Sallie Glickman: A Behind-the-Scenes Trailblazer

February 22, 2012

By Lauren Hansen-Flaschen

I had the pleasure of sitting down with civic entrepreneur and Fels Research & Consulting Senior Advisor Sallie Glickman outside of DiBruno Brothers to learn about her career path and hear her reflections on being a public sector mover and shaker.

Over a coconut mocha frappe, I asked her about her background as a pioneer of workforce development in Philadelphia, her insights on true leadership, and her role in reshaping Fels Research and Consulting. Here is what she said.

What drew you to a career focused on Workforce Development?

While I was in college, I grew more aware of the great influence educational opportunities and access to wealth have on people’s mobility within the workforce and I became very passionate about economic and social justice issues.

Over time, I realized that workforce development doesn’t stand on its own. It is at the nexus of other important issues. Work constitutes such an important core of our own lives and governs what we do. Work influences and filters how we engage in the community in general and in our family life. For a person who is in the economic mainstream, work provides a support structure when difficult situations in life arise, such as illness. But those without a stable work network do not have that extra layer of protection and support.

This idea that work provides a context for one’s life was a defining reality for me and my interest in the issue has evolved over many years and through lots of experiences. I realized that if we as a society are going to move forward on any of the big social issues such as workforce development and economic justice, then we had to define the context of the issue since not everyone perceives or understands these issues in the same way.

In this vein, I think the most important work that I did over last several years was to create a shared context for workforce challenges so that lots of people can mobilize around these issues - whatever their sphere.  Private sector, public sector, no one group owns this issue. These big challenges have to be shared.

You have founded or co-founded at least half-a-dozen initiatives. What are your thoughts about being a civic entrepreneur?

I love to tackle problems at a systems level. This requires bringing people together around the issue or sub-issue at hand. People have different things that motivate them. For me, it’s the collaboration that’s exciting. The first time I led a collaborative project I realized it brought me joy to be behind the scenes, making things happen. That excitement and fulfillment was a great motivator for me, and inspired me to do it again and again.

Being a founder of new projects has resulted in developing programs that live on and thrive after my involvement ends. David Thornburgh and I are founders of Graduate! Philadelphia, but G!P is Hadass and her team.  Her success brings me great joy. To make new initiatives work, it takes a great executive who can put it into action and shape it as it evolves. I love finding those people and helping them shine.

I’m proud of the people who made those things sing, and I feel very, very privileged to have been able to play a part in their success.

What has been your biggest career challenge so far?

The project that I’m most proud of is the one that scared me the most in the beginning. While I was CEO at the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, we published Tale of Two Cities. It is the story of a divided Philadelphia- a thriving city where educated people have access to opportunities and are doing great things, and a city where people with low education levels live in poverty and struggle to find meaningful work. It’s not a pretty picture. It was hard and intimidating to figure out how to tell the story because we knew it could ruffle a lot of feathers in a very big way.

We agonized over how to contextualize and present the material in a way that would have impact and stimulate real action. I’m really proud of this work because I think Tale of Two Cities became the blueprint for much of the dialogue and action around workforce development that emerged after its publication. The story revealed systematic reasons behind why Philadelphia’s labor force participation is near the bottom of the 100 largest cities and framed the issues in a way that stimulated important dialogue.

What kind of leadership qualities do you see as vital to having impact in the public sector?

If you want to have more lasting impact, I believe that your concern about addressing the issue has to be larger than your interest in getting credit. Otherwise, it’s very hard to become a neutral broker and to bring all of the necessary partners to the table. Basically, you have to be able to stand up and say, ‘this issue is larger than me, larger than my organization, and we have to find a way to play comfortably together’.

We don’t want a bunch of star billings above the headline. The headline is our common ground. It’s not to say that you don’t want a champion, those are good to have, but you have to be willing to check the ego at the door. You also have to be prepared to do a lot of work to get things going. You have to have a very authentic commitment to the issue and patience. These projects do not happen quickly, so you need a level of tenacity to keep things moving.

Too bad it seems like forgoing credit and public recognition is a rare quality these days…

I think that a lot of people get joy from being part of things that are larger then themselves, but it’s hard because our world is wired to recognize the individual more than the project itself. Even so, I’ve been part of collaborations where there are dozens of people who come together and aren’t looking for individual credit.

The fundamental challenge, I believe, is that individuals who run organizations tend to be charged to nurture and advance the profile of that organization, which does not necessarily result from collaborative efforts.

Do you think the extended timeline of these issues are partly why local politicians are slower to adopt them?

Often, elected officials don’t stake themselves on issues like adult literacy and college completion rates because they are large human capital issues with considerable uncertainty. Even though the issues are so big and important, it takes a very courageous political leader to take them on because the changes are so incremental.  With these larger social transformations the economic impact is not immediately measurable.  Still, we have an economic model that shows that an investment in them is hugely beneficial over the long-term.  For example, an investment in literacy programs will produce a 450% return over 8 years, but the initial financial outlay is relatively high. Therefore, political leaders are reluctant to fund them.

What was your role on reshaping Fels Research & Consulting into what it has become today?

David had a phenomenal vision for Research & Consulting. I was hired to help figure out how to align the practice in support of the vision. It was a very straightforward consulting gig. While designing the model, the position for a new director was posted and Lauren Hirshon went through a very competitive search and was offered – and accepted - the job.  I was then able to work with Lauren and David to shape the piece that is now rolling forward. That was a real gift because as a consultant, you often have to work in isolation instead of as a team.

Truthfully, I didn’t do anything that David couldn’t have done if he had the time and the bandwidth – but like so many executives I meet, it is near impossible to do the job necessary every day and also lead the strategic work.  That’s where I came in – and I had the pleasure of partnering with an incredible executive in David, and to work on something that I have seen come alive and, frankly, exceed all expectations.

Now, as a Senior Advisor for Research & Consulting, I can continue to be involved in a different way, which I love. I am able to brainstorm with the other Senior Advisors on which issues areas R&C should consider moving into, and how to extend the impact of current projects.

In an earlier conversation, you described your career goals and passions as revolving around furthering economic justice and enhancing workforce development for those who have not had as many opportunities for growth and success. Does this stem from experiences beyond what you have seen during your time in the working world?

My grandfather had to leave school in the 8th grade to support his family. He went on to start an successful business. He was able to get access to capital. Nobody asked him, “did you graduate from high school”?  When life happened and got in the way of his education, it didn’t get in the way of his future economic opportunities. He couldn’t have been a teacher or a lawyer, but there was still a world open to him. That’s not the case anymore.

There are many high potential individuals for whom life just gets in the way, and they don’t get the educational rigor or training to get back on track.  It has nothing to do with potential and everything to do with access to education and training.

All the time, in this city – and in this country - we write people off because we refuse to recognize their potential. That just makes me so angry! Maybe that’s another quality you have to have to be a civic entrepreneur: you have to get a little angry at the way things are.

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