Driving forward change in the environmental field is a large and extremely important challenge. The issues that the field hopes to address—from climate change to food insecurity—are systemic, complex and long term. Creating meaningful change requires many things, perhaps the most important of which is leadership.
Otis Rolley is one of the leaders pushing us all forward into a better future, and I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his work and his thoughts about leading change.
Rolley is currently the North American Director for 100 Resilient Cities, an organization that works with cities around the globe to help them become more resilient in the face of social, environmental, economic, and physical shocks and stressors. Rolley explains it as “building a city’s immune system.”
100RC helps cities become resilient through a group of core pathways. Step one is to help cities acquire and finance a Chief Resilience Officer, who Rolley refers to as “a disrupter and force amplifier,” to bust down silos within city government and gather human and financial resources.
“It’s a hard dynamic when you don’t have someone who’s full-time job is to do this specific work for the city,” Rolley explains. “City agencies are very much focussed on their own priorities,” and institutionalizing resilience requires strong communication and planning between all parts of government.
Once acquired, the Chief Resilience Officer then receives support from 100RC to develop, implement and fund a resilience strategy. Cities also receive access to the 100RC network of partners and member cities that can help them as they work to develop and implement a unique resilience strategy for their city.
Working with Cities
Rolley’s job is to lead 100 Resilient Cities’ US and Canadian portfolios with his team of 7. “We work with the cities to find their Chief Resilience Officer, and assist with developing, implementing and funding their resilience strategy,” Rolley explains. This means his team currently assists 24 cities in the US, and 4 in Canada.
While the 100RC methodology is tested and effective, Rolley and his team still have an inherently difficult task. Even though the cities that Rolley works with have applied for their assistance, getting them to actually make the changes necessary to become resilient is a serious challenge.
Otis Rolley, 100RC Regional Director, North America
“It’s very difficult for a large ship to change course,” says Rolley. And even once a city is on a new course, it can be difficult for them “not to revert back to their old behavior.”
Surviving in a disrupter role is a constant challenge, but Rolley credits his past years of experience working in and around multiple cities as a large reason for his success now with 100 Resilient Cities.
Before 100RC, Rolley was the Director of Newark’s Economic Development Corporation, as well as an Economic Development Officer for the Baltimore Empowerment Zone. He was also the Planning Director, First Deputy Housing Commissioner, and Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Baltimore. Rolley explains that “these past housing and economic development roles all gave me different perspectives on the work that’s necessary to achieve success and advance the resilience agenda.”
Rolley’s also had experience as a private consultant for a public-sector consulting firm, which provided him the opportunity to bring an outside perspective to his client cities and showed him the need to be a “critical friend and thought partner” in his work. This prior role as an outsider coming in also helped to inform Rolley’s thinking on how best to support cities now at 100RC.
Preparing to Lead
For aspiring environmental leaders, Rolley believes that caring about others in an essential quality. “You need to care about and be concerned with the human condition and wish to see the success and well-being of people,” says Rolley. “When you care about people, you also care about equity, justice and fairness.”
“While cities are composed of wonderful built and natural environments,” says Rolley, “they are made up of people.”
In addition to caring for others, Rolley also suggests that young leaders be patient in their careers and spend time and energy learning about their fields and learning about themselves. “There has to be a commitment to put the time in to develop the craft and to develop oneself,” explains Rolley.
“One of the things with many millennials is that confidence isn’t an issue,” Rolley says. But he thinks that this confidence is often misplaced. In his experience, many young folks walk out of graduate school thinking that they should be leading the work. “Have confidence,” he recommends, “but have confidence first in learning and growing in your field.”
Looking back on his own career, Rolley credits a lot of his success with “having the time to learn under really bright people who pushed me, but also gave me the space to fail, learn, and grow.” Rolley recommends that aspiring leaders attempt to do the same at the start of their careers.
“I would challenge young folks to take time, even as you’re being interviewed for your first job out of school, to think about who you’ll be working for and if they’ll be thinking about your success or just view you as a cog,” says Rolley. In that same line of thinking, Rolley recommends that aspiring leaders “approach interviews with the idea of finding the right match so that you’re better when you leave that place than you were when you first came in.”
Although environmental challenges can be daunting, leaders like Otis Rolley give hope that significant positive changes are attainable and indeed on the horizon. Hopefully, with his advice, the next generation will continue to lead the way into a more resilient and sustainable future.