Mayor Aja Brown Leadership Vision for Compton

One of the most powerful backstories in sports comes from one of Southern California’s most challenged cities. The ultimate country club sport, tennis, has been dominated for the last decades by two African-American sisters who hail from a troubled town…and they credit that difficult upbringing with their drive, focus and success.

How perfect, then, that while Venus and Serena Williams have set the world of tennis on its ear—Serena winning over 20 grand slams—that the very world the Williams sisters grew up in is being turned on its ear by their peer, Aja Brown, who is changing the culture in Compton. And she’s doing it one cup of coffee at a time.

Brown, the Mayor of Compton, shares more than age, gender and race with the Williams. She also is driven by an intense inner fire. In May at Leadercast 2015 in Atlanta, members of my team spoke with Brown, where she shared key insights to “relational leadership”… and the value of a few cups of coffee.

Brown is the youngest mayor elected in the city’s history. In 2013, as a 31-year old unknown, she led a campaign against experienced candidates during a crowded election season…and won by a landslide. Once elected, Brown had her work cut out for her. Historically, Compton has suffered from gang violence, racial clashes between citizens and police, and drug-related crime. She assessed these problems in her “Vision for Compton” campaign. Her proposal was organized around twelve key principles—including family, quality of life, public safety, economic and infrastructure development—that she knew mattered the most to Compton residents.

“I think every leader must possess vision and they absolutely have to have a heart of service,” said Brown. “And in order to be an effective leader you have to mobilize other leaders around you.”

Brown’s message resonated with the community in a big way. Under her leadership, crime is down by 34 percent, more than 1,250 new jobs have been added, 2,000 Compton residents have served in her bi-annual employee development initiative, and unemployment has dropped by 5 percent.

Brown credits having a roadmap for success and the ability to empower leaders—both in the community and on her professional team—with Compton’s positive change.

“It’s critical to be able to see things in other people that sometimes they don’t see in themselves,” admits Brown. “Regardless of what the mission is, we are still humans and we have needs to be addressed. As long as you can cultivate great leaders around you, you can increase your capacity and be more effective.”

Brown first recognized this leadership key—and the need for a new Compton—in her ten years of service as a former urban planning employee. Through regular focus groups, she unearthed the pressing needs and concerns of the community from the citizens themselves.

“An effective leader is able to reach people in their natural environment and extract their experiences and knowledge about the issues that impact them,” said Brown. “By this, you can show that you care about people not just from words, but by spending time and making sure they have the resources that they need.”

Brown has maintained this strong connection to the community through quarterly coffees with the mayor. These meet-and-greets have become informal focus groups where members of the community can offer her valuable feedback. Brown considers these to be great opportunities to evaluate whether her team’s leadership directives are working well enough with those they directly impact.

“Sometimes, growth isn’t always equal to success. You may fall forward and continue to make some mistakes, but it’s all about growth and really finding the lessons that needs to be learned in order to get to the next level,” she said. “And if you have a team that’s healthy and thriving, the bi-product is success.”

Brown is right. The great leaders are always in the process of trial and error in order to determine their winning formula…but even that is not enough for them. When they do achieve their goals, they know what got them to the top won’t always keep them there. By staying in touch with the community and cultivating leaders, Brown has sharpened her vision of a new Compton to match current demands. And she’s hopeful that when Serena Williams ultimately retires, she’ll be proud to call Compton home!

How do you relate to others on your professional team? Like Mayor Brown has demonstrated, simply reaching out and listening to the needs of others—or receiving their feedback—can do wonders for your own leadership. Too often management can rely on projections and data more than directly connecting with their front-end employees or target audience. Don’t miss this opportunity within your own organization—perhaps to simply sip coffee and relate. It could be missing piece to your own success.

Have you ever experienced relational leadership? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear your story!