What does leadership look like? Few people are better qualified to answer that question than Alison Ranney, JD/MBA ’96, who has been described as “thoughtfully remaking what leadership looks like across the country” in her roles as managing director and head of the Chicago office of the executive search firm Koya Leadership Partners.
Space permits only a partial sketch of her leadership heritage. Her father, George A. Ranney Jr., a 1966 graduate of the Law School, had a robust and varied career in law, business, and government, with his civic leadership culminating in founding and leading Chicago Metropolis 2020. Her mother, Victoria, an expert on landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, cofounded Friends of the Parks and served on the Illinois Humanities Council, among other civic roles. Together, her parents founded and developed Prairie Crossing, one of the first conservation communities in the United States. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle served as University of Chicago trustees, and her father and grandfather served on the Law School’s Visiting Committee.
Growing up in Hyde Park, she regularly encountered leaders from the Law School, including former dean and University president Edward Levi, whose son was married to Ranney’s aunt, and Bernard Meltzer, who became a mentor and friend. Civic, business, and academic figures were regulars at her family’s Kenwood home. “Growing up with parents who were visionaries, while at the same time immensely practical and results-oriented, and surrounded by intensely bright people who asked questions about the way things were and the way things could be, it seems logical that I am interested in people who make a difference,” she said.
It didn’t take long for Ranney to make a difference at the Law School. In her first year, she cofounded the Women’s Mentoring Program. That program, which connects first-year women students with women graduates, remains a vital part of the Law School today. She particularly wanted the Law School’s women to be aware of alternative career paths. “We chose mentors who had pursued different careers as well as women who were practicing at law firms,” she said. “We wanted to recognize the range of possibilities created by an education at the Law School.” To be sure her own options were kept open, she also earned an MBA. She practiced law at Skadden and then was invited to join the recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates by a former attorney turned recruiter who recognized her potential in the field of recruiting.
At Koya Leadership Partners, Ranney has placed executives at mission-driven clients across the United States and around the world. In Chicago, she has recruited leaders to the MacArthur Foundation, the Obama Foundation, the Art Institute, the Adler Planetarium, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera, WBEZ, and many others. For the Law School, she placed Robin Ross as executive director of the Doctoroff Business Leadership Program. For the University, she recruited Derek Douglas from the Obama White House to become vice president for civic engagement and external affairs.
Roughly two-thirds of the executives Ranney has placed have been women, and more than one-third have been leaders of color. “Our job is to bring the best candidate to the client. I find it thrilling when the reaction to an announcement is, ‘I wouldn’t have thought of that person, but it’s a brilliant match,’” she said. “We are working with clients who understand that leadership for today and tomorrow doesn’t always look the same as what might previously have seemed like the ‘logical choices.’”
Ranney and her father endowed a Law School fund that supports students pursuing public interest careers, she served on the Visiting Committee, and she currently sits on the boards of four major nonprofits and a corporation. She and her husband Erik Birkerts, who is CEO of the Clean Energy Trust, have three children: Ryerson, Dagny, and Silvie.
“I grew up surrounded by smart, deeply curious people who worked in their own best ways to make a better future,” she said. “Now, supported and inspired by family, friends, colleagues, and clients, I do what I can to carry on that legacy. It’s a pleasure and a great honor.”