A Note of Reflection from David Fairman

After 19 years helping to lead CBI, I’m now stepping out of my Managing Director role. For me, it’s a moment of intense gratitude, and an opportunity to reflect on CBI’s trajectory over the years. There are so any people to thank, and I’d like to do so by recalling some of the tremendous work done across CBI’s history.

Proof of organizational concept, 1994-2004
CBI is first and foremost the brainchild of Larry Susskind, whose vision, drive, entrepreneurial spirit, and commitment to learning made CBI possible and sustained it through a rollercoaster first decade. Larry had been my mentor at Endispute in 1989-91, and he inspired me to develop a career in the very nascent field of public dispute resolution. He did the same for Pat Field and Sarah McKearnan, CBI’s first staff. When I started working full time for CBI in 1997, they’d already set a high standard of commitment to good practice and willingness to jump into the deep end on projects that Larry handed off. Jan Martinez and Michele Ferenz soon joined and added international strength to the team.

In those early years, I felt strongly that CBI could and should be doing work not only on environmental, but also on economic and social issues in the US and in other countries. Thanks to Larry and a few early connections of my own, we were able to establish a track record of international development work early on, and to develop US work in public housing, criminal justice, and education. As the work diversified, the question then became how to create some focus so CBI could grow its networks of clients and stakeholders across a vast canvas of potentially interesting issues. Pat had the same view, and between the two of us and the first several staff who joined—Jan, Sarah, Michele, Mieke van der Wansem, Merrick Hoben, Stacie Smith, Hal Movius, and Ona Ferguson—we were able to build out those practice areas while giving each other plenty of latitude to seize opportunities and experiment.

Organizational growth, 2005-2017
The most important driver of CBI’s growth over the next decade was the addition of excellent practitioners. At a pace of one every other year, then one a year, from 2005 to 2015, we welcomed David Plumb, Betsy Fierman, Bennett Brooks, Catherine Morris, Gina Bartlett, and Toby Berkman to CBI (along with several other wonderful staff who have moved on). We had a significant jump in staff in 2016 and 2017, when Mike Brown, Ryan Golten, and Elizabeth Cooper joined us, too. On the international side, we established and grew CBI’s Global Network, involving 15 senior practitioners who became close colleagues, friends, and sources of work for each other quite organically after launching at CBI’s 20th anniversary celebration.

For me, this was a decade spent on airplanes, often gone for week-long international trips, doing satisfying work with the UN, the World Bank, and international NGOs, and on national economic and social issues in the US, but stretched to the limit by the combined responsibilities of practice, management, and family life. I was extremely fortunate to partner with Pat, whose work ethic eclipsed mine and who was always a thoughtful colleague in CBI policy, strategy, staff, and financial decision-making. It helped that neither of us wanted to be the sole decision-maker; both of us had very busy lives as practitioners; and we had 100% confidence in Ed Minor, our Chief Operating Officer, to make sure that the finances were on track or let us know when they weren’t.

Evolving leadership and priorities, 2018-2022
By 2018, both Pat and I were starting to feel the weight of the years managing CBI. Pat decided to step out of the role by 2020 while remaining at CBI as a practitioner. After substantial dialogue with Ed, the Board, and the staff, we reached out to Stacie Smith to see whether she would be willing to try the role of “Associate Managing Director.”

Stacie had grown from her early work building out Workable Peace (our high school inter-group conflict resolution program) to become a talented mediator who particularly enjoyed local, higher-conflict cases, engaging stakeholders with a mix of humor, analytic rigor, and determination to surface and address the hard issues. She had demonstrated consistently excellent project management skills, was well liked by all staff, and had a well-balanced way of engaging tough issues: “hard on the problem, soft on the people,” as Roger Fisher liked to say. Fortunately for CBI, Stacie was willing to give it a go. She quickly mastered the financials and started to ask very good questions about HR policies, aiming to increase clarity and transparency for all staff. Pat, Ed and I became certain that she could take on full responsibility for the organization, or find a partner if she wanted to continue the co-leadership model.

In the two years before COVID hit, we were also hitting our stride as a truly national organization, with a very strong California/CBI West Team orchestrated by Gina Bartlett, with Bennett Brooks flying cross country (and now across the Atlantic), Tania Carlone, Stephanie Horii, Ryan Golten, and others doing innovative work in water and other natural resource sectors. We had a well-diversified set of projects across the East and Midwest, with a growing emphasis on climate adaptation and the energy transition, including the launch of the Climigration network by Carri Hulet (now led by Kristin Marcell with Maggie Osthues). At the national level, we were teaming deeply with our partner Convergence on a wide range of national policy issues. Internationally we were well positioned for dispute resolution work with multilateral development banks, the UN, and extractive industries, with a particularly strong Latin America focus through our Chile office.

Once the pandemic era began—and thanks to extraordinary efforts by staff at all levels—we facilitated effectively online. And, amid an increased demand for our work, Stacie has led in strengthening policies and systems for staff sustainability; others—notably Ona Ferguson for junior staff and Elizabeth Cooper for DEIJ, have played important complementary roles, with contributions from virtually every staff person at CBI. Despite the extraordinary moment of “policycrisis” that we, the country, and the world are living through, CBI is working well and doing good work in the world. The moment seems well suited for me to step out of management.

A few thoughts about CBI’s future
CBI’s future will require continuing to develop the next generation of Senior Mediators across areas of practice. We’ll also need to innovate both in our approaches to facilitation (especially with regard to meeting technologies) and in the emerging issue areas that our country and the world are likely to face, from the potential collapse of home insurance markets due to climate damage to AI-enabled public decision-making, which could dramatically enhance or undermine equitable stakeholder engagement and collaboration. In a country that’s deeply polarized and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, we also must continue to manage differences of view on inclusion and equity among conveners and stakeholders.

There may be other, even more significant challenges ahead for all of us, but my crystal ball is too cloudy to make them out. Still, I’m eager, in my ongoing capacity as a practitioner and organizational contributor, to support whatever direction CBI decides to go. For myself, I look forward to not thinking about many management issues that I’ve thought a great deal about for more than 20 years, and devoting more energy to practice in collaboration with others at CBI.

That said, I’ve had the opportunity to work with managers and leaders at many organizations, and I feel lucky every day that I’ve had those roles at CBI. It hasn’t always been smooth or pretty, but it has been a place where we’ve practiced collaborative leadership with full commitment. The people who’ve come together as staff, management, and Board have created a remarkably positive culture, with real friendships and a high level of mutual trust and respect. Given the landscape around us, that strikes me as quite an accomplishment—and we did it all together.