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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Curiosity Is Good

By Mick Fleming

Summer 2012

The best chamber execs stick their noses in everyone else's business

A top perk of chamber work is the opportunity to mind everybody else's business. It's