Elaine Cogan deconstructs the workplace.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon Elaine Cogan is fussing about her kitchen, making tea for a reporter and worrying about the quality of her homemade banana cake. “It’s one of my favorites, but it’s just tasteless.” She offers up a caramelized balsamic vinegar for extra flavor.
Sharp, funny and no-nonsense, Cogan, 84, comes across as the Jewish great-grandmother she is. But her life is hardly confined to the domestic sphere. Earlier that day, Cogan was in politicking mode, urging Portland city commissioners to vote no on a tenant relocation assistance bill. (The bill passed.)
“I know there are bad landowners who throw people out in the cold,” says Cogan, who co-owns two rental properties. “But it’s an onerous ordinance.”
On Cogan’s kitchen table are the results of a survey she conducted on women in the workplace, to be used in a book she is writing. That morning she had edited an introduction to a video script for Cogan Owens Greene, the iconic planning and public affairs firm she and husband Arnold founded in 1975 and where she still works on contract. And later that evening the Cogans were going to a meeting at Congregation Neveh Shalom to discuss the conservative Jewish response to Trump Administration policies.
“Where are we on action?” asks Cogan, a former president of the congregation. “It’s so important.”
Cogan is not one to loll about. Over the course of her long and varied career, she has served as president of the Portland League of Women Voters, was the first (and only) female chair of the PDC, started a tea company and earned a national reputation for facilitating public meetings and coaching public speaking.
And that’s not the half of it.
Cogan chaired the Governor’s Commission on Liquor Control, authored several books and served as the first woman chair of the Providence Medical Center board.
“One of the sisters calls me and says, ‘Elaine, we’ve heard a lot about you,’” Cogan recalls. ‘We’d like you to be on the board.’ I say: ‘I’m Jewish.’ Silence. ‘Well, we’ve never had one of you before.’ So I get on the board.”
Today Cogan continues to scale back her professional engagements. But she has plenty of workplace stories to relay and career advice to impart — advice that resonates, especially in our entrepreneurial era, for professionals of all ages.
“I’ve always been open to new ideas,” she says.
After co-founding Cogan Owens Greene, (the firm was originally called Cogan & Associates), Cogan continued to rack up accomplishments. She wrote a weekly editorial column for The Oregonian and The Oregon Journal, and for seven years hosted a weekly call-in radio program on KGW.
“Once I got a call from Ralph Nader; he wanted to be on our show,” Cogan says. “He said he would call in from D.C. I said, ‘No, you have to come here.’ I turned him down. I turned down Ralph Nader.”
An iconic figure in his own right, Arnold was a member of Governor Tom McCall’s executive staff and the first director of the state’s Land Conservation and Development Commission. After leaving the commission he worked for a consulting firm before he and Elaine decided to launch Cogan Owens Greene drawing on their complementary skills and experience in government.
“People always ask about our working relationship,” says Cogan, who has been married to Arnold for 64 years. “We value each other’s differences. I am a much better writer than he is, and he is a very incisive thinker. He gets to the nut of the problem. Even when we disagree, it’s a cordial disagreement. It’s respect.”
The story of Elaine Cogan is in many ways the story of Oregon and the well-known cast of characters who grew the state into a nationally-renowned urban-planning mecca.
While working as a volunteer on the federal Model Cities Program in the early 1970s, Cogan got to know Portland Development Commission chair Ira Keller; Portland’s mayor at the time was Terry Schrunk.
“Ira went to Terry and said, ‘It’s about time we had a woman on the Commission, and I know just the one: Elaine Cogan.’ Terry said: ‘All right.’”
She became PDC chair, Cogan says, “through a series of political mechanisms.” Her proudest accomplishment is opening up PDC meetings to the public, and Cogan notes she had her photo taken in the White House East Room with Pat Nixon while receiving an award representing the commission.
“That was [Nixon’s] last public appearance before Watergate,” she says.
In the 1970s and ’80s, many government agencies, cities and counties were grappling with land-use challenges. Clackamas County, for example, struggled with numerous conflicts in its large urban and rural areas. Cogan, who specialized in mediation and public meetings, helped create a program that brought together diverse stakeholders in town-hall style gatherings.
“Her skills, straightforward methods and unique charm helped turn Complete Communities into an internationally award-winning program,” says Rep. Bill Kennemer (R-Oregon City), a former Clackamas County Commissioner who worked with Cogan during that time. Echoing the popular consensus, Kennemer describes her as “wonderfully smart, witty and effective.”
