THE PODIUM | How business leaders can navigate the political divide

Author: Dana Crawford - August 29, 2018 - Updated: August 28, 2018

Dana Crawford

I’m a developer and a preservationist.

That means I represent two groups that are often divided in opinion about what is important, preserving the past or replacing it with something new.

I faced both sides 50 years ago when I negotiated with business leaders who were focused only on urban renewal and couldn’t see the value in Denver’s old buildings. They were structurally unsound, they said. We needed to move on following World War II and the Great Depression by clearing land and building a new city, they said.

But I was able to bring together two groups that didn’t normally talk to each other – those who wanted to preserve the past and those who wanted to start fresh – and today people from all backgrounds and beliefs can enjoy the public space of Larimer Square and the revitalized, historic downtown Denver.

There are similarities here to today’s political divide.

We have sides that don’t agree, in some cases can’t even see eye-to-eye. Their interests and outlooks are antithetical.

In my experience, business leaders have a role to play in bridging political differences like these and encouraging civic engagement. In fact, we have to build these bridges if we want to get anything done, with organizations like Quarterly Forum, which runs the Colorado Governors Fellowship Program, in which business leaders are inspired and prepared to engage in civic life. Here are five ways I’ve learned to punch through the noise to achieve great things despite controversy.

Be obsessed

I became involved in civic life because I was obsessed with an idea: That it’s not necessary to tear down old buildings to build vibrant communities.

I believed then, and I believe now, that history is critically important to the character and philosophy of a place.

But convincing others of this fact and bridging divisions isn’t easy work. To succeed, you have to have an idea that you care so deeply enough that you’re obsessed.

Build coalitions

It’s human nature to seek community and consensus. While government can sometimes lose sight of the importance of this, it’s up to business leaders to show the way.

Business leaders are by definition closer to our communities than many politicians are. We’re out in the field every day.

Coalitions must be comprised of people of various backgrounds, beliefs and statuses. Business doesn’t get done through a single lens, and neither can government.

Show up

Go to as many meetings as you can. City council meetings, committee meetings, public hearings; anywhere there is an interest for your business. Make your voice heard and ensure you have a seat at the table.

If you can’t make a meeting, make a call or send an email. Calls matter. I’ve been in the mayor’s office when the number of calls for or against a decision were presented as strong evidence for one side over another.

Learn to listen

When building coalitions and making friends, skip the noisy restaurants. Find a spot where real conversations can happen.

Have an adult beverage or two, loosen up and allow the other person to actually talk to you. Let what they have to say sink in.

Business leaders have the most to gain from listening, because you can’t build coalitions or communicate a shared vision when everyone’s talking over each other.

Show your story

Beauty brings people together. It’s why we go to parks, it’s why we go to public festivals, it’s why we go to museums. And in those public spaces, you won’t find people bickering over politics.

We learned this with Larimer Square – beauty matters.

When you’re pitching your idea, use vivid imagery to show just what can be accomplished. Help those who might disagree with you quite literally see your vision. Only then can they fully understand it.

The truth is, people want healthy, happy communities. That much we can all agree on. What we disagree about is how to do it.

As business leaders, we have both the opportunity and the obligation to lead the way and provide examples of what communities can and should look like. Doing so inherently requires bridging divides.

The only question is whether we’re willing to do the hard work required to get there.

Dana Crawford

Dana Crawford

Developer and preservationist Dana Crawford pioneered the redevelopment of Denver’s historic Larimer Square in the mid 1960s. She has redeveloped more than a million square feet of historic property in the city of Denver including the Oxford Hotel, the Acme Lofts, the Edbrooke Lofts and Cooper Flat Condominiums.