Leadership Plus for Economic Developers

January 24, 2017

By Amy Holloway, President

Those involved in the economic development profession have the responsibility of creating healthier, more prosperous communities. Economic development professionals are charged with managing a critical public interest and require a stronger leadership stance than ever before.

“Economic development” is frequently cited as a goal of political agendas, but has myriad definitions. This places economic developers in a tenuous position. Deciphering expectations and defining “economic development” is a daily challenge for economic developers, distracting them from their primary missions and pivoting them to more reactive positions.

There are an estimated 15,000+ economic development organizations (EDOs) in the U.S. They take many forms – state economic development departments, regional public-private partnerships, chambers of commerce, city departments, county departments, etc. Among these groups, competition for recruiting big wins is escalating. More EDOs are expanding their reach into activities that improve economic health beyond business attraction, like local business expansion, entrepreneurship, and workforce development. We applaud this more holistic approach even if it runs contrary to traditional measures of EDO success.

Resulting from traditional metrics, many economic developers view their role as community servants rather than community leaders. This difference in perspective is important. Being a community servant means that many EDOs find themselves at the whim of political dynamics, opinions of elected officials whose expertise is not economic development, local media driven by producing negative headlines, and a handful of investors with strong emotions of how they want the community to be but unaware of the details of what it entails. It results in a reactive response to community needs and creates a perception from external audiences that the community doesn’t have their act together. Not. Good.

EDOs that assume a leadership position are better able to achieve their ultimate goal of creating healthier, more prosperous communities. And THAT, our EDO friends, is now your job. Community leadership evolves from community service. It is now time for all economic developers to step up as community leaders. After all, you – better than anyone else in your community – have the professional insight on how the many different facets of your community intersect to affect economic health. Own that role as a leader and elevate your EDO’s status.

1. Vision – Assemble a diversity of community stakeholders to establish a vision for your community’s future. Focus on opportunities to become a more prosperous place that provides opportunities for all residents and businesses. Specify actions to advance toward that vision.

2. Convene – As an economic developer, you have community connections that few others do. Convene a diversity of stakeholders in dialogues about the vision you set forth. Rally enthusiasm. Provide them with specifics on things they can do on a daily basis to impact your community’s health and prosperity.

3. Act – Take actions within your own organization to move toward the vision that you established. Incorporate those actions into your operating plan. Report progress beyond your investors to elected officials, businesses, nonprofits, educators, and media.

4. No Distractions – If you have accomplished the previous three tips, then you have every foundation in place to reflect negative distractions and move forward. There will always be nay-sayers. All communities have at least 10% of people who will never be satisfied with the direction you and your fellow community leaders are taking. Vision, inclusion, and action should give you the strength you need to overcome this small percent negativity and keep moving ahead.

We can help you facilitate these dialogues, but we believe that you possess the skills to do these things as long as your perspective shifts from servant to leader starting with the ways we describe in this blog.

In case you’re curious, our photo credit pays homage to the fact that we’re Star Wars fans and thoroughly enjoyed the new Rogue One (nerds, we know!). It is a fun and relevant example of how a small group of people with a dedicated mission can compel others to take action and change the future of an entire galaxy. Rebel leadership at its best.