I’ve been reading a lot about leadership lately. How great leaders empower and inspire. How they speak up, challenge the status quo, and act with speed and integrity. How they are not afraid to experiment or to fail. How they are entrepreneurs at scale, learning, creating, and changing the game.
Over the next three weeks, I’ll be sharing perspectives from our three Milwaukee Succeeds Co-Chairs – John Schlifske, Northwestern Mutual Chairman and Chief Executive; Jackie-Herd Barber, Greater Milwaukee Foundation Board Member; and Mike Lovell, Marquette University President. Each of them have worked so hard at leading and helping the nearly 300 organizations that are part of Milwaukee Succeeds. I’m constantly struck how each of them, despite their diverse roles and responsibilities, has an earnest desire to serve our more vulnerable population – the children of Milwaukee.
John Schlifske has a restless drive for a better Northwestern Mutual and a better Milwaukee.
Take it away John!
See you soon,
Danae Davis | Executive Director
101 W. Pleasant St., Suite 210, Milwaukee, WI 53212
Q1: Five years in, what are you most proud of with Milwaukee Succeeds?
John: There are so many things. But I am most proud of how we have hit a point of critical mass. If you look at the infrastructure we put in place, the impact we have started to make, and the persistence of the constituents who are part of Milwaukee Succeeds, you can see their desire to keep it going. I've been involved in a number of start-ups over the years, and usually around the fifth year you get to a “make or break” point—where it’s either going to work and go forward or you start to see a waning excitement. With Milwaukee Succeeds, there is no waning excitement. I feel like we've passed the point of “Are we going to make it or not,” and I'm excited about that. There’s a lot of momentum that goes with it.
Q2: What about a book on education reform or a book that keeps you going, that you would recommend?
John: When I read about education, I typically read periodicals or magazines—current news. Ultimately, I'm trying to discover what works best. I'm trying to find how others have changed education. What works? So far, the most important thing I’ve learned is that for change to be sustainable, it needs to have broad-based support. And I believe we are on the right track. We are not ideological, not following a certain wave, and we are really looking at what works. We are focusing on the kids. We don't have any axes to grind. We have a very non-ideological bias on what’s best for the kids. And ultimately, when I read about education, this seems to emerge as the best approach.
Q3: Do you remember a moment when it struck you, "you know what this is working, this is making a difference", was it a visit to the school, a talk to a principal, executive committee meeting; was there a moment where you were like "wow things are really lining up, this is what we wanted?''
John: I would say it was at an educational meeting. About a year ago, shortly after Danae joined Milwaukee Succeeds, there was an issue that could have splintered us. But instead we found a way to approach it from common ground. I really thought that was a proof point that everyone in the room was willing to put aside what might be called “partisan differences” (even though it wasn’t a partisan issue) to move forward with Milwaukee Succeeds. The idea that we need Milwaukee Succeeds to survive and thrive became just as important as the issue being debated. To me, that said a lot. People from various ecosystems were willing to say, "Even though I may disagree with what we’re doing, I’m willing to live with that disagreement because I don't want to see Milwaukee Succeeds splinter.” Increasingly, we are not using these controversial points as reasons to argue; we're looking at them as improvement opportunities. That to me says Milwaukee Succeeds is valued by everybody that is part of it.
Q4: So what are your hopes? Let's say we’re talking in five years, or actually 2020, when we've listed our goals and we've crossed that finish line (not that there is ever a finish line). What would your hopes be?
John: My most prominent hope is that we hit the goals we’ve set. We have very specific and objective goals. If we are able to achieve those goals, that will have the biggest and most positive impact on Milwaukee Succeeds possible—and by proxy, the kids in Milwaukee. So when people ask, “What are your goals,” well, we have published our goals. We don't need any new goals. If you combine the various work streams, all of us are working for the kids in Milwaukee. We’re going to keep thinking about that as it relates to policy, funding, state and government issues and more. Our customers are the kids in Milwaukee. Ultimately, if we reach those goals we will succeed in doing what we set out to do.
Q5: When people are reading this blog, people always say what can I do, is there anything I can do; what could you suggest? What do you want form the broader community?
John: Well, we're going to need support. And support comes down to money and other resources. In the Executive Committee, we talk about how we need scalable and repeatable processes. Scalable in the sense that we can grow from being cost-effective. And repeatable in the sense that we can take what works in a classroom or single school and grow it across the educational ecosystems in the city of Milwaukee. The notion that this is scalable and repeatable—we need the community to recognize this is what we're building. And when they see that, they will support us financially and otherwise. Ultimately, it’s going to take resources to do what we do. And the purpose of Milwaukee Succeeds is not to create another “mouth to feed,” but to redirect money that organizations are spending on education to other things we know work—to drive the outcomes we want. I hope the community will see that we are moving the needle on our goals. I believe the community will embrace the changes and support us.