Sit Down with Sandy: Behind the Scenes with Local Leaders – Michelle Wu, Part I
Castle’s Sandy Lish recently sat down with City Council President Michelle Wu to discuss her inspirational leadership in Boston.
Part one of this two-part interview covers Michelle’s thoughts on young leadership and some tips on how to amplify your own voice and ideas.
SL: You were recently named one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders” by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Why is it important for an organization like the Chamber to recognize young leadership in the city?
MW: We’re at a moment in our country where there are a lot of divides, most of which seem to stem from generational differences. For an organization like the Chamber to understand that young people play a key role in bridging generational gaps and creating meaningful relationships that will help our city address issues from all perspectives is really special. The “new” and “old” generations must come together to ensure that Boston moves forward in a way that is productive and inclusive of all communities.
SL: It’s interesting that you mention generational differences. As City Council president, how do you try to bring generations together? We often hear that “millennials are this way” and “baby boomers are that way,” not just in business but in their opinions and positions on issues. How do you work to bridge that divide?
MW: It’s been a really interesting and rewarding experience not only serving as president of the City Council, but also serving as its youngest member. Growing up as a millennial, it occurs to me that one defining characteristic of our generation is comfort with complete disruption. Millennials are used to the idea that something could be invented or some change could happen that will completely disrupt how we think of the world and how we interact with each other.
This mindset allows for a totally different approach to how you think about problems, how you solve problems and how likely you are to ask for perspective from someone who comes from a different background. So, we try to make sure we’re doing that – bringing in people from different generations, different backgrounds and with different voices, and being sensitive to how we are creating spaces for communication and feedback.
Transparency is absolutely fundamental to the public’s trust in city government. That said, historically it’s been difficult to find out what the City Council does from week to week. There wasn’t an easy place to track what we were voting on and what we were discussing until I started writing a weekly newsletter that summarized our meetings. The newsletter is now received by over 800 people. We’re also sharing it via social media. The ideas we get in response to the newsletter are amazing. We now hear from people who don’t always have the time to come to City Hall, which is exciting because it’s provided another forum for gathering feedback from our constituents. Last budget cycle we even offered video conferencing for people who couldn’t make it to the meetings to share their views. As a result, a fifth-grade civics class was able to weigh in on some of the school budget items. It was really nice to be able to have the next generation leaders up on the big screen!
SL: What advice do you have for young women who want to have a voice in how the City works? How can they best represent themselves and their generation?
MW: A lot of this is easier said than done. It is most important to really know yourself and what you stand for. Once you are confident in yourself and your voice, act. If you wait for people to tell you that it’s your turn or that you have permission to do something you’re going to be waiting a very long time. Our society still has a lot of room for improvement in terms of closing the gap for women in leadership in many, many sectors. So, it’s up to young women to define leadership for themselves and not be afraid to define it differently from the models they’ve seen.
Growing up, I never thought of myself as someone who could be a leader. In my mind, leadership was a tall man who was loud and could captivate a very large group with bravado. That was never going to be me. It wasn’t until I became comfortable with my own style of leadership that I realized a leader could be soft spoken and still lead and motivate a group of people.
The other mindset advice I like to give is to think not of the position you want, but of the difference you want to make. It’s very easy to think of success in terms of promotions and increasing job responsibilities, but I would urge you to look at success from the perspective of happiness. Are you doing what makes you happy? Does it allow you to contribute to the community in a way that you want to?