Thoughts on the Grand Rapids Trip

December 16, 2011 at 3:03 PM

Reflection Submitted by Christopher Sikes, Chief Executive Officer,
Common Capital, Inc. (Formerly Western Mass Enterprise Fund)

Planning and leadership

Grand Rapids

During our three-day visit I was struck by the level of systematic research and planning that went into every project. The” magic mile” was a well thought-out strategy from start to finish but every smaller project seemed to be done in the same manner. When I spoke with a presenter from the panel on philanthropy she indicated how in the early days there was more of a “ready shoot aim” approach by the philanthropists and it seemed to work well. The economy was simpler. Now that the world is more complex the philanthropic community in Grand Rapids engages sophisticated planners to conduct studies and make recommendations.

Planning is part of the culture. They have a methodology for putting the right teams together and then devising a plan, and in the larger projects, that plan includes paying a professional firm to conduct the research and make recommendations. They have a great respect for the planning process. Everything seems to move forward with a plan.

Finally, development was not only planned it was coordinated. They worked hard to break down silos. Everyone seemed to know what everyone else was doing. This created a sense of being part of a larger team all moving forward. There was a palpable sense of esprit de corp.  

There was recognition of the importance of roles and of matching the skill set to the job. The Mayor, an elected position, did not manage the operations of the city; the City manager did.

With this approach, the success of a project could be measured and adjustment made as needed. All parties understood the impact of a project or initiative upon the City. As success has followed success and as individuals know their role and can see their impact on the success, there is a momentum of growing collaboration, of being personally invested in the success of the City.

Certainly Grand Rapids has its challenges. Its public school system is no better than most inner city schools. The issues of diversity and racial equity are significant. There appears to be a growing sense of its urgency to address these issues but I didn’t hear much talk about planning for improving the schools. Still, much was being done to improve the low-income neighborhoods.


The Challenge for Springfield

I left Grand Rapids feeling much better about Springfield when I first arrived. We have capital. We have some strong educational, and economic development organizations, and we have strong (albeit predominantly not family owned) businesses.

But what we also have, that they don’t have, are very high silos. Here at Common Capital we are just now reaching out to the community and becoming more proactive. We have tended to be a well-kept secret in the Valley. We have frequently not been part of important meetings where we would have had something substantial to offer. These omissions aren’t by design; they are more about not having a coordinated and open methodology. But whatever the reasons for the silos, we are living through economic times that just don’t allow it.

They need to be dissolved. To accomplish this, leadership has to show vision and use a strategy of “winning over.” Unlike Grand Rapids, the leadership won’t come exclusively from the wealthiest and most influential individuals and corporations. It will come from those who hold the vision of the critical importance of bringing the right people to the table and who put Springfield before the advancement of any other agenda.

We need to identify that leadership and gradually bring it together. How do we do that? My thought is that we need to turn to ourselves to start that process. We have gotten to know one another, we represent a wide area of interest and influence and, in some capacity, all of us are in leadership roles.  Why don’t we take the first step and conduct a charrette: what does a vibrant Springfield look like? And work from there. We may want to have the meeting facilitated by an outside facilitator.

I believe that the initiators of growth lie within the City2City group. As we develop we would bring others to join the process, broadening the engagement in the community. 

Tags: Common Capital, Inc. Christopher Sikes

Paul Robbins


Paul Robbins of Paul Robbins Associates-Strategic Communications is managing the City2City Pioneer Valley blog. The intent is solely to provide information about the initiative and inform those interested about ongoing City2City initiatives. Paul is a member of the City2City Greater Springfield planning committee and participated in the first trip to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina. He will post content generated by City2City participants, provide updates on related initiatives and publish input from those interested in the initiative. For those wishing to provide content, Paul can be reached at