Chamber Executive Article Archive

Education: 8 Principles for Leadership

By Ian Scott

Fall 2012

How chambers and business coalitions can lead education initiatives.

At this year's annual convention, about 100 of ACCE's most prominent member chambers met to focus on an issue that impacts every region in the country: education.

It's a topic so broad that it can consume years of work, so what could we hope to accomplish in four hours of discussion?

An afternoon is not long enough to catalog the successful innovations happening in dozens of metro regions across the country. We could dig deep on one aspect of education reform—3rd grade reading proficiency, for example—but chambers of commerce are involved in education transformation from early childhood through college completion and workforce re-training.
For the chamber CEOs and senior staff assembled in Louisville, almost every conceivable education issue had been worked on by someone in the room at some point in his or her career. The most valuable use of our time was to aggregate everyone's successes and failures, and distill those experiences into core principles for business leadership in the education space.

The goal was to create a common starting point to help chambers and business coalitions avoid pitfalls and be more productive in their education-related work, regardless of where in the education pipeline they choose to engage. Read on to see what the group-think produced.

Principles for Engagement

Channeling ZZ Top, Joe Reagan from the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association said, "Education can feel like a 'world of swirl' to business leaders." There are hordes of stakeholders, competing plans, entrenched interests, and unclear accountability. Not exactly a linear pathway to success, but that doesn't mean you throw up your hands and turn your back.

Whether you are just getting started on education attainment in your region or have been working on it for years, the collective experience shared in our Louisville meeting revealed eight principles to help you lead through the "world of swirl."

& Commit

Education transformation is often measured in decades, not quarters. Progress will feel glacial and setbacks are inevitable. If you choose to engage in this tough issue, make sure it is a top priority for your organization and that your leaders are committed for the long haul.

Focus, Avoid Distractions

There is always a new initiative in the education realm looking for a champion, and your chamber can easily fall victim to "flavor of the month" syndrome. Set ambitious, measurable outcomes that fit your organization and then stick with them. Resist the temptation to chase the latest education fad. However, your sharp focus will also help you spot innovative approaches and projects which can help you leapfrog ahead on the issues you previously indentified.

Be the

Truth Teller

Someone has to send a clear signal to parents, teachers and students about the skills employers will need and about the shortfalls in performance. A trusted source has to publicly acknowledge victory and failure. Someone must be willing to say when outcomes are unacceptable and celebrate success as we would any grand endeavor. The business community is the credible voice to articulate whether graduates are ready to work! Get agreement on the facts and create a shared view of reality before everyone launches into policy or program debate. Be careful of introducing new sets of facts which cloud the clarity of knowing your numbers. Understand where your community stands on key education indicators and communicate hard facts to members and the larger community. Push for data-driven decisions.

Awareness, But Focus on Results

Businesses leaders understand that the education system is a problem we can't afford not to solve. Continue to beat the drum, but remember that awareness alone is not enough. You must move quickly to action that produces outcomes. Shared accountability across all stakeholders, including the business community, is critical so that we don't get lost in activity rather than achieving results.

Know and


& Responsibilities

We don't want to do to educators what government sometimes does to us: "Hi, we're from the business community and we're here to help you teach." The educators are on the scene. They are the experts. Business leaders know how to ask tough but thoughtful questions and we know how to focus on outcomes. The combination of roles can be powerful. We can help educators get clarity, cut across silos, think differently. They can help us understand the real facts, the best practices and the daunting challenges facing kids and parents today.

Be the


The chamber is uniquely positioned to bring diverse interests together. You have the asking rights to invite administrators, parents, union bosses, community foundations, charter school principals, clergy, elected officials and business leaders to the same table. Partner with other credible, change-oriented groups. The business community's power to convene is limited though. We are not elected or authorized to drive education change. For successful change, there will be many "tables" in the community discussion, so we need be good hosts and good guests.

Policy is Fundamental

It's fine to begin your education-related initiative with programs and awareness, but if you aspire to real transformation, you'll have to shape public policy, probably at the state level. You don't have to tackle the toughest legislation first, but dive into the policy questions that matter.


is Needed

Whether it's voting out an obstructionist school board member or giving cover to a bold superintendent, at some point your work in education will become controversial and, unfortunately, personal. Timidity doesn't work any better in education politics than it does in municipal politics.

Finally a BONUS principle that is more warning than guide:

If You Don’t Lead on Education, Expect Someone Else Will
In the 21st century, talent reigns supreme. Education is the root of prosperity. Companies and regions with skilled, adaptable, entrepreneurial workers will win. Your investors understand this, and if your chamber decides to punt on education transformation, they’ll fund someone else who’s willing to carry the ball on their behalf. Leadership matters, and while chambers are the best suited to assemble the broadest, most diverse base of businesses together to create results, they’re not the only entity that may choose to do so.

Strategies to Consider

Some common themes on how to work effectively for education transformation emerged from our meeting. Unlike the core principles, not all of these are applicable to every chamber, community or situation. As you develop your strategies, some of these may be important to consider in your toolkit.

