Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


February 2018
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Defining the Discussion?

Defining the limits of a discussion can be as important as having it in the first place. Last night I spoke to a group of volunteers for a project involving the “Moving Wall” Memorial to Viet Nam Veterans. Just the mention of the term ‘Viet Nam’ can still bring people to the edge of immediate verbal and even physical confrontation. I know this personally as a veteran from that era. I agonized over what to say and more importantly as a speaker, how to say it.

A day before the presentation I finally found my solution. I needed to acknowledge the strong emotions that are still associated with the Viet Nam era and then clearly define for all involved what the “Moving Wall” Memorial is about. The “Celebration of Heroes”, as the community event is being called, isn’t about the war. It isn’t about whether it was right or wrong. It isn’t about whether it was good or bad. It’s not about ANY of that.

It’s about those 58,228 who died, those 303,400 who were wounded, those 2,600,000 whose boots touched South Vietnam’s soil, those 9,087,000 who served during that era. It’s about honoring the dead and understanding the pain of the living. Those who served, those who had family members or friends who served, those whose lives were forever changed and still affected by that time in our history.

As I defined the discussion in this manner we found that we had much more common ground, even hallowed ground, than we had imagined.

I suspect that the same is true with most of the discussions we have. The process of defining the discussion is not an easy one, but it is critical if we are ever to make progress on any topic. Fortunately most of the topics we agonize over as community or economic development issues aren’t tainted with the depth of passion that still surrounds Viet Nam.

If we take the time to clearly define the discussion, we are well on our way to having a productive one. And that is indeed, ‘hallowed ground’.

It’s Not the Numbers…It’s the People!

All too often we judge the success of things we do based primarily or even solely on the number of people involved. Hold a meeting…how many people showed up? Hold an annual conference…did we have more attendees than last year? Conduct a training session…how many were registered? And on and on.

While I understand the power of numbers in each of these situations and I certainly understand the necessity of ‘paying the bills’ that are tied to making some of these things happen, the numbers should NEVER be the only factor determining the success of anything we do. Note, I said the ‘only’ factor. Yes, they count, but they aren’t everything.

Case in point, I just spoke to an Entrepreneur and Inventor’s Club in Black River Falls. It certainly wasn’t a big crowd but that’s OK. These types of groups rarely draw ‘big’ crowds because of the simple fact that at any one given point in time there aren’t hundreds of people actively seeking to start a new business or bring a new product to market. The important thing to keep in focus is the fact that each of these individuals in attendance is important and worthy of the attention they are receiving.

I’ve been involved in civic organizations all of my life and I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the president or chair person start the meeting by complaining about how few members are in attendance. Great way to fire up the troops. Let them know that you aren’t as important to him as the folks who didn’t attend. And since there aren’t enough people in attendance we can’t expect this to be a productive meeting…I can hardly wait to get to the rest of the agenda. Not! All too often we let numbers drive what we do and what we offer and in rural areas in particular this can mean people who need our help get left out. ‘Not enough people to make it worth it!’  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

So what do we do when there are small numbers? You can start by letting each person who DID show up know that they are important and that they matter. You then proceed with the same quality program that you would have had if the place were overflowing with attendees. Actually you can take this opportunity to give them an even better program because you can customize things to fit those who are there and spend much more time developing individual involvement.

Years ago a good friend of mine, Marcella Finder, related this story about Patrick Lucey. Both were involved with the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Marcella was the long-time secretary of a small county group and Pat was involved in developing a stronger statewide organization. Pat had been invited out to a small community in Marcella’s county for the monthly meeting. There was a near blizzard that evening but Marcella bundled up her two kids and drove 15 miles to the meeting place. Pat drove all the way from Madison, some 70 plus miles and none of it was interstate (they didn’t even exist back then). Come meeting time they were the only people there. Marcella said that if Pat was disappointed he never showed it. In fact, Pat made Marcella and her kids feel like they were the most important people on earth. Marcella never forgot that and it was obvious when she told the story that she was tremendously impressed with Pat’s attitude and there was no doubt in my mind that Marcella would do anything for Pat Lucey. Well, the Democratic Party went on to become the dominant party in Wisconsin and Patrick Lucey served two terms as Governor and later was named Ambassador to Mexico. 

And I truly believe that it was because he never lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t the numbers that were important…it was the people that mattered.

Do you take directions or take charge?

