ULI Colorado Blog

Recap: Leadership Connection with Roxane White

By Lindsey Delecki, 9th + Colorado Development Manager, Continuum Partners;
Co-chair, Leadership Connections Subcommittee, ULI Colorado

Roxanne White, Innovator in Residence at The Aspen Institute, shared the story of her “amazing, fabulous, accidental career” with a captivated audience at ULI’s Leadership Connection event on February 26th.

From rural Montana, Roxanne studied religion in college and became a minister. Rather than taking the traditional path within a church, she detoured to San Francisco’s most notorious neighborhoods and worked with homeless youth as a social worker.  Eventually settling in Denver with her young family, Roxanne ran homeless shelters in Denver’s urban core. Her passion for advocacy during a wave of rapid urban gentrification led her into civic conversations about homelessness and Denver’s urban vitality, where she garnered John Hickenlooper’s attention and respect during his first campaign for Mayor.   Once elected, the Mayor invited Roxanne lead the City’s Department of Human Services, where she stayed for six years before being tapped to serve as the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. There she pursued innovations in homelessness, prison reform, Medicaid, and child welfare on a larger stage.  Roxanne stayed on as Hickenlooper’s Chief of Staff when he was elected Governor.  Eventually, Roxanne left government to lead the Nurse Family Partnership as CEO, focusing on family-oriented public health at the national level. Currently Roxanne is a member of the Ascend at the Aspen Institute team, serving as the Morgridge Family Economic Security Innovator in Residence. Within this think tank, her pursuits focus on the growing income inequality gap in America and preparing the workforce for the advancing trend of technology and robotics replacing manual jobs.

Roxane White, The Aspen Institute

Roxanne attributed the success of her circuitous career to tenacity, boldness, and humility, citing many examples of leaving her comfort zone to grow by anticipating and seizing opportunistic moments.  Drawing on Sheryl Sandberg’s recommendations from her book Lean In, Roxanne recalled that she was seldom fully prepared to undertake her varied professional roles, but she embraced risk, identified her knowledge gaps, and she worked to fill them quickly.  When newly elected Mayor Hickenlooper compelled Roxanne, then an advocate for the homeless and an unaffiliated voter, to serve as the City’s Director of Human Services, the Mayor encouraged her to step up and do something, or stop complaining. Effectively, he told her to put up or shut up, a philosophy she adopted at that point in time and still embraces.

While championing the mindset of Leaning In as a path to achievement, Roxanne spoke candidly about the realistic side effects of continually undertaking new experiences.  Specifically, she cautioned that growth periods can result in protracted learning curves, occasional missteps, and strained work-life balance.  To that point, she offered solutions to mitigate these undesirable side effects.

First, Roxanne underscored the importance of mentors to avoid pitfalls and curtail learning curves by providing knowledgeable guidance and direct knowledge.  As a key take-away, she advised on how to ask someone to become a mentor.  Specifically, she recommended clearly articulating why that person is a desired mentor, citing specific qualities, skills, and shared experiences.

As her second solution, Roxanne stressed the value of balance both within and outside of the work place by way of prioritization.  Citing the books The Balance Myth by Teresa Taylor and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg, she advised that we should first openly and humbly acknowledge that perfect balance of work, kids, spouses, friends, health, fun, relaxation, etc. is unattainable.  We all juggle competing priorities all the time, but some balls are tennis balls that will innocuously bounce when dropped, while others are glass balls that will shatter.  Know which are your glass balls, and prioritize accordingly.

Key Take-Aways

  • Lean into growth opportunities by employing tenacity and boldness. Be up for learning something new.
  • Get involved with important civic issues to craft solutions. Put up or shut up.
  • Determine your professional and personal priorities to maintain a modicum of balance and sanity. But, don’t expect perfect balance.
  • Don’t be afraid to lean out when priorities outside the workplace take precedent. Don’t drop the glass balls that you are juggling.
  • Manage up by engaging supervisors in the prioritization of work responsibilities. Welcome new tasks while asking supervisors what you can drop.
  • Mentors are important! Ask someone to act as your mentor by clearly articulating why that person is a desired mentor.
  • Be compassionate and humble. Treat people as humans.
  • Read! Her book recommendations are The Balance Myth by Teresa Taylor, Lean In by Sheryl Sandburg, and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg.
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