Can't Cut This Class
From left, José Paulo D. Cairoli, President of CACB (Confederation of Commercial and Business Associations of Brazil); Sergio Papini, V.P., CACB, Kwanele Gumbi, V.P., Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry; ACCE President Mick Fleming; Julio Alfaro, President, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of East Timor.
Dealing with the formalities of international business has been a challenge for a guy born without diplomatic genes. My Buffalo, N.Y., roots make it tough to tolerate
for-the-record speeches, endlessly translated through earphones. Such programs are inevitable, however, in my role as vice chair of the World Chambers Federation (WCF).
My recent trip to Brazil included the dreaded for-the-record speeches in Portuguese, but there were some touching moments,such as the little ceremony shown in this picture. Following my participation in Salvador, Brazil on a panel of experts from around the world, one of my fellow presenters was overwhelmed with gratitude to have been included. Mr. Julio Alfaro of the new country of East Timor showered each of us with gifts and “hooded” us with lovely ceremonial shawls. The big old American bear on the stage felt a bit awkward, but Julio’s appreciation was so genuine and his words were so poignant, how could I not be moved?
When Julio said “It is nice to be here; it is nice to be anywhere,” he was not joking. You see, this soft-spoken, charismatic guy is running a chamber that is recovering from a decade-long revolution. Former teen (and pre-teen) conscripts in guerilla armies are now learning trades and business skills from his organization. Generations of government corruption are being overcome through his advocacy work. And we think chamber management is tough in the US!
I sometimes tell ACCE Board members that the WCF experience is MY professional development. Thanks to all of you for letting me take this “class.”
LA to LA
From one LA to the other, by way of Salvador Brazil. And the month is only half over. Whether engaged in productive networking on the dance floor during the AWB show in Los Angeles, or introducing American style chamberology to Brazilians, or helping Louisiana execs maintain their passion for this crazy life . . . It is hard not to love this job.
I know you do too, even when you hate it. Yes, there are times when the call from the mayor's office stimulates your fight-or-flight hormones. Other days, a big member makes you drop by to explain why she should be paying more than her peers in town. Or maybe your chair scolds you for allowing your best team member is hired away on the same day your treasurer tells you the measly perqs you give your staff are too generous. Perhaps you too must deal with delayed flights and airport pretzel dinners. If you didn't love the role you play in your community/economy, none of these things would bother you a bit.
When my knees are crushed by the reclining seat in the row ahead, I just remind myself that the reward of my travel is not frequent flyer points. The reward is having the best hard job in the world.
ACCE and the World
During the World Chambers Federation’s big congress in Mexico City earlier this month, I couldn’t help making comparisons with our own convention. Over drinks in the hotel bar the final night of the Congress, I received some help in my comparative evaluation from a handful of foreign chamber leaders who have attended both events. My own prejudices about the value and power of ACCE’s gig were reinforced by this discerning gang of world travelers.
“I learn a lot more from ACCE,” said one big shot from another country. He added, “the program is much stronger.”
“In the States, you avoid boring, predictable political speeches . . . that’s a big plus,” said another.
“The attention to scheduling and logistical details helps to avoid wasted time when we come to the ACCE meeting,” offered another.
And, of course, the inevitable comment by every foreign sampler of North American chamber hospitality, “We had a lot of fun in Milwaukee.”
All of this was, of course, very gratifying to hear over the five days of the Congress, in between speeches by President Calderon and Nobel Laureates. Here I was at the premier event for chamber leaders of the entire world. Some of the leaders at the Congress ran chambers with budgets in the hundreds of millions.
As much as I loved hearing the nice comments, I eventually realized that the real basis for their praise is that they don’t really have a basis of comparison. As nice a job as the Mexico City Chamber did with the World Congress this year, there is nothing really like ACCE in the world. We are an entity that devotes 100 percent of our time and resources to one thing -– increasing the capacity, knowledge and networks of those who lead businesses and communities. Our convention is the manifestation of that mission. We’re not trying to provide a platform for politicians or the host city’s business elite. The ACCE Convention is just a meeting of chamber people, built by chamber people, for chamber people. It’s our learning lab, our best practices showcase, our party. I loved the people of Mexico City, and the WCF program was good. There's just nothing quite like the chamber meeting of choice put on by ACCE each year . . . anywhere.
I hope you’ll experience it this summer in Los Angeles. And yes, I’ll need your help to continue to impress visitors from around the globe.
Impact and Response
I received this email update today from Rob O'Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce:
Good morning, Mick.
Thanks for reaching out by phone. It was a hectic couple of weeks. We do appreciate you putting the Biz Recovery Fund on your website. Let me bring you up to date.
First, our thanks to our many fellow Chambers who have reached out to us during this time. Many have offered concrete guidance based on their own experience that has helped us begin to set a road to recovery for our community and members. Many also indicated they are doing fund-raising with their own members to help Joplin. Thanks so much for that.
