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Yes, you can learn by osmosis and observation. I did.

This opinion piece was originally posted by LinkedIn as a part of a series in which professionals thanked those who helped them reach where they are today. Read the posts here, then write your own. Use #ThankYourMentor and @mention your mentor when sharing.

I am fortunate to have had several mentors during my professional career. The most influential? My father and Henry Cisneros, the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development during the first term of President Bill Clinton.  

My father, an attorney in private practice, taught me the value of being true to my passion rather than being a slave to convention. At multiple times during my education and career, he pushed me to take the job that truly excited me rather than the job that paid well. He was enthusiastic when I decided to leave high school early to enter into an experimental work program (and then helped me select a member of the New York City Council to work for). He was genuinely excited when I took a leave of absence from law school to work (unpaid) on a presidential campaign. And he was overly generous when I left a major law firm to work for the United States Senate (one big pay cut) and then left the federal government to work for the Brookings Institution (another hefty pay cut). As only good fathers can do, he gave support and advice that was truly selfless.

Cisneros’ guidance was often less direct but equally deep and durable. I met him for the first time when he was being confirmed by the United States Senate Banking Committee. As Staff Director of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs, I was assigned to help the former San Antonio mayor prepare for the Committee’s questions. We hit it off, and he asked me to serve as his chief of staff the next day.

I then entered what I came to think of as a four-year private tutorial with one of the world’s keenest urban minds. Cisneros taught me many things, sometimes conscientiously, often via osmosis and observation.

Five lessons stand out, which I try to apply as much as I can.

Make No Small Plans:

Cisneros had large ambitions as HUD Secretary – to transform public housing, further fair housing, extend metropolitan thinking and action, help revive inner city economies. He had a sense of urgency and an almost limitless level of energy and focus. I remember the power of large purpose and possibility every time I design an initiative.

Push intellectual boundaries:

Cisneros introduced me to new concepts (e.g., metropolitan policy, new urbanism) through every day conversations and periodic lunches with leading thinkers and practitioners. He pushed me to expand my intellectual horizons, get out of my comfort zone, and question settled opinions and ideological positions. 

Listen closely and synthesize creatively:

One of the first things Cisneros and I did together was to travel to Atlanta in early 1993. Atlanta was planning to host the 1996 Olympics and wanted to discuss how to ensure the Games would produce benefits for low-income residents and neighborhoods. After a day-and-a-half of meetings and tours, he sat down and wrote a concise memo to the president synthesizing everything he had learned and presenting a clear set of next steps. It was a brilliant tour de force which taught me how to “read a city” – a modus operandi I have pursued to this day.

Follow evidence and intuition:

Cisneros was a rare combination of objective academic and seasoned practitioner: He demanded data and evidence but also trusted his gut (formed in part through constant conversations with people from all walks of life). The mix between his two personalities was in constant creative tension. The results were important, path-bending decisions (e.g., the tear down of the worst public housing projects in the nation) that dramatically reshaped the urban landscape in this country. 

Do the right thing:

Cisneros had the courage to make decisions on the merits and then (and only then) determine how to sell the decision politically. It was the reverse of what many of us experience in public service — politicians who opt to make decisions based on politics first, substance second. Cisneros restored my faith in the ability of government — in close partnership with private, civic and community leaders — to do grand things.


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