What kind of person are you? Are you the type of person who asks others what needs to be done and how they want it done and then work your tail off to deliver exactly what was expected? Or are you the type of person who learns what needs to be done and then finds a new and innovative way to exceed everyone’s expectations. Both approaches have merit but during challenging economic times only one will help you prepare for the future.

The media tells us every day how bad things are. If we follow their directions we will pull in our horns, proceed cautiously and focus on survival. If we take charge we may discover opportunities that the current economic situation may be offering us.

An example. State budget shortfalls are leading to cutbacks in service. But doesn’t that open the door for private businesses to step in where the state has left a vacuum? People are being laid off. Talented, experience people. People who want to work. Isn’t that an opportunity to add some top shelf talent to your staff? You may not be in a position to hire someone full-time right now but more than likely you may be able to get some of them to freelance for you on a project by project basis. As the economy turns for the better you’ll have worked with several people in a variety of situations. You’ll know which ones to bring on board when you can offer a more permanent position. Try before you buy and everyone benefits in the process.

Are there challenges in today’s economy? Certainly. But there are also a host of opportunities. It’s all up to you. You can either take directions or take charge.

This isn’t your last job.

I haven’t directly managed large paid staff in any of the positions I have ever held. But in several positions I was responsible for the hiring, managing and day-to-day care and feeding of one or two paid staff members. Sometimes I was paying them out of my own pocket and sometimes the organization I was part of was their official employer. That particular distinction never mattered.

In looking back I find there was one thing I did that had a tremendous impact and was in effect the best management technique I ever used, although I don’t think I ever actually thought about my actions in terms of ‘management techniques’ and this process did evolve over time.

Basically it worked like this. Shortly after each new person started with me I had a one-on-one discussion with them. I started by informing them that this would not be the last job they would have in their career. No, I wasn’t already planning on firing them. In fact just the opposite was true. At some time in the future I was hoping that they would have the opportunity to ‘fire’ me. I made it clear to them that I wanted them to grow during the time we worked together. I wanted them to develop their skills to the point that other businesses would be knocking down their door with offers of better and even more challenging opportunities in the future. I not only encouraged them to reach for their next career opportunity, I offered to help them do so from day one. 

I also wanted to stress to them that this position they were starting was going to be exciting, fun, challenging, rewarding, somewhat unpredictable and more of an adventure than a job. This wasn’t a dead-end job. This was a pathway to ‘somewhere’.

I asked them to think about ways they could use this job to develop their skills. We always had a training budget and I told them that it was their responsibility to bring me ideas on classes they would like to take or conferences they would like to attend on our nickel. There were some guidelines as well. I asked them to just show me how this would also benefit our current situation and I would find a way to say yes. If you want to finish your degree in another field that might not be appropriate.

I ended by giving them some homework. I asked them to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up and to write how they could use this current position to help make that happen. I asked them to think about what they wanted from this position. They had to return that document to me within a week and I then kept it in my top desk drawer.

Bottom line is this. I had the opportunity to work with some of the finest, most talented, creative and motivated individuals one could hope to be associated with. Every one of them made me look better than I ever had a right to deserve and every one of them grew during the time we worked together. And every one of them went on to new opportunities.

And to this day, none of them has had their last job.  

They don’t live here anymore!

I’ve dealt with the subject of people moving and the impact it is having on our communities before but something that happened the other night brought this back to mind. I was speaking at a chamber banquet to an audience of just over 100 people. I asked the question, “How many of you were born in this community?” About 10 hands went up. Just 10 hands! If I had it to do over again I would have changed the wording of the question a little bit to, “How many of you were raised within 15 miles of this community?” There might have been a better test. After all, the technical answer to where you were born might not have anything to do with where you consider your ‘roots’ to be. For example, I was born in Green Bay, but was likely only there for a few days. I was raised near Rock Springs.

Even though I could have asked a better question, I doubt that the result would have been significantly different. It’s a fact. The vast MAJORITY of everyone who is part of your community today were not raised there. Don’t believe me? If you’re one of those folks who live in the community you were raised in get a copy of the mailing list for your last high school reunion. Told you!

And why is that important? Well in this community’s case there are several significant issues that literally haunt them today that go back generations. And you know what. When you get down to the guts of it many of those issues are only really important to the folks who were raised there. The new folks, well let’s just say they are very likely to have a different viewpoint.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “How many decisions are we making based on who we used to be instead of who we really are today.” 

