From a small school in New Hampshire to one of the world’s most influential companies, the former ULI Young Leader discussed creating strong relationships and leaving a lasting, positive impact.
Jonathan Greeley, New England economic development lead for Amazon, admits he didn’t have it all figured out when he graduated from St. Anselm College. While he wasn’t sure where his journey would take him, he knew he would be ready for whatever was coming, regardless of where it came from.
Greeley first worked with the Boston Private Industry Council, an organization that connects Boston Public School students and teachers with the local business community, where his focus was to “bridge the gap between school education and real-world skills.” This position afforded him the opportunity to become intimately involved with a historically neglected area of Boston, working closely with folks “who didn’t look like him” or share his background. This formative experience gave Greeley a new perspective on education that he hadn’t previously considered, thinking about correlating factors like how many buses some students needed to take to school each day and how that may impact their performance in the classroom.
Dynamics such as these got him thinking about the macroscale of cities and led Greeley to pursue a master’s in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University. Ultimately, he landed in the epicenter of development in Boston; the Boston Redevelopment Authority (“BRA”), now known as the Boston Planning and Development Agency (“BPDA”).
The focus of Greeley’s discussion with ULI Boston/New England’s Young Leaders Group (“YLG”) was the invaluable wisdom that helped him get to where he is today. Here are the top 6 pieces of career advice from our discussion:
1 – Make Connections
- The theme that Greeley emphasized most was to continuously make connections and never stop building your network. “Use organizations where you’ve met people, including ULI and other professional organizations. Use LinkedIn and don’t be afraid to cold call people if that’s what it takes.” He added that being genuine in your approach and motive for connecting with someone is a must. “Look to learn from the other person, it’s not about asking for something in particular… Be intellectually consistent but tailor [your approach] to each situation.” The knowledge gained during any given interaction can sometimes be even more valuable than the potential prospect of doing future business together.
- Jon emphasized that these relationships develop over time, even through career changes. For example, Greeley recently led Amazon’s efforts to bring a logistics facility to a community in the Greater Boston area, and while discussing the opportunity with a public official, the official recalled working with Jon during his time with the BRA and said: “because it’s you working on this, the door is always open.”
2 – Relentlessly Invest in Yourself
- When building a career, the best way to set yourself up for success is to continuously refine the skills you will need to succeed both now and at the next level. “Relentlessly focus on bettering yourself and read everything you possibly can.” After completing his undergraduate coursework, Jon was far from finished. His lengthy list of professional development work includes earning his Masters, participating in numerous ULI Technical Assistance Panels, participating in various courses through organizations like ULI, and participating in Harvard’s Mediation Program (which requires 30 hours of focused classroom training and a year refining his mediation skills in a local small-claims court). “View opportunities not only for what they provide for you now, but how they can set you up for the next move.”
- Tip: take advantage of employers’ tuition reimbursement offerings to go back to school, attend speaking engagements, and/or take classes offered by professional organizations including ULI.
3 – Always Raise Your Hand and Say Yes
- Whenever Greeley was presented with an opportunity, he always tried to say yes regardless of the forum. His rationale was two-fold; greater exposure to different groups and organizations, along with setting yourself up for additional opportunities in the future. In fact, saying “yes” to a last-minute invite to speak on a panel at Boston University directly led to Greeley’s career moonlighting as a BU lecturer, teaching graduate level courses in Urban Planning and Public Policy. “Help, lecture, speaking [engagements], always saying yes” will open doors for young leaders and experienced professionals alike.
4 – Don’t Be Afraid of the Fire
- When Greeley joined the BRA as an intern, the acclimation period was essentially non-existent, and he accepted the challenge with open arms. “From day one, I was thrown right into the fire. I was actually asked to testify on behalf of the BRA in front of the zoning commission [as an intern].” Greeley strongly believes that experiences like these allowed him to learn significantly more than he otherwise would have and is a big reason why he was able to accomplish so much during his time with the BPDA.
- Over 14 years while holding a wide range of positions including director of development review, Greeley was proud of what he and his teams were able to accomplish. A highlight between 2016 and 2021 was the entitlement of more than 70 million square feet of new development and exceeding 20 percent of new units approved during that time period with deed restricted affordability.
5 – Know When to Dive Deep and When to Be Brief
- Throughout his career and especially during his time at Amazon, Greeley has found that his most successful projects result from a balance between diving deep into the nitty gritty project details and keeping the greater project picture at the forefront: “The ability to be brief when needed but also dive deep has helped my career immensely.” As young leaders’ careers progress, developing the ability to share a clear, concise overview of a complex situation while having the ability to support that overview with detailed reasoning and information is a vital and valued skill in any profession.
6 – “Focus on Both the Top and the Bottom”
- Similar to the famous quote “Treat the janitor as you would the CEO,” Greeley has found that those you work alongside are equally, and at times even more, important to one’s career than a company’s senior leadership. “Success isn’t linear. You never know who is going to be where and who will be with you down the line.” While understanding the direction of a company’s current senior leadership is important, the focus should also be on those around you, including the intern down the hall. This approach enabled Greeley to form long-lasting relationships with his colleagues and peers, who are now the important leaders and decision-makers who he works with on a daily basis.
- During his time with the Boston/New England YLGs, Greeley went to meetings and events with the intention of meeting as many fellow members as he could to learn as much as possible from their experiences from their respective roles in the industry: “ULI is easily the best place for young leaders to cultivate relationships.”