Madison’s Succession Plan

Madison’s Succession Plan

This month, Jennifer Alexander retires from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. Kathleen Woit of the Madison Community Foundation is right behind her.

Phyllis Wilhelm (Madison Gas and Electric), Jim Riordan (WPS) and Jen Winiger (Madison Magazine) have already had their retirement parties. And looking down the community leader roster, I wonder about Deb Archer (the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau), Susan Schmitz (Downtown Madison, Inc.), Gary Wolter (MGE), Neil Heinen (Mad Mag), Mark Bugher (University Research Park), Bettsey Barhorst (Madison College) and others. How much more do they have in ’em?

These Madison leaders have made important impacts on our lives. We are better because they have served.

But their departures?

Smells like opportunity.

Madison needs a succession plan.

I suggest that in choosing our next leaders, we shy away from those who’ve already “made it” in their careers and are eyeballing Madison as a nice place to retire. Take Paul Jadin, the new head of Thrive. He has relevant experience in Green Bay, but let’s be honest: He’s not looking to shake things up. I’d wager that he wants to make nice so he can enjoy the farmers’ market every Saturday for the rest of his life.

That’s lovely. It’s congenial. But it’s not what Madison needs.

Let me share a little story.

When I attended my first board meeting in ’04 for the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, I distinctly remember feeling, These are not my people.

Yes, they were mostly men. And yes, they were mostly older than me. But that’s not what freaked me out. It was something else. It was their life stage. They’d all made it. They’d climbed the mountain of success and now seemed to be coasting along the backside. They had time and freedom to attend board meetings. They had sherpas —admins and gatekeepers and legal counsel and direct reports—who handled things while they attended to Important Chamber Business.

That wasn’t me. I had to hustle. I couldn’t afford to hang out too long at a board meeting. If I missed a morning of work, our office phones went unanswered and clients got pissed.
My board peers seemed to be thriving. I was still striving.

And that was fine for Madison in 2004. The economy was different. Madison wasn’t an enemy of the state. Status-quo keepers were just right for times of predictability. But times have changed, and our leaders need to keep pace. I hope the new chamber president, Zach Brandon, will be one of those leaders; he certainly understands these issues.

Dave Boyer, a man I deeply respect (he wears Carharts to meetings of the several boards on which he serves), says, “Many of our community organizations have at their core a set of habits and beliefs that end up keeping things the same. It’s human behavior—when an organization becomes established, it often benefits if things remain the same. Leaders often unknowingly collude with other leaders and funders to keep things the same. The result is that our significant institutions are unable to meet today’s needs—education, politics and health care among them. Our trajectories are in the wrong direction. Someone has to be leading a different kind of change.”

Dave’s comments are the clanging bell for Madison to attract and promote different kinds of leaders, folks who aren’t coasting and still have something to prove. Folks who’re comfortable with “New America”—women-led, multi-ethnic. Folks who get Madison’s 1960s vibe but can finesse it for 2020 relevance. Folks who aren’t afraid to look Madison’s social and economic shortcomings square in the face and say, “We can fix this.” 

We need more leaders like Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and the University of Wisconsin’s Dawn Crim and City Council president Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and the Urban League’s Kaleem Caire and community builder extraordinaire Annette Miller and Sector67’s Chris Meyer and the Ale Asylum gang and Mentoring Postives’ Will Green.

These folks meet the criteria I have for our next-gen leaders: They “get it” and they still have something to prove. They are the answer to our succession challenge. They’ll continue to make Madison a great place to coast … and an even better place for those who are still climbing.

Rebecca Ryan is founder of Next Generation Consulting. Her new book, ReGENERATION, hits bookshelves soon. Contact Rebecca Ryan at

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