Name: Yellow Light Breen

Age: 46

Title: President and CEO

Organization: Maine Development Foundation, Hallowell

About: A statewide public/private partnership that works to advance long-term economic growth through trusted research, leadership development and cross-sector partnerships.

Website: www.mdf.org

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Internally, our biggest challenge is that of our 11-person team, seven of us have been here for roughly 18 months or less. Fulfilling your mission and having a great impact is always about the people. Our biggest challenge is really learning each other and learning how to work together in a really seamless, really effective, really collaborative manner given just the sheer newness of our typical team member. It’s a work in progress to gel as a team. We’ve reached a point where you’ve got diverse, talented people who can feed off each other in a very effective way.

Externally, there’s lots of challenges. One is being a small organization that is truly aiming to work statewide and maintain relationships and stay plugged into important initiatives and strategies all across the state. It’s not easy to do. Of late, the really polarized political environment has been a huge challenge. We are a non-partisan group that drives strategy forward in a really inclusive way based on the data and sound research. In recent times, it’s just been a very subtle exercise to preserve your reputation and reality of being in fact and in perception a genuinely non-partisan, genuinely inclusive group that’s valued by people of all political stripes and all political caucuses.

What are the most valuable skills you are looking for in an employee?

We have so many programs and initiatives that we tend to in a small organization with so many external partners that we work with and cultivate and tend to, that having a team of really skilled generalists who are able to switch gears and contribute to a varied range of projects and issues over time and sometimes in the same hour, is important. You have to have folks who are great at building and sustaining collaborative relationships. Everything we do is in partnership. Our research projects are done with an entity called the Maine Economic Growth Council, and also more policy-oriented platforms in partnership with the (Maine) State Chamber of Commerce. Our core initiatives lately have been in partnership with many different communities across the state in the case of our Downtown Center; with a huge cross-section of industry stakeholders and trade associations and community and research partners in the case of our work on a comeback strategy for the forest products industry in Maine; and with a host of non-profit education institutions and public agencies in our work on advancing Maine’s workforce and education pipeline, especially for adult learners. We touch just a huge range of partners. Our team members therefore have to be great communicators and really astute at trying to understand and listen hard for the different needs and perspectives that all those partners bring.

There are certain temperaments and modalities of being that make you maybe more open and collaborative than other types of people, but there are a lot of learnable skills in terms of how to facilitate, how to shut up and listen, how to feed people’s input and data back to them so they know it was heard. There are just many, many great practical learnings and hints that make you effective if you really work hard at it.

I don’t consider myself to be a great collaborator or listener because of DNA, but when I am effective it’s because I am practicing and working hard at it.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

One word of advice that I will never, ever, ever forget came when I was a summer associate at a large law firm in Atlanta, Georgia. One of the veteran law parters said to us summer interns, “Just remember, you can’t outsmart a dumbass.” He was a very skilled negotiator in very complex bankruptcies. His point was that while you may think it’s great to be smarter than your antagonist or your collaborators in a transactional situation, the reality is that a lot of times, it’s a great advantage if you are working with a very capable and very smart counterpart because then you can actually negotiate in a much more sophisticated and sometimes successful way.

While it’s so hard to isolate one or two pieces of advice, at various times in my career, my key mentors impressed on me that you will always learn the most from people who are very different than you in terms of their world view in terms of their experience or their skill set. That has been true for me that I have learned a tremendous amount from a wide array of mentors. When I was a young attorney, I got to mentor over the summer and beyond with Vincent McKusick, who was a legendary Portland attorney and a longtime chief justice of the (Maine) Supreme Court. We had in common that he was also from rural Maine, Parkman in his case, St. Albans in mine. He was a very different kind of thinker and analytical mind from me, and I learned a ton working for him. I learned a ton working for Angus King when he was governor, even though we are very different in terms of our personality and some of our world views. And I learned a ton from one of my most recent mentors, Jim Conlon, the former CEO of Bangor Savings Bank. Jim was a relatively conservative career banker, and I was distinctly not. I came in to the industry in the middle of my career without necessarily knowing it was something I was going to do for a long time, and Jim gave me huge rope to do a lot of things he might never have done personally as a boss. I in turn learned a ton from him about being pragmatic and balances and thoughtful and steady in approaching challenges and working with people from a long term perspective.

What’s your biggest fear?

The first thing that came to mind is that every parent, child, spouse’s greatest fear has nothing to do with what you show up to work to do every day but rather that something unforeseen will happen to a loved one. When you talk about fear, to me, that’s real fear, not the stresses and inconveniences of showing up at the day job.

In terms of professional fear, there’s always a fear that no matter how many successes you have, there’s always a fear of failure. For me at MDF, that is the fear of letting others down. There are over 1,000 alumni of our leadership programs at MDF. There are over 200 corporate members of MDF. There are many folks who read our research and rely on it, and they rely on MDF and the MDF team to have an amazing level of professionalism and credibility. All of those stakeholders rely and count on us to be there if there is an important initiative that folks are trying to catalyze for economic strategy or long term economic development. My greatest fear is that somehow we will let those stakeholders down, in our ability to deliver or to be sponsors to that core integrity or one of those big-picture, long march things they are counting on us to be a part of.

Where do you see your organization in five years?

I would hope MDF would still be extremely entrepreneurial and nimble and widely respected for its non-partisan research and leadership. I hope that we’re able to have a broader and deeper impact than we have today. Partly that may depend on whether we’re able to get a high degree of partnership and collaboration with state government. I think there’s a lot of private sector leaders that have wanted to have a more collaborative relationship with state government. The polarized nature of the political process in Augusta the last few years just hasn’t permitted that. That’s without regard to political ideology or being conservative or liberal. It’s been part of the very adversarial gridlock that has been place.

I would hope that over the next five years there would be many robust and deep partnerships that would blossom between MDF and our partners in state government where we can continue to bring perspective of private sector leaders, philanthropy and education to the table and actively be seeking to work with us and through us to move great work forward, whether that’s doing a long-range economic strategy for the state — which is sorely needed — or whether implementing specific projects that may boost Maine’s prospects in workforce, broadband or R&D.

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