The year was 1997, and the Democratic National Committee was facing $15 million dollars of debt — and questions about their ability to compete in the upcoming midterms. Instead of giving a big speech outlining his ideas for solutions, new DNC chair Steve Grossman began holding brainstorming sessions with his team. “Tell me your opinion as to what we should be doing," he asked them at these meetings, "What can we improve? What can I do on a daily and weekly basis to improve morale and turn this around?”

Team members felt heard and saw their ideas reflected in the plan Grossman drafted, which went a long way in building trust and gaining buy-in when it came time to execute. The following year, the Democrats picked up seats in Congress for the first time in a president’s second term since 1882. “In many ways,” Grossman said, “the success in that election helped preserve Bill Clinton’s presidency.” It also wasn’t the only time listening had made a difference. 

Last spring, I sat down with Grossman. His extensive career in the public and private sectors includes running his family marketing company for 30 years, serving as chair of the DNC from 1997 to 1999 and Massachusetts State Treasurer from 2011 to 2015, and now working to tackle the racial wealth gap as CEO of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. He is also a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and former board chair of Brandeis.

Later on in our wide-ranging conversation, Grossman explained that the 1998 midterms weren’t the only time that listening had made a difference in his life. “I wanted to show everybody I was the smartest guy in the room,” he said, reflecting on his failed campaign for Massachusetts Governor in 2002, “but I wasn’t listening to people and hearing what their challenges were. I was telling them what I thought they wanted to hear.” 

In his successful bid for State Treasurer in 2009, Grossman took a different approach, prioritizing listening to the stories of voters and demonstrating genuine care for their concerns. Listening and being present, as well as being open to innovative ideas and being a great storyteller, Grossman explained, is a central part of his message when aspiring political candidates reach out to him for guidance. 

Grossman explained that being genuinely interested also helps create an electric arc with voters. Recalling his niece’s brief conversation with Bill Clinton at an event, it was clear Grossman felt he’d learned from the best: “[The President was] looking right into her eyes. It’s like she was the only person in the world at that moment … there’s an authenticity and genuineness about him that was compelling.” 

Grossman also recalled an emotional conversation in the back of the presidential limousine after he told Clinton he was stepping down as chair to take care of his ill father. “Your father is a good man … I’ll miss you, but you’re doing the right thing,” Clinton told him after they cried together while reflecting on their relationships with their fathers. “It spoke to his fundamental humanity,” Grossman added, “and his understanding of what really matters in life.”

Grossman explained that civic engagement is central to his personal definition of success, in part due to his grandfather teaching him to always support those most vulnerable in the community. After a long, impactful career in business, government, and philanthropy, Grossman feels his current efforts to eliminate the racial wealth gap as chief executive officer of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City is the most important work he’s ever done. 

The Boston-based non-profit works to drive economic prosperity and create wealth in America’s inner cities by supporting the growth of minority-owned small businesses. This includes providing resources such as one-on-one coaching and access to capital, informing governments on best practices, and calling on major organizations to purchase goods from qualified minority-owned businesses when possible.

Grossman has witnessed a jump in his job performance and satisfaction working with an organization aligned with his mission, vision, and values. “I get up every morning of my life and I think about our mission and our vision, and it’s important that you feel that way. Going to work and not feeling passionate about your work, that’s a difficult thing to do,” he said, and added further advice in closing, “Be a good listener, be passionate about what you do, and don’t settle.”

Listen the full episode of the Voyager Talks podcast (available on Spotify, iTunes, or @Voyager.Talks on Instagram) to hear Steve Grossman in his own words. Other guests include Amazon Web Services CEO Adam Selipsky and Puget Sound Energy CEO Mary Kipp.