Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bringing Value to Leadership Development Programs

By Matt Tarleton, Vice President.

This past Saturday I attended a “scrubs party” in a hangar at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport just outside Atlanta. Trust me; I was just as confused when my wife received the invitation. The event was a benefit for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, organized by the healthcare system’s Emerging Leaders for Children’s (ELC). While it has many objectives, ELC is an intentional effort by Children’s to engage young business and community leaders in their 30s and 40s in order to breed the next generation of volunteer leadership. According to ELC, its members “gain unique access to Children’s Trustees and executives and, through two years of service, have the opportunity to enhance skills in fundraising, program development and relationship building.”

“Leadership development” is an area of interest to many of our community clients. As Baby Boomers begin to retire in droves, businesses and communities are finding that workforce sustainability – their ability to replace impending retirees with qualified young workers – is of increasing concern. The same concerns are circulating in board rooms, city halls, and community institutions across the country. Take a look around the room at the next chamber of commerce event or board of directors meeting. Lots of gray hairs, huh? Well, this isn’t much of a surprise; chamber membership, board representation, and community leaders in general are by and large older than the average citizen. They should be; generally speaking, businesses, voters, and institutions want people with experience – experience that comes with age, naturally – to fill those leadership positions. But it’s all those Boomers that make 2014 just a little bit different (okay, A LOT different) from years and decades past. In 1990, the U.S. population aged 25-44 (32.4 percent of total population) was nearly 75 percent larger than the population aged 45-64 (18.6 percent of total population). As the Baby Boomers have aged into that older cohort, these two age groups have become nearly identical in size. As of 2012, those aged 25-44 represent 26.5 percent of total U.S. population, just slightly larger the 26.4 percent represented by those aged 45-64. What was once a very sizeable pipeline of potential “emerging” leaders (aged 25-44) is no more.

Thankfully, chambers of commerce and organizations like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have recognized this trend and understand the importance of intentionally developing new volunteer leaders to sustain their organizations. Much of this work, naturally, is motivated by fundraising needs. But that isn’t the only reason – many are motivated by the desire to ensure that their organization and/or community have capable leaders to replace those that will be retiring in the years and decades to come.

There are countless examples of leadership development programs at chambers of commerce across the country. The overwhelming majority are nearly identical in terms of their approach: identify a class of roughly 20-30 predominantly young professionals, guide them through a series of lectures and discussion forums on issues of importance to the community, and potentially take a trip to the state capitol and/or a peer city. These programs have proven valuable for many communities and their participants, but often fall short in one critical area: connecting the program’s graduates to actual leadership opportunities.

A few places are really getting it right – Northwest Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma among them. Northwest Arkansas – home to the global headquarters of Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt – has a strong, relatively traditional leadership program called Leadership Benton County. It is also home to the Northwest Arkansas Emerging Leaders (NWAEL), a program coordinated by the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. NWAEL provides young leaders with a variety of opportunities to actually get engaged in the community through a set of “work groups” that pursue a variety of volunteer-led community improvement initiatives. In addition to the work groups, NWAEL offers a Board Service Certification Program, a day-long training program that seeks to prepare emerging leaders for services on non-profit boards and commissions. Graduates of the program are connected through events and communications to staff and board leadership at area non-profits to help place them in actual leadership opportunities.

Tulsa’s Young Professionals (TYPros) is another terrific example of intentional leadership development. What started a relatively traditional young professionals networking group has rapidly blossomed into a serious force in Tulsa’s economic development and community improvement landscape. Similar to NWAEL, TYPros has a set of “work crews” that implement volunteer-led projects impacting a variety of aspects of the community from Arts & Entertainment to Diversity to Environmental Sustainability. In partnership with Leadership Tulsa, TYPros implements a Board Internship Program, placing more than 80 members as “interns” (think “shadowing”) on non-profit boards throughout the region. The organization does so much more to help develop the next generation of community and business leaders in Tulsa by providing young people with opportunities to actually get involved and make difference by enabling them to make decisions, raise monies, and implement programs. Imagine that: they enable them to lead.

This past Saturday, I ate a lot of really good food and had a few glasses of not terrible wine – a rare combination at many catered events! I bid on a framed scrub autographed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta but despite my generous bid, I didn’t win – a fact that greatly pleased my wife, Amy, who rightfully wondered where such an item was going to be stored in our home. Had we won the auction, our bid would have contributed to the more than $200,000 that was raised by the Emerging Leaders for Children’s (ELC) to help save lives at the highly-specialized ECMO Center. Remember, this event and its proceeds were the product of an intentional leadership development effort. The non-profit healthcare system benefitted greatly from the work of ELC, and ELC’s members clearly received the benefit outlined in the program’s objectives – to help emerging leaders “enhance skills in fundraising, program development and relationship building.” I left the event wishing that I was a part of its development. Thankfully, there’s a simple form online to express interest in the ELC program.

