A man sits at the balcony of his 7-million dollar residence overlooking the calm waters of Charleston's Waterfront Park sipping his early morning coffee. Another man is going through the same ritual perched on a bench in the park; he is homeless and came here to enjoy the view. The men shared the experience under the warm gaze of Mayor Joseph Riley. The area was once marked by aging warehouses and wharves, but was transformed into a 12-acre park that's now a popular place for both residents and tourists.
Permission does not mean entitlement -- it's a privilege. I learned that last night at the first Philadelphia Sustainability Awards where Mayor Riley gave a passionate and memorable keynote address. Sustainability means holistic to Riley who has had the keys to Charleston, SC for an unprecedented eight terms. The secret of his success is the uncommon belief that people can own their city and the uncanny ability to lead the right planning for the peninsula's way to greatness.
"Citizenship is more valuable if you don't have to buy a ticket to participate in it," stated Riley. The slight build of the man can put even the toughest city worker on his knees to attend to a small detail in a stone slate that beautifies the city. His amazing strength and vision is this: use the ecosystem right for the neighborhoods of your city and you'll engage the citizens to remind themselves that they can be great, too.
First elected in 1975 and a native of Charleston, Riley has led the revitalization of historic downtown business district, one of the areas most vulnerable to disrepair and eventually crime. Through his tenure, Charleston citizens saw the development of nationally acclaimed affordable housing, and the creation and growth of Spoleto Festival, USA.
Here are some ideas on the design of greatness, Charleston-style:
- Don't settle for "it's just..." -- It doesn't cost more to create beauty and harmony than it does to build ugly stuff. If a brand is in need of repair, consider doing that before you discard it. If a team is not serving the company, instead of tearing it apart, ask yourself why. The answer might be that it lacks your leadership. Riley saved many historical corner buildings because he understood that they were the keystones to the neighborhood -- without them, the whole quarter would collapse.
- Obsess over details -- Details are very important because greatness is built one piece at a time, it doesn't emerge one day suddenly and complete. How do your customers feel when they come in contact with your brand? How is the space in your office organized: desks as obstacles or working surfaces? Use the infrastructure to create a sense of place. Riley's planning question: how does a mother feel when she holds her child's hand while walking down the street?
- Invite people to the conversation -- This is more than getting buy in, this is about creating a sense of ownership. If historically you have not done that, you will need to give people time to believe that you're serious. It's the same with brands: actions speak louder than words. Riley took his time in figuring out a use for an abandoned hotel -- he first wanted to survey the neighborhood, walk its streets, look at the surrounding buildings and spaces with an eye to the big picture implications. "Where do I put the kitchen?" May seem a frivolous question if you do not consider what the resulting view from the street is. The hotel stayed, refurbished, it is now so attractive that it sells occupancy on sight. It recuperated its costs in 2.5 years.
"Every time you erase a part of the city," said Riley "it's gone forever." Citizenship is created by design; greatness is joined, not dictated. It takes a lot of planning and building, especially of trust, to show that you care. People join "care". Recently, a CEO asked me "how do you avoid being commoditized?" -- this is how.