Let me take just a moment to give you the impact of this storm. The tornado, according to the National Weather Service, had a track of around 20 miles. About 8 miles of that was EF4* and EF5*, mostly 5. And of course that entire 8 miles was through Joplin and our neighboring community of Duquesne. (*EF is an abbreviation for the Enhanced Fujuita scale, which rates tornadoes based on the amount of damage they cause. The six-step scale ranges from EF0 to EF5, with EF5 tornadoes having winds exceeding 200 mph; EF4 winds range from 166-200 mph.)
More than 140 of our family members, friends and neighbors were killed, the largest single tornado death toll in more than 60 years.
More than 1,000 were injured. The storm destroyed nearly 7,000 housing units, about 30% of the total, and displaced more than 12,000 people. The high school, one new middle school, two elementary schools and the trade school were destroyed. Several other schools were damaged. More than 450 businesses were directly impacted by the storm, including one of our largest, St. Johns Medical Center, as well as many small businesses. These companies collectively employ about 4,500 people. Hundreds of other firms have, or will have, long-term economic impact from the storm. That’s the bad news.
On the good side, the storm’s path was about 15% of the geography of Joplin. It missed the downtown, where public safety services are based. Consequently, the city was able to quickly mount rescue efforts. We have a number of communities that surround us, and they immediately sent aid. Hundreds of volunteers flooded the area to help. This quick action saved scores of lives.
The University was untouched and became the staging area for the thousands of volunteers from many communities who rushed to our aid. Most of the retailers were not damaged and able to function for groceries, clothing and building materials. In the days following the tornado, my team had personal contact, sometimes standing in the rubble and sometimes on the phone, with nearly 400 of the firms wrecked by the storm (almost 200 of them Chamber members, nearly 20% of our total). All but two indicated they would rebuild. That is a great statement of faith in our future. The two large “big box” stores that were hit, Wal-Mart and Home Depot are already clearing the sites. St. Johns will also rebuild.
We are thankful for the great outpouring of volunteerism, of food, water and so much else. I can say the attitude here is actually quite positive and our citizens are upbeat and ready to rebuild as fast as possible.
I know, Mick, that many Chambers and businesses around the country want to know how they can help. We appreciate that. To help our business recovery efforts, we have our Business Recovery Fund on our website: joplincc.com. There’s a “donate” button at the top of the page and a link to rebuildjoplin.org on the right side of the page where people affected by the tornado can state their needs, and those willing to contribute money, resources or volunteer time can do so. On that page are recovery funds for the schools, for social service agencies and for residents.
Again, thank you and all of our Chamber friends and colleagues for your thoughts and prayers. Best to you all.
Rob O'Brian, CEcD
Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce
320 E. 4th Street
Joplin, MO 64801
U.S. Chamber of Commerce 5-Star Accreditation
At the US Chamber's BCLC event last week, I visited with a couple dozen foundation and government agency grantmakers who work predominantly on local/regional/community advancement. People who fund kids and green priorities were on hand, but so were folks who invest in projects for the homeless and entrepreneurs. Few of these grantors know what you do . . . how chambers are involved in meaningful ways to advance their communities and regions. BCLC certainly understands the role you play, but their national/international corporate and philantropic partners often think of you as an audience rather than as a grantee. Some recognize that they might need the involvement of the business community and have some vague notion that this participation might come through involvement of a chamber, but most don't really seem to get it.
I don't blame them . . . I can't. In conversations with individual big funders during the two days of meetings, it was clear that few have had meaningful "pitches" from chambers. No chambers were present during the meeting in Philly this year and they seldom attend this annual gathering of the community investors unless they are winning an award, (as Grand Rapids Chamber did last year and Chapel Hill the year before.
It wouldn't be right to blame chambers either. Most past approaches by chambers to national funders of community projects have been rebuffed. Many chamber leaders have found meetings of foundation decision-makers to be frustrating affairs. Somehow, we need to break through this divide. There is too much that you are doing (or could do) that deserves foundation support. And, there are too many foundation goals being left unfulfilled because they never connect with the business leaders they need to engage in their cool programs. Since three big funders specificially asked ACCE to work on this disconnect, I think there's gotta be a way.
Making Honey or Studying Hive Behavior?
Among those tasked with underwriting (as opposed to undertaking) efforts to restore and build local economies, there seems to be a growing understanding that it takes more than theorists and strategists to sweeten the future economy. Three times this spring, I will be meeting with collections of foundation, corporate and quasi-government types who appear to be considering adoption of some fresh or broader portfolios. They are at least talking about putting resources in the hands of groups that take action and make change at the local/regional level. Many (most) such resource pools have historically leaned toward funding bee watchers, and bee watcher watchers, rather than bees. Studies, conferences, public discourse and “thought leadership” about regional development provide worthy destinations for foundation dollars, but sending a few bucks to support the entities who actually make the honey, i.e., groups who help employers employ somebody. Let’s hope that one or more of these enlightened resources comes through for the who bring nector to the hives (chambers and chamber-like organizations). Since you face environmental dangers and predators galore . . . you could use the help.