The reality is that most leadership opportunities – in business and community – are not so easy to access. Programs like NWAEL in Northwest Arkansas and TYPros in Tulsa get it right. They make it easy. They don’t just “teach” you about leadership; they enable you to actually lead. Many “leadership development” programs fail to take this extra step or make this final connection. And it’s this final connection – a linkage to meaningful experience(s) – that adequately prepares an individual for future leadership.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Eternal Sunshine of the Data Geeks Mind

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager.

Last week I attended the REMI (Regional Economic Models, Inc.) Policy Conference here in Atlanta. The conference featured several speakers who discussed how they have leveraged REMI in their work. Among my favorite presentations were A Tale of Two Cities: Economic Competitiveness in Birmingham and Charlotte and The State-by-State Impact of the President’s School Readiness Program. Here is just a brief overview of each of them.

A Tale of Two Cities was presented by Parker Bedsole, REMI staff. He merged two projects they conducted in Birmingham and in Charlotte in the presentation. Although not a perfect comparison – the Birmingham project focused on the six-county Birmingham region, and the Charlotte project focused on the city of Charlotte itself – it was still a pretty interesting exercise. The REMI model was used to forecast population, employment, GDP, and personal income, and it was clear that Charlotte is experiencing significantly higher rates of growth across these variables than Birmingham. The city of Charlotte is expected to continue outperforming Birmingham over time. A key takeaway of this presentation was that communities across the country need to evaluate whether they are making policies that cater to the Baby Boomer generation or to the Millennials, who Parker says, outnumber Baby Boomers and will be the source of tomorrow’s innovation. Communities focused on the older, nearly retired generation, says Parker, are setting themselves up for extinction.

At Market Street, we work with clients regularly to figure out what’s best to sustain their communities in terms of prosperity and quality of life. Balance is very important, and we’ve found in many communities that it is possible to strike compromise between seemingly different target constituencies. Creating (or maintaining) a place where people feel welcome, have the space to take entrepreneurial risks, and provide residents the ability to live, work, and play near home are all key in competing in the post-recession “New Economy.”

The State-by-State Impact of the President’s School Readiness Program presentation was led by Dr. Richard Sims, Chief Economist at the National Education Association. Dr. Sims talked through a REMI model he has created to show policy makers how much impact educating preschool-aged children will have on the economy. Although there are many measures that could be forecasted, the most important to most politicians, per Dr. Sims, is employment (direct and indirect). Although it should be clear to us all that increasing the chance for success for children – who will eventually be adults – is something that will have enormous long-term benefits, politicians are very interested in short-term tangible results like new jobs.

The model was run for each state and aggregated for a national total. The School Readiness Program is planned to begin in 2014 and end – as a federally funded program – in 2023. At that time, states will have to decide if they want to fund its continuation or potentially suffer politically if the program is popular but they decide to discontinue it. According to the model, the program will spur 87,300 new jobs in 2014, increasing each year and peaking in 2020 with 397,000 new jobs then tapering off, adding fewer – yet still significant amounts of – jobs through the program’s lifetime.

One important differentiation that Dr. Sims made was to cull out education jobs since it’s obvious that more teachers will be hired as a result of the program. Because he wanted to show that there is an economy-wide impact of supporting this program, he wanted to ensure that policy makers could see that new jobs would be created across the board. While many of the new jobs are related to education, about 30 percent of them will be non-educational. Sales, building and grounds maintenance, management and business, and healthcare occupations are among those that will receive the greatest impact as a result of the School Readiness Program.

I really enjoyed seeing how my fellow data-driven professionals use various data collection and modeling methods in their work. It’s also always great to see how Market Street’s work ties into the work of other types of organizations, especially those working on policy research. Data driven decisions are critical in a number of ways, the most important of which is benchmarking. The ability to determine whether a decision has resulted in a positive, or sometimes, negative change is crucial to implementation success.

Friday, March 7, 2014

If You Ask Them, They Will Come

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager. 

In many of Market Street’s projects, one vital component of building a platform for success for the final action plan is public engagement. While we have a wide range of experiences in communities across the nation and access to economic and community development best practices, it is very important that we listen to each and every community we work in to understand what they see as their most difficult challenges, most attainable opportunities, and most valuable assets. We can never truly see a community the way those invested in their community do. Two of our biggest jobs as consultants are to build consensus across differing positions and to sew together the fabrics of our third-party, unbiased expert perspective of how to tackle problems while leveraging our client community’s assets and their passionate, involved expert perspective of how to make their home even better.

Fayette County, Georgia has done a tremendous job of finding effective ways to engage its citizenry. Leadership included the public in its selection process for the consultant to lead its Vision Process; there was very deliberate thought put into choosing each member of the Steering Committee, which has an array of constituencies represented; and there have been many arenas utilized to collect public opinions. In addition to creating a project website to keep the community updated on the process, Market Street hosted a community survey, which was taken by nearly 1,500 respondents. Currently, MindMixer is being utilized to gather reactions and ideas from citizens regarding the research we’ve conducted.

