Participants at the 2020 IPSS.

The spring 2020 Harris Inter-Policy School Summit assembled thought leaders from across the globe for a robust dialogue on city resiliency and climate change. In addition to Harris students, participants included public policy students from other schools, executives from the Aspen Institute Energy & Environment Program, and activists.

The annual student-run Summit, also known as IPSS, is an action-oriented forum that digs deep on policy, fosters innovative solutions, and facilitates the making of professional connections. What happened at this particular Summit is an engaging story of how one email from a well-connected Harris alum triggered an “epidemic” of connections that illustrates the power of the Harris network.

In his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell describes individuals who initiate social epidemics as “Connectors.” Gladwell argues that Connectors “know lots of people” have their feet “in many different worlds,” have an “instinct that helps them relate to the people they meet,” and “see possibility.” Their ability to span many different worlds emanates from their innate curiosity, sociability, and energy.

As this Harris story reveals, astute professionals rely on Connectors to find opportunities and gain access to unfamiliar worlds.

The Initial Connection

Harris alumna Mary Michaud, MPP’95, is a consultant, entrepreneur, teacher, and trained facilitator, who is also a classic “Gladwellian Connector.” Mary describes herself as “creative, outgoing and extroverted” and “willing to talk to anybody.” Proving the point, she came to my office and introduced herself to me during a 2019 Harris Alumni Council meeting. We clicked immediately.

In December 2019, Mary noticed an announcement for the upcoming Inter-Policy School Summit and emailed me. She wondered if the Summit’s student organizers “might like a bit of alumni help,” adding that she was “willing to volunteer and support the event if that would be something they would find useful.” As a former campaign staffer and current nonprofit board member myself, I know you never turn down that kind of offer. I said yes immediately and then scrambled to find out more about the Summit.

At that point, my Harris connections became important. I learned that Analiese Wagner, MPP’20, was one of the Summit organizers. I had selected Analiese to be a Leadership Facilitator for a new Harris program. I introduced Analiese and Mary. That introduction produced a new collaboration. It also triggered an intriguing chain of subsequent connections and events.

Mary is skilled at drawing. She also teaches how to create visual representations of individual narratives and group discussions. Analiese and the other Summit organizers asked Mary to lead a workshop on “visual communication strategies.” Mary also volunteered to stay over the weekend and be a mentor and sounding board for the Summit attendees.

Analiese thought Mary’s workshop was, as she put it, “wonderful.” She noted that it “provided participants with professional development opportunities.” Moreover, Mary’s broad professional experience (which included working at a city health department and consulting on disaster preparedness planning) made her uniquely qualified to facilitate student discussions on the Summit’s two main topics, climate change and city resiliency. According to Analiese:

“Mary produced incredible drawings to illustrate the complex ideas and discussions our participants were having in their groups. She added an extra layer of understanding and depth to the Summit’s outcomes by representing key ideas and making connections.” 

A Green Connection

Sarah Gill, MPP'20

Ever the Connector, Mary introduced herself to Harris student Sarah Gill, MPP’20, who, like Analiese, helped organize the Summit. Sarah had hoped that the summit would also be about networking. According to Sarah, “during various coffee breaks Mary and I got to talking, and she asked me what I wanted to do in my life. I talked about my interest in urban greening and the importance of access to green space.”

The conversations between Mary and Sarah were pivotal. As they talked, they found common ground. Mary thought Sarah’s interest in urban greening “was great” and suggested that she might want to learn about Green Schoolyards America.

Mary connected Sarah to her friend Sharon Danks, the CEO and Founder of Green Schoolyards America (GSA), for a coffee chat. Danks is an environmental city planner whose passion and professional work are dedicated to turning school yards into spaces that enhance local ecology. Mary describes Sharon as a “really strategic actor in that realm,” and the GSA’s organizational goal as “fostering living school yards across the country as a matter of infrastructure policy, wellness policy, at a systems level.” This “targeted” connection expanded Sarah’s network and set up the next series of relationships.

Then COVID-19 happened.

As the pandemic unfolded schools closed their indoor facilities. Sharon and GSA saw an opportunity to facilitate outdoor learning. Collaborating with other organizations they created the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which undertook the task of creating a free online library of ideas and resources. The Initiative convened hundreds of subject matter experts from across the country to develop the library. As the project expanded, the founders decided they needed help and asked for additional volunteers.

Sarah said: “When they were calling for volunteers, Mary reached out and asked if I knew about the Outdoor Learning Initiative.” Sarah had been following the Initiative, but was reluctant to apply because she “thought they were looking for professionals, academics, the kind of people who can speak with authority or put this into practice.” Still, Sarah was interested and hoped there might be a role for her.

Mary Michaud, MPP ’95 at the 2020 IPSS workshop pre-pandemic. Photo by Terri Brady.

When Mary became the head of the Initiative’s Health Working group, she contacted Sarah again. “Mary said, ‘Come work on my team. I know you have administrative abilities.’” It was an excellent opportunity for Sarah. After her first working group meeting, a public health professional asked Sarah to help him co-lead a team subgroup. Now she’s highlighted in bold print on the group’s webpage as “Sarah Gill MPP” for her leadership role.

Mary asked Sarah to help her “because she is awesome. I knew what skills she would bring to the table because of her Harris experience. Talking to her and seeing how well they organized the Summit, I knew she would bring a lot of value.” Mary describes Sarah as someone “who pays attention, is very good with data, and able to organize multiple moving parts.”