The buildings might be the same…but the people in them are vastly different. Now what do you think makes up a ‘community’? The buildings…or the people?

And the people you went to high school with, they don’t live here anymore!

Recession Opportunities?

Ok, put that newspaper down. Back away from the TV and pull the plugs on the iNews updates. All the news is bad. You already knew that. The economy is going further South than bowl teams on New Years Day. The world as we know it is coming to an end. Or at least that’s the impression I get from all the media.

Yes things aren’t going well. Unemployment, foreclosures and business closings are all up. But does that REALLY mean that you can’t still be doing business in your community? Has everybody closed? Is this the Apocalypse?

Hold the four horses. Not by a long shot.

With every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law works in business too. Maybe not 100% but it DOES work. Ask anyone who owns an auto repair shop how business is. Ask anyone who makes replacement parts how things are going. You can even ask some skateboarders in California. There are definitely opportunities out there. You might have to look a little harder to find them and finding them might require some real work (imagine that) but they are there. 

Maybe now is the time to get folks together in your community and turn the coin over to find out what’s on the other side. Are there ways for your community to benefit from the effects of the recession? Do you have some prime industrial or retail space that is newly available and newly affordable that just might be attractive to another business. Could several of your local businesses find ways to cooperate to share the costs to help make some projects happen that would have been impossible six months ago. (What! Are you talking about working together! What a concept!) And the costs of building…..wanna bet the bids will come in under or over budget?

Maybe now’s the time to sponsor and deliver those business training sessions that will make your existing businesses stronger and more likely to survive. Maybe you could double your efforts to help start-ups, inventors and entrepreneurs. My guess is there is more interest out there with some folks who will be pretty dedicated to trying new things and who will be more than eager to accept any assistance that is offered to them.

And most importantly, now’s the time to get ready for the coming economic turnaround. No, I don’t know when it will happen but we all know that it WILL happen. How about preparing right now so you are ready to take full advantage of it right from the start.

Opportunities during a recession? To borrow a phrase from a recent political office seeker, “You betcha!”

Being who you really are.

Just finished reading an old “Across the Fence” column by Howard Sherpe in which he talked about jack-o-lanterns and how they didn’t really come to life until you placed a lighted candle inside them. He said the same thing was true about stained glass and people too. No true beauty until the light within was allowed to shine through.

That column brought back thoughts of a couple of experiences I had during my economic development career. In the first one we were entertaining company officials from France. They had spent a good part of the day with us learning about our community and what we had to offer as a location for their potential North American facility. They were staying over for the evening so we had the chance to take them to supper. When we were planning this the community mayor and I discussed our choices. One was a good local supper club. Our other choice was one that chance had provided us. Their visit coincided with the annual community chicken bar-b-que. This was a well attended and well lubricated event that drew a huge crowd each year and lasted well into the night. Not knowing our guests we decided to go the safe route and take them to the supper club. We showed up in suits while our French guests had gone casual with blue jeans and polo shirts. During the course of our meal we discovered that the president of the company had spent a year hitchhiking across the United States with no money, just a knapsack and a guitar.

Our evening was OK, but I always wondered what stories they would have told had we taken them to the bar-b-que and shown them the folks we really were. My guess is they would have all had a rip-roaring good time and we would have made a real connection with them.

Another related experience happened several years later. Another community was having a day-long follow-up visit with the main person from a major company considering a manufacturing location there. He would be staying the evening and we of course wanted to take him out for an evening meal. In this case the community did not have a traditional supper club. We discussed what to do and the leader of the local community ED group felt very strongly that we shouldn’t go to another community for the evening. We looked at our local alternatives and he decided that the local pizza parlor would be our choice. So the company rep was invited to join four or five us for beer and pizza. Best ‘business reception’ I have ever been a part of. Casual, relaxed and real. We had great pizza, a few pitchers of beer and an absolutely wonderful time. 

It wasn’t fancy. We didn’t put on the dog. We were just ‘us’. In the end the company chose our community and today is a major employer providing some of the best manufacturing jobs in the region.

I learned a big lesson from those two experiences. Our best impressions are the real ones. Letting our own light shine from within is the wisest choice. Trying too hard to impress others is tempting but the real winning strategy should center on being who you really are.

Can you hear me now?

