Lessons in Leadership for Philadelphia

A conversation with the principals of Pew’s Emerging Leaders Corps

Philadelphia’s historic Benjamin Franklin Parkway skims the north side of Center City.
Elevated Angles Visit Philadelphia

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Emerging Leaders Corps, a collaborative learning program designed to help rising leaders in Philadelphia tackle some of the city’s biggest challenges, concluded this spring. Created in partnership with Anavi Strategies and Rvesta Consulting, it featured eight sessions dedicated to facilitated discussions, breakout group activities, and presentations.

In the following interview, the program’s principals—Sophie Bryan, director, and Jason Hachadorian, officer, of Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative; Anjali Chainani, CEO and founder of Anavi Strategies; and Vaughn Ross, founder of Rvesta—share some key takeaways from those eight sessions. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.  

Sophie Bryan, Director of Pew's Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative
Jason Hachadorian, Officer of Pew's Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative

Q: How did the Emerging Leaders Corps program originate?

Vaughn Ross: It started as an idea from the Pew folks about how to foster the next generation of leaders in Philadelphia.

Sophie Bryan: We went into this new undertaking for Pew appreciating that there’s a lot of leadership in the city, both elevated and not yet elevated. We were hopeful that we’d have a chance to connect with folks we didn’t yet know.

Q: From the beginning, what were you trying to accomplish?

Anjali Chainani: Our intention was to create an opportunity for emerging leaders—there were 17 in this first cohort—to have a network of peers they can lean on as they move into roles where they’re making important budget and programmatic decisions. We wanted them to think critically about how to actually solve challenging public sector problems, with solutions-oriented approaches driven by data.

Vaughn Ross, Founder of Rvesta
Anjali Chainani, CEO and founder of Anavi Strategies

Q: How did that work in practice?

Ross: In developing the curriculum, Anjali and I got to be a little bit selfish; we tried to design a curriculum that we would want to go through. And we benefited during the course of the program from really good feedback from the emerging leaders themselves, which helped us refine the curriculum and the facilitation approach as we went.

We had this idea that the leadership qualities we tried to embed into each session are applicable not just for city government or the public sector but more broadly—things like dual accountability between leaders and those they lead, using data to make decisions, and asking for help from folks who might know more than you. These are things you need for any role, any job.

Chainani: Even though I’ve designed curricula before, I came to this with a lot of curiosity, a lot of generosity around “What can I give to this process that’s going to make it different? What is Vaughn bringing that’s going to make it unique?”

In practice, we built the list of guest speakers and the activities around nine core competencies. For example, one key competency was creating relationships with others to build trust, share policy ideas, and accomplish work together.

I just want to elevate how iterative this process was and how many different minds came to the table to develop the curriculum. So while Vaughn and I put together a skeleton, we got feedback from Sophie, Jason, and others at Pew.

And, as Vaughn mentioned, the feedback from the emerging leaders themselves was powerful, and we were able to adjust to what they were asking for. We constantly asked ourselves, “What do they need to succeed?” We appreciated going into it that everyone learns slightly differently—some people learn through practical application; others learn through our sharing data with them—and we really had to balance those different styles.

Q: Vaughn and Anjali, did you have a past working relationship?

Chainani: We both worked in the mayor’s office …

Q: You mean current Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, right?

Chainani: Yes. And we were in meetings together almost daily. But I don’t recall Vaughn and I working very closely together, because we each had our own portfolios. We were aware of what each other was doing, but we’d never designed something together. The Emerging Leaders Corps was a great opportunity to be able to do that.

Ross: Anjali and I have overlapping and complementary skill sets, and both of us really do enjoy working on teams. In fact, the part of leadership I most enjoy is being a part of a collective and working toward a shared goal.

Bryan: The pairing of Anjali and Vaughn exceeded our wildest expectations, which were quite high. We were awestruck by their depth of experience, their expertise, and their understanding of how to do things in complicated environments.