Mary also knew that Sarah was living near GSA’s headquarters in California. That proximity would give Sarah access to a nearby professional community. “What a great opportunity for somebody with policy skills to get to know all these people. We have folks from all over the state and the country. She’s walking into this network of people and getting exposure to lots of different organizations.”

Sarah says that is exactly what has happened:

“It’s definitely been an excellent networking opportunity. There is a strong feeling of community in the COVID-19 National Outdoor Learning Initiative. I am working directly with a handful of people and there are larger meetings which open the door to even more people. There are professionals ‘that I bother’ with questions and recommendations. I have definitely been blessed to meet and communicate with all these various exciting and interesting people around the country.”

Sarah laughs at herself for “bothering” the professionals, but her invitation to lead a sub-group speaks for itself. She clearly impressed the Initiative’s leaders and participants.

Active Connection Building

Shellye Archambeau, the author of Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms, become one of the first female African American CEOs in Silicon Valley through hard work and networking. During a recent Harris webinar, Archambeau talked about creating networking opportunities. In her book, she stresses the importance of volunteering, like Sarah did, to build professional networks:

“You need to be building your network all the time, not just when you want something. In fact, aim for most of your interactions to be spent providing help or value to others. Give more than you take; it’s not just the generous thing to do, but it also puts you in a position of power instead of weakness.”

Networking is not easy for many professionals. In a Harvard Business Review article on networking misconceptions, Herminia Ibarra observed that for every person who sees the value of maintaining a wide and diverse set of professional connections, many more “struggle to overcome innate resistance to, if not distaste for, networking.”

There is no doubt that building those connections and maintaining relationships can be vital to career growth. An additional benefit of robust networks is that they can be an excellent source of new perspectives and ideas. Networking also builds confidence. According to the Michael Page team, an international recruiting firm:

“By continually putting yourself out there and meeting new people, you’re effectively stepping outside your comfort zone and building invaluable social skills and self-confidence that you can take with you anywhere. The more you network, the more you’ll grow and learn how to make lasting connections.”

Ibarra adds that it is a misconception that people are naturally good at networking. Professionals must work at it. It takes what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck characterizes as a “growth mindset,” the belief that individuals can develop skills (like networking) through focused effort over time. Recent research confirms that adopting a “growth” rather than a “fixed” mindset, motivates people to work harder, improve, and get better returns.

The returns on Sarah’s networking investments have been significant. Sarah says connecting to Mary and the Outdoor Learning Initiative created an “amazing opportunity.” She “definitely” plans to continue volunteering with the organization. “There is still some work to be done. I have raised my hand to do periodic reviews as needed.”

Good things come to those who connect. Sarah has begun communicating with one of the Initiative’s partner organizations. Sarah’s personal and professional goals are aligning. All Harris graduates aspire to make a positive social impact. Sarah is doing it. She talks excitedly when she observes that: “Green Schoolyards is a group bringing all these people together to do something important.”

More than just connecting, networking builds strong long-term relationships and enhances reputations. According to the Michael Page team, effective networking translates into “being visible and getting noticed.” Mary speaks very highly of Sarah’s contribution at the Initiative, noting Sarah is a great writer and a strong voice on the team:

“She wasn’t afraid to pose a better question, such as ‘we’re getting there but it might be a better question if we asked it this way.’ Sarah was substantively helpful even though she never claimed to have expertise in the content. She had an ability to jump in and swim with a group that was extremely experienced. That was cool.” 

Both Mary and Sarah marvel at the confluence of events that led to their connection, its manifestations, and the lessons they offer Harris students. Mary says the environmental educators at organizations like GSA:

 “…are not necessarily policy trained. They are not thinking about leveraging utilities’ interests to match up with school interests to advance better education and equity. But that is the way Harris grads think! There is a fearlessness in Harris graduates. How do we get this done? Let me swim around in the data.” 

Sarah was wowed by “the whole chain of events. First there was an Inter-Policy School Summit created by students that I helped run, which linked me to a really interesting alum, who is doing things that are part of my passion, and then the alum remembered me and reached out to me ... it’s all this chain of events that is striking ... with connections and opportunities ... that’s why you go to Harris.”

Mary believes that it is “part of my role” as a member of the Harris Alumni Council and Co-Chair of the Career and Networks Committee, to support students. “You want people at that stage in their career to have pathways to lead.” She adds that building relationships with students like Sarah also benefits alumni like her and the organizations they support: “We are in this together. Everything is connected. If more people do one thing, it’s going to make a difference.”

Mary “The Connector” first connected with me and then with Harris students at the Summit. New ideas, new relationships and opportunities ensued. Mary and Analiese connected. Mary and Sarah became linked. This led Sarah to a new community and the Outdoor Learning Initiative. Two plus two became ten.

And one other bit of serendipity occurred. Sarah and Mary became friends. As Mary says of Sarah: “Sarah is really fun to talk to. She is awesome.” And Sarah says about Mary: “I want to highlight how wonderful Mary is. She makes you feel like someone is looking out for you, which is really nice.” And, of course, “Mary is amazing.”

As Malcolm Gladwell might observe, sometimes one “little thing” like sending an email to make a connection, can truly “make a big difference.” It expands a network. It builds community.

Terri Brady, Executive Director, Professional Development

Terri Brady is the Executive Director of Professional Development.  She conceptualizes,  creates and manages professional development for Harris alumni.  She specifically focuses on providing insights and tools to help alumni become more self-aware, insightful and adaptive leaders with strong communication skills.  Terri also coaches students and provides support to the Harris Policy Labs classes.