Involve Community Foundations.
They want to move the needle on this issue too, but often lack the network and political strength to lead on their own. Often they are also spread too thin and need your help to justify a tighter focus. Chambers and community foundations can be powerful allies in education transformation
Create a Common Lexicon.
Business and education leaders seem to speak different languages. It's tough to solve a problem together when you're talking past each other. But with repetition over time, you can help build a shared vocabulary.
Reshape your School Board.
School boards will have a profound impact on your community's success, but too few are populated by business-minded people. Consider recruiting and supporting candidates part of your education strategy.
Re-engage with Your Workforce Investment Boards.
Play an active role and learn how to be effective in influencing and guiding your workforce development boards and systems. Yes, it can be thankless, but many WIBs are in transition now.
Include Parents as Stakeholders in your Communications Plan.
Community support is key to long term system transformation. Parents need to see that business leaders are an ally in the fight for their children's futures.
Help Education Leaders Understand Workforce and Economic Development.
There is a serious disconnection between educators and employers. Chambers can help define and communicate what makes someone "employable" and explain how talent drives growth and why growth is good.
Nurture and Scale Innovative Ideas.
Whether its project-based learning, dual enrollment, internships, or career academies, support the programs and ideas that are working and help take them to scale.
Support Rational Education Funding.
When education funding is drawn from balanced sources and tied to measurable outcomes you can trust, support those funding streams.
Focus on State-Level Policy.
For most, state level public policy has the greatest impact on the education system. Big changes in local school performance may well be driven by action at the state capital rather than program ideas at home.

Why Chambers?

Corporate and small employers have long believed that the American education system isn’t meeting the needs of our society and economy. And everyone now realizes that a rising tide will not lift all boats. Dramatic variations in regional economic performance are inevitable, and education attainment is one of the top predictors of future competitiveness. The competition for talent is global.

The business community’s desire for better educational outcomes has never been more intense. Yet a single company or business owner, no matter how large or rich, can do little working alone on a complex challenge like this. Collective action is required, and chambers of commerce can be the mechanism for collective business action.

Why Now?

It’s been an ongoing discussion in the chamber world for decades: What makes this issue worthy of top tier status today?

We have a rare opportunity with the introduction of common core standards into 45 of our states in 2014. These standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, and they provide the business community an opportunity to:

  • influence the creation of new 21st century assessments that require students to apply knowledge, get things done and demonstrate the ability to solve complex problems
  • recommend clear alignment of high school exit requirements with postsecondary entry requirements.

Another reason is demographics. Baby boomer retirements are already creating a skills gap that our education system isn’t able to fill. Only with our students fully prepared for colleges and careers will we be positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. Most importantly, even though education transformation is extremely tough, it is in our core mission. We can’t stop trying to improve the economic vitality of our communities. Better education outcomes are critical to economic vitality.

Funding this Work

There are numerous benefits for chambers who engage in education and workforce development efforts, including the opportunity to increase both traditional and non-traditional revenue. This work allows chambers to attract new members and increase current members’ investments.

Furthermore, companies will often invest extra resources in this work and want to be involved to enhance relationships, build political capital, and increase their exposure. For example, a year-long calendar of education events provides media opportunities, and systems reform successes will gain coverage. There are additional opportunities for media attention in policy work, plus there are opportunities to develop relationships with reporters based on stories that are beyond the boundaries of typical business coverage.

Your “asking rights” for investments above the rate card will almost certainly be more credible if you are tackling education. Additionally, there are non-traditional revenue sources for this work, including attracting non-traditional members, building relationships with foundations and major events, all of which help transform this work from a cost center to a profit center, or at least not a resource drain.

How ACCE Can Help

A new partnership leveraging the powerful network of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives’ membership with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce’s expertise in strengthening education systems, policy, and programs is expected to dramatically enhance business involvement in education and workforce development issues at the regional, state, and national levels. Through convening and surveying chambers throughout the U.S., the partnership will determine capacity, aspirations, and perceived challenges to engagement on issues such as workforce development and education reform. The partnership is establishing a national network toolkit of leading practices to assist chambers and their members in engaging more deeply and effectively in educational outcomes.

ACCE plans to support chambers nationwide by:

  • Helping chambers raise money, build resources, and enhance capacity to further engage in education and workforce development, whether they want to focus on programs, policy, systems reform, or messaging.
  • Along with the Community Growth Education Foundation (CGEF), working with leading national education-focused foundations to bring resources and expertise to local communities through chambers of commerce.
  • Identifying, collecting and assembling best practices, failed efforts, and lessons learned across the education continuum. We expect to have the resources to test these practices.
  • Assembling a cohort of chamber CEOs and education and workforce development senior staff members to help build the resources and enhance our shared efforts.
  • An academy model, similar to the Ford Foundation funded Regional Sustainable Development Fellowship, is expected to help maximize your capacity to lead education transformation.

This story was compiled from a discussion among 100 members of the Metro and Major Cities Councils at a meeting last August during ACCE’s convention in Louisville, Ky. Council members are CEOs of the country’s largest regional chambers. ACCE is actively recruiting key chamber staff members involved in education and workforce development. If you’re interested or know someone who might be, please contact Alysia Bell.

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