta—boast an engaged CEO class that dictates economic growth policies to elected officials, we’ve become more of a branch-office town, with a timid Chamber of Commerce representing executives who—far from lending their expertise to local government—defer to elected leaders who seem committed to doing just enough to get through the next election.

Last month, I brought you the story of one business mover and shaker in our midst who has had the temerity to stick his head above the go-along-to-get-along pack. Jerry Sweeney, CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust, has put together a diverse coalition to lobby for tax reform that would simultaneously see him pay more in taxes while fueling job growth throughout the city. It’s the kind of bold thinking we see far too seldom from our siloed private sector machers.

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Don’t get me wrong: We are chock full of business leaders who are philanthropic, and who require of their charges that they do really good works. But they shy away from getting their hands messy in the muck that is local politics and government. We need more of them to step up and lend their strategic and managerial expertise to the plodding ways of city government.

“In the Boy Scouts, in Church, there were people making you better, serving you,” says Walker. “When you’ve been served by others, it means you also have to serve.”

That’s what happened in New York under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who went outside the educational establishment and hired corporate lawyer Joel Klein to turn around the city’s schools and who recruited Bob Steel, former Wachovia Bank CEO and Goldman Sachs vice chair, to be his Deputy Mayor for Economic Development; by the end of Steel’s tenure in 2013, he’d streamlined 10 mayoral agencies and the city had set a record for job growth.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles’ elected school board named Austin Beutner superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district. Like Klein, Beutner brings fresh eyes to the too-often insular world of education. He’s a former investment banker and the former publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times. He has also served as deputy mayor in LA, so he has some political experience to go with his widely respected financial acumen and negotiating skills.

Buetner was an out-of-the-box choice because, as one school board member put it, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you always have gotten. The status quo is not good enough for our kids. We don’t have the luxury of waiting.”

To his credit, Mayor Kenney’s hand-picked school board doesn’t contain the usual suspects, the politicos and the donors and the hangers-on. When the list first became public, I scoured it. It was, at first blush, a promising group—well-meaning, earnest local patriots. But was there anyone who had demonstrated the ability to set a vision and transform large-scale organizations? Someone who had succeeded by thinking strategically, by managing a bureaucracy, by meeting payroll and motivating underlings to be better than they’d ever imagined?

Wayne Walker

No one jumped out, not at first…but, then, what was this?…who was this?…some dude named Wayne Walker? President of Walker Nell Partners, an international business consulting firm focusing on corporate governance, turnaround management, corporate restructuring and bankruptcy matters. Uh, that sounds kinda perfect. He’d spent 15 years as senior counsel at the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware. He was Chairman of the Board of Habitat for Humanity International, and currently chairs National Philanthropic Trust, a public charity with $6 billion in assets that has distributed over $1 billion around the globe.

Holy crap. I had one question for Wayne Walker when he picked up his phone on the first ring: “How come I’ve never heard of you?”

He laughed heartily. “Well, there are about 6 million people in the Philadelphia metro region,” he said.

Turns out, Walker, 59, initially declined to serve on the reconstituted school board. But Stephanie Naidoff, the former city commerce director and a force of nature in her own right, refused to take no for an answer. In her capacity as one of the nominating committee members, Naidoff had been on a mission to find some private sector heft. In search of candidates with financial and strategic expertise, she combed through the records of accounting association and legal community reports, making cold calls.

“I didn’t even know her,” Walker recalls. “But I was flattered and humbled by the interest.”

When Walker turned her down, Naidoff kept calling. Sounds like she stalked you, I offer, and there’s that laugh again: “I guess you could say that.”

We are chock full of business leaders who shy away from getting their hands messy in the muck that is local politics and government. We need more of them to step up and lend their strategic and managerial expertise to the plodding ways of city government.

Ultimately, Walker says, he came to see that his skill set met the moment. “My background in corporate governance and turnarounds will be helpful,” he says. He’s not an academic, and won’t pretend to be. Instead, he’ll be doing what is most needed: “Establishing strategies, empowering the CEO, holding staff operationally accountable.”

Sounds like a much-needed plan. Superintendent William Hite generally receives good marks for his stewardship of the District in turbulent times, but when boxes of unused textbooks are found in shuttered school basements and when the private company hired for $34 million to provide substitute teaching to 75 percent of classrooms only managed to do so for 20 percent, it’s clear that management is not his strongest suit.

Here’s hoping, also, that Walker’s example helps encourage others to similarly serve. Walker calls his Board service “my chance,” recognizing it as the natural extension of a life committed to putting his skills to use beyond the enrichment of his own bank account. Walker grew up in Macon, Georgia; his father was a welder, and his mother worked at an auto parts company, eventually rising to supervisor.

“I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in the traditional sense,” says the first generation college graduate. “But I had a village. My mother had an unshakeable commitment to education. Before breakfast and after school, she’d sit with my sister and me, running through flash cards and our spelling words. In the Boy Scouts, in Church, there were people making you better, serving you. When you’ve been served by others, it means you also have to serve.”

Walker is just getting to know his fellow Board members and he waxes enthusiastic about their diverse strengths, instant camaraderie and shared commitment. He calls the public the Board’s “shareholders,” and the notion of public officials feeling a fiduciary responsibility to citizens seems like a refreshing change.

Markets are neither good nor bad. They can punch above their weight; it’s what you do with that power that matters. Maybe something is happening here? Here’s hoping that the openness in LA and New York to public service by those with private management experience is starting to catch on here. After all, we have Sweeney shaking things up, while condo king-turned-Councilman Allan Domb’s recent questioning of the city’s financial stewards has revealed that the city hasn’t reconciled bank statements in years and has misplaced millions of dollars.

And now we’ll have Walker—a great find—coming out of the C suite, using market expertise to exert public good. We don’t need more ideologues. We need people with the skills to make Philadelphia efficient again.

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