No this isn’t an ad for a phone company. It’s a reminder of perspective for rural areas. When I worked with the communities in Grant County in Southwestern Wisconsin I was very aware of my responsibility to help get our message heard at a statewide level.

But like all tasks, we have to look at them from the customer’s perspective. In our case, Grant County and the four other counties that we called Southwestern Wisconsin made up about 2.4% of the population of the State of Wisconsin. So there were a lot of competing messages being heard by state agencies and even our state legislature. Everyone wants training dollars, everyone wants transportation improvements, etc.

As a reminder of the challenge we faced I would often conduct this little demonstration. If I had 50 people at a meeting I would have one person stand up and yell, “We want money!” at the top of their lungs. That person represented SW Wisconsin. Then I would have the other 49 stand and yell, “You can’t have it!” And that, I would say, is what the people at the state agencies hear. A loud roar of requests, demands and needs that our one small voice could easily be lost in. Hopefully, my audience would have a little more understanding of the challenges we faced as we all tried to be heard on those levels.

OK, so now we understand a little more about the challenge of being heard, what do we do about it. That’s fodder for future posts. And the answer to the question, “Can you hear me now?” can be ‘YES!’

All alone?

Every job can make you feel a little like the Maytag repairman. All alone with no one to talk to. OK, in economic development there are probably no shortages of people to talk to but even then you can still wind up feeling all alone as most of the people you work with or serve won’t necessarily share or understand your unique vantage point.

So what do you do? Well the first and most obvious answer is to become a member of organizations that are made up of members unique to your profession. In my case that meant being a member of the Wisconsin Economic Development Association. 500 people from around the state who were in the ED field. WEDA had three conferences a year and I attended each without fail for many years. But I recommend going beyond just attending conferences. I also served three terms on the Board of Directors and at various times I chaired the education, membership and technology committees. (They even let me be state president for a year. Now THAT was a learning experience.)

But don’t stop there. Get together with your area counterparts at other times as well. My mentor, Bob Fleming, was my area representative from the Wisconsin Department of Commerce and he would call up every month or so and offer to meet me for lunch in a nearby community. He always invited one or two other folks from surrounding counties as well. Efficient for him and great for us. We could discuss issues with folks who were going through the same things we were and build some good friendships as well. We called these ‘Summit’ meetings. A wonderfully pretentious title for a totally relaxed and comfortable gathering. The one that I was a part of started with just three people and over time grew to a group of 10-15.

I learned a lot from those gatherings. I found people I could share my problems with. I found solutions to problems I was facing. And I could say things out loud that I couldn’t say anywhere else and I could say them to people who really understood where I was coming from. I learned about resources that were sometimes right under my nose but I had missed. (I didn’t know they provided that!) I was reminded that my problems and the issues I faced weren’t really that unique. Others had faced them before me and more importantly, had found ways to successfully address them. 

But most of all, I learned that I wasn’t alone.

Politics and You

Hopefully anyone who reads this will have gone out to vote some time today. Who you vote for is your business but voting itself is America’s business. 

While voting is important, involvement in politics can lead to some rather sticky situations. Especially in the field of economic development. No matter which major or third party you may feel strongly about, public displays of support on your part should be carefully considered. In most ED positions you answer to the public in general even if your organization is a private one. Taking positions on candidates is different than taking positions on issues. In fact, your organization may feel very strongly about certain issues and taking a public stand as an organization may be completely advisable in certain cases. Taking a stand on individual candidates is another kettle of fish altogether and in most cases should be avoided like the plague.

But what about you personally? Do you forfeit your personal right to publicly support a certain candidate or party because of your position? Can you separate your personal actions from your public position? Can the public separate your personal actions from your public position?

There’s no easy answer. My belief is that as an ED professional you should make every effort to avoid the appearance of partisanship in all actions related to your position. But I also just as strongly believe that what you do as a private individual is your business and yours alone.

No matter what you do I can guarantee that someone will be ticked off by your actions. If you do your job in a fair and thoroughly professional manner and make every effort to separate your personal actions from your public ones you should be alright but there are always risks and the line can never be completely drawn. Plus I can almost guarantee that some wingnut who is already out to get you or your organization will always be ready to reach for anything, especially if they are already upset with you over other issues.

When all is said and done the real bottom line is this. You are a citizen of the United States and with that citizenship comes rights, privileges and obligations. Exercising and defending them is not an option, it’s a responsibility. Now go vote if you haven’t already.