Heresies Part II
In 2007, I wrote a paper about volunteer leadership, corporate civic engagement and the expanding role of “professional community leaders.” In “Heresies Worth Discussing,”* I asserted that private sector leaders were, for a host of reasons, increasingly abdicating their traditional roles as visible champions of community advancement. Since the fall of 2008, when our economic lives changed so significantly, I have been less certain about the continued validity of that white paper.
For a period after the onset of the great recession, the sentiments of one veteran chamber leader seemed to ring true – “the volunteers are back.” Heck, for some chambers, boards were getting downright meddlesome, seeming to actually want to run the enterprises they happen to own. Imagine!
Over the last two months, however, I’ve determined that a revolution is still underway in the relationship between professional and “civilian” civic/economic leaders. Judging by recent ad hoc focus groups of chamber boards, staffs and bosses, in combination with bits and pieces of information I received throughout the fall, it appears that rejuvenated activism by volunteers may have been a temporary phenomenon.
Speaking in broad generalities, the corporate elite are still too distracted, too global in perspective, too reliant on specialists (like you), too starved for time, and too much in need of “cover” to engage personally in the work of chambers and similar entities. Of course, they still jump into the fray when local crisis looms, political opportunity emerges, or staff leadership crashes. A select few will even get in line to take their turn as chair of the chamber’s or economic development council’s board. For the most part, however, corporate giants (a term relative to your community size and type) appear once again to be more willing to underwrite than participate in economic-civic affairs . . . and we’re not even that sure about the underwriting.
I hope that personal experience at your chamber shows a healthy balance between reliance on professionals and participation by corporate volunteers, but I recommend that you examine your current and future realities closely. Governance models, expectations of staff, appearance time by the corporate elite and appetite for funding may be changing. You might want to be ready.
* To view the entire original pape, type in Heresies in the main search box at the top of www.acce.org
Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?
The promise of this New Year seemed boundless to me as I sat with family and friends in the wee hours last night. This year, researchers (and each of us individually) could conquer obesity. We could ease the global monetary chaos. It could be the year we bring North Korea and Iran out of rogue nation status. Governments at all levels could come closer to living within their means. We're right on the edge of quantum leaps in alternative energy advances and stem cell treatments will dramatically improve quality of life. Politics could become civil. The media could stop trying to scare us to death. Civic engagement and community responsibility could bring new life to struggling regions. The Buffalo Bills could make the playoffs. These are all things that could happen. No! Really, they could. Hope springs eternal, especially among chamber people.
Gosh, you all have a lot to do this year. Census figures will change the images and self-images of communities and you'll have to help position your regions to handle the changes. Competition with other entities (and virtual entities) trying to control the hearts, minds, eyeballs and wallets of your members will intensify. In 2011, your members will call on you more than ever if you're a chamber that provides opportunities, awareness, representation and service, but they will call on you less and less if you don't. Policy and political positions will be less comfortable than ever -- while being more necessary to take. Hard choices about programs and staffing won't go away in 2011. At the same time, the wonderful opportunities like those highlighted above and thousands of others are really within the realm of the possible. And that makes the work you do more exciting and important than ever before.
So, let's seize the year. 2011 can be great and we can help make it so. Happy New Year to all of my 6,000 bosses in the ACCE membership.
As Time Goes By
The other day, as a Redskins game droned in the background and I sat examining grandbaby Lilah in amazement, I found myself in a less-than-profound state of reminiscence.
“I told your parents about our engagement during the longest game in NFL history,” I said. “We were at that party at your aunt’s and I tried to wait until the game ended, but the Chiefs and Dolphins just refused to stop playing.”
It was Christmas Day. I was 20 years old. Everyone at the stadium, as well as at the party, just wanted to go home. In the end, I just pulled Barbi’s parents into the phone nook (a feature of 60s architecture) in the kitchen during a commercial. Turns out, my future in-laws liked the marriage idea. There were hugs all around – some even lasting longer than the ad.
A new generation has started in our family, but there is still a stadium soundtrack playing in the background. As we ape funny faces and baby talk in hopes of winning a smile from the inscrutable infant, the play-by-play announcer explains overtime rules. I am very grateful that life isn’t played using sudden-death rules.
What the heck does this have to do with chamber of commerce leadership? I’m not sure. Maybe the lesson is about silver linings and suns coming up tomorrow. More likely, I’m just telling you that the coin tosses, false starts, end-zone celebrations and blitzes will all happen to you again next week (unless there is a rumor of snow in Philly).
Thanksgiving messages are often hard to write. In a year like 2010 it should have been a bear, right? Nah! It was easy because . . . well, because I’ve got all of you doing the hard stuff.
Preventing epidemics of fear, seizing opportunities, articulating our shared mission, demonstrating stewardship of your orgs and towns, nurturing talent, handling the loneliness of leadership and, importantly, investing in each other. Thank you for all of it.
Finding things to be grateful for gets especially easy when I see my healthy daughter cuddling my grandchild, who arrived a bit undercooked eight weeks ago. I am eternally grateful for your prayers, which helped get them through the ordeal. Baby Lilah’s fine . . . thanks for asking. Hope those you care most about are fine too. Happy Thanksgiving.