Q: Can you tell us about the group of emerging leaders you assembled?

Chainani: I was really taken by their passion, which really came through as they were engaging the different speakers and in the questions they asked. The other thing that struck me was how willing they were to be vulnerable about what they knew and didn’t know.

Sometimes people are afraid—especially when they’re supposed to be leaders—to share what they don’t know. You often want to come into a room and demonstrate your skills and your expertise and what you can do. But with this program, we were able to create a very safe space to share questions and curiosities: “What do you want to learn? What do you want to be able to do? What’s your vision? And then let’s help you think through how to get there.”

Ross: It felt like everything that this group wanted to do centered on empowering communities to be a part of the decision-making process. Even in scenarios where they could use their wildest imagination, they kept coming back to: “How do I get people more involved in the work that leaders are doing?”

Q: Did you have an answer to that?

Ross: Sometimes the answer was that it’s really hard, and sometimes the answer was that it’s really easy. They were constantly figuring out how to close that gap—that vertical distance between leadership and decision-making. People going about their everyday lives don’t always have time to think about “How do I get to a registered community organization (RCO) meeting?” or “How do I talk to public health providers?”

Q: What other themes emerged from the sessions?

Chainani: There’s so much research right now on empathetic leadership and emotionally intelligent organizations. So we not only talked about that; we helped them see how to get there. The questions we asked them to reflect on allowed them to explore and evaluate “What do I think about this? How do I feel about it? What am I going to do about it?”

Bryan: I was definitely struck by the low ego and high curiosity in the group. We had folks coming from different lived experiences, different places on the political spectrum, and different kinds of work experiences. And in almost every conversation, they were curious about what their fellow emerging leaders had to say.

Q: What about your guest speakers?

Chainani: We were very intentional about bringing in guest speakers with technical skills and expertise. For instance, for the session on land use—which is a contentious issue—it was important for us to bring in speakers with different perspectives.

So we had James Johnson-Piett from Urbane, a private development company that operates in New York City and Philadelphia, who gave the developer perspective; Rachel Meadows from City Council, who gave the legislative perspective; and Eleanor Sharpe from the City Planning Commission, who gave the city planner perspective.

Q: You’ve given us a sense of what the participants learned from the program, so let’s flip that question on its head: What did you learn from the program?

Ross: I learned that if you design and facilitate something really well, you shouldn’t doubt that folks will buy in and that they’ll give their all to what you’ve asked of them. It’s hard to get working adults to give two hours of their time every other Tuesday, to learn to be open with strangers until they’re friends, and to admit what they don’t know. But they did just that.

Chainani: What I learned and what was confirmed for me is that 80% of the hard work is in the planning. After that, we were able to show up and execute.

Jason Hachadorian: I’ve been involved in several of these leadership development programs and consider myself a quasi-participant in this one. I think, for me, this program both demonstrated and reaffirmed the power of showing up vulnerable to spaces. There were just so many instances of people showing up with vulnerability. That’s scary and hard to do, right? We all talk about doing it and kind of preach it, but it’s very rarely practiced. And showing up not only to this program vulnerably, but also just every day showing up to a career vulnerably, is so powerful—and it builds culture and rapport among people.

This program really built a sense of a team among the emerging leaders. And I thought that was incredibly moving and great to be a part of.

Bryan: All of the above! Also, spaces with a lot of diversity in multiple dimensions are the most beautiful spaces. We were really fortunate to have a group that was diverse not only racially but also in terms of work experience, age, and perspectives.

Because of the combination of that and vulnerability and extraordinary leadership by Anjali and Vaughn, something beautiful was born.

Q: What’s next?

Bryan: The Emerging Leaders Corps is just one of multiple projects that Anjali and Vaughn are working on with Pew over a two-year engagement. For example, they’re our main project partners and leaders for a budget boot camp we’re doing starting in the late fall for the incoming mayoral team and City Council members.

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