Cogan recalls facilitating a particularly contentious meeting in 2011 involving the siting of the Antelope Ridge wind farm near La Grande.
“I walk into the high school gymnasium in this small town,” she says. “The sheriff comes up to me: ‘This is going to be a tough meeting. If it gets really hard for you, I will help you out.’ He points to an escape hatch.”
Luckily, such extreme measures were unnecessary — thanks to Elaine’s rules of public meetings (codified in her 1992 book, Successful Public Meetings).
“Point No. 1: You don’t want people standing,” she says. “Point No. 2: The people want trust. No. 3. Never let go of the mic.” The Antelope Ridge meeting yielded another lesson: The speech delivered by the company building the wind farm “was awful," Cogan says, "too long, too technical.”
A longtime communications coach, Cogan last spring published a second edition of yet another popular book she co-authored several decades ago: How to Talk to (Almost) Anyone About (Almost) Anything. Asked to evaluate the speaking skills of Oregon politicians, she doesn’t pull any punches. “I see a lot of the worst. I’m so sorry.”
One of her clients was Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who first ran for public office in the 1980s.
“She gave me dos and don’ts” remembers Saltzman. He recalls asking The Oregonian editorial board for an endorsement — which they gave.
“My inclination was to say thank you,” Saltzman says. “Elaine said. ‘Don’t do that. It’s their job.’”
Sentiment does not appear to play an outsize role in Cogan’s career. On the contrary: “I’m a pragmatist,” she says. “My whole life has been to recognize what the situations are — and figure out how to handle them.”
Her latest book project focuses on how women should handle sexism at work. She reads aloud several survey comments from professional women describing everyday gender slights.
“There are more women at the top today,” Cogan says. “But most women are not. So the question is: How will you advance your goals?”
She weighs in on other workplace trends. Cogan is skeptical about open office design — ‘How can anyone have his or her voice heard?” — and questions the wisdom of flex time and telecommuting policies. “People are not as wedded to the workplace as they used to be,” she says. “The collegiality is gone.”
And don’t get her started on dogs in the office. But if Cogan’s critique betrays a generational bias, she is nonetheless a keen observer of the modern workplace.
“It’s a transitional moment,” she says. “We’re seeing companies push the edge on perks. The question is: How far should employers go in seeing to their employees’ well-being?”
What’s her take on ageism in the workplace?
“Too often older people and younger people don’t have the chance to interact,” Cogan says. “It’s really up to young people to realize the value of mentors.”
In 2011, the Cogans sold their firm to Jim Owens, who joined the firm in 1988, and Kirstin Greene, who is now managing principal. The company has evolved to focus on such contemporary challenges as the role of equity and climate change in urban planning, Greene says.
“Elaine and Arnold created a lasting firm and a lasting entity,” she says.
No story about Cogan’s multifaceted career is complete without a mention of Elaine’s Tea Company, a mail-order operation that sold 25 different tea blends. The remarkable story starts on Thanksgiving Day 1983, when The New York Times published a letter Cogan wrote complaining about the quality of the tea she received while traveling on the East Coast.
The letter resonated with readers, and the Times itself weighed in with an editorial: “Tea Snobs and Coffee Bigots”: “Cogan is exactly right about the soggy, grim feeling that overcomes a tea drinker when served a cup of hot water and a tea bag,” the newspaper of record opined.
After conducting market research with food editors around the country, the Cogans launched the tea company, only to to call it quits after four years. “We were doing well but not well enough.” Cogan says.
She sold the rights to her own special tea blend to Harney & Sons Tea Company — it is still available via the company website.
(At one point during this period, Lipton Tea asked Cogan to be a spokesperson. “This was bucks,” she says. “But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t believe in the product.”)
She offers some advice to today’s startup crowd. “Believe in what you are doing — don’t look to the left or right or at the fad. And then be willing to make sacrifices.”
What’s next on her agenda? This summer, both Cogans will phase out all contract work with Cogan Owens Greene.
“I want to keep healthy, Cogan says. “I want to be a good grandma.” (She and Arnold have three children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.)
And she wants to remain politically active.
“I worry so much about our president. He’s very rude. It all comes back to the workplace. You show respect for people, people with whom you do not agree, and people will return that.”
Correction appended: The article has been amended to reflect the fact that former Portland mayor Terry Schrunk appointed Cogan to the PDC commission.
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