While we are leveraging technology to encourage public engagement, face-to-face meetings are still paramount, even in today’s internet-driven society. The Market Street team conducted 17 interviews and 10 focus groups. In addition, we have facilitated two public briefings—one to kick-off the process, and one to present our research findings to the public-at-large. On Wednesday evening, 160 people joined Market Street and the Visioning Initiative leadership at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia for a three-part public meeting: a presentation of research, a group question and answer segment, and an interactive breakout session. This meeting gave citizens the opportunity to ask questions as well as give us ideas on solutions to the issues they see affecting their community.

After a light reception catered by Brookabee Boxed Lunch and being greeted by Sandy Creek’s JROTC students, everyone gathered in the auditorium, and the Steering Committee co-chairmen Trey Ragsdale and Bob Ross re-introduced the process to the audience, reminding them how the process was initiated. Market Street presented research findings from the Competitive Assessment, which is posted in its entirety on the project website. Then there was a question and answer period, during which the audience were able to ask questions about those findings.

The highlight of Wednesday evening’s meeting was the interactive segment, which took place in the cafeteria. Fayette County Chamber of Commerce staff set up eight stations around the room with easels, on which there were boards that presented interesting tables and charts from the research and summarized the strategic implications of each section of the Competitive Assessment. Tables were set up at each station, and on each was a bucket and index cards so that people could write answers to the question posed at each station as well as any other thoughts they wanted to share. Technology was once again integrated, and Poll Everywhere was set up for each station so that citizens could text in their answers if they preferred. At each station, two Steering Committee members were available for questions, Chamber staff and the Market Street team floated around speaking with all attendees. This was an excellent way to ensure that the Fayette County citizens know that they’re important and that their opinions count. It was also a great way to provide a venue for citizens to ask us questions directly and for us to hear their ideas about what will make Fayette County continue to be a great place for their families.

This three-part meeting was a wonderful way to engage citizens during this specific visioning process, but it is also a great way for community leaders to engage citizens for other reasons, whether for town hall meetings or political issue forums. Even after Fayette County embarks on implementing their Vision Plan, we are confident that Fayette citizens will continue to be included and engaged. Communities with active, interested, and invested citizens can really use that fuel to go far.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Standing Out Amongst the Rest – La Pura Vida

A couple weeks ago I was able to travel to Costa Rica for a full week on my honeymoon. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to different places around the world but this was the first time I traveled to Central America and was able to see, experience, and compare the new surroundings that Costa Rica had to offer. We flew in to San José which is the capitol and major metropolis of Costa Rica. We then drove about two hours to the Pacific Coast where our hotel was located. It was immediately evident that Costa Rica was different from anything that I’ve ever seen in terms of natural surroundings. The terrain is extreme and everywhere you look there are different colors and greenery from all the plant life.

Geographically, Costa Rica is sandwiched between Nicaragua to the North and Panama to the South. It has 4.8 million people and is roughly the size of West Virginia. Being right below the equator it has a tropical climate all year round – people who love hot weather rejoice! The country’s infrastructure is underdeveloped and has rugged, uneven terrain. This description is by no means an exaggeration, we had to take a four-wheeler around to a majority of destinations because of the vast incline of the mountains and lack of paved roads. This, however, adds to the Costa Rican charm since the country is known for its vastly different flora, fauna, climate, and other geographic conditions all located in one tiny country. It is also the most visited country in Central America, Americans being the number one visitor. Since 1999 tourism has out earned Costa Rica’s previous cash crops of bananas, pineapple, and coffee – which all continue to be dominant GDP earners.

To preserve its natural elements, environmental sustainability is high on the country’s list. Just to name a few of the accolades the country has received in effort to preserve its natural surroundings, in 2011 the United Nations named Costa Rica the only country to meet all criterion that measures environmental sustainability. In 2012 the country ranked 5th in the Environmental Performance Index, unfortunately they fell to 54th in 2014 primarily due to overfishing. The Happy Planet Index rates them at 7th for life expectancy, experienced well-being, and Ecological Footprint – the U.S. ranked 105th. Amongst this, the Costa Rican government has plans to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021. This undertaking will be an extremely ambitious task for the small country that is setting itself apart from all other ecotourism destinations.

These few accolades just scratch the surface. From the conversations that I had with local ecological tour guides, they know that their pristine environment is their niche and they’re doing everything they can to preserve it from harmful elements associated with increased tourism and growth. Because of its vast majority of natural wealth and parks, ecotourism is vital. Back in 2006 when I interned at the World Travel and Tourism Council, extensively researching sustainable travel, ecotourism was an up and coming “hot” trend. Although Costa Rica is definitely not the first or the last country to take pride in its surroundings, they’re doing it right for the country, its citizens, and their environment.

When my next blog is up in April I’ll dig a little deeper in the ecotourism realm and weigh out the pros and cons of the specialty market. For now though, Costa Rica is setting itself apart from the world by balancing economic growth and environmental preservation. Taking this into consideration, Costa Rica teaches an important lesson in making your community distinguishable and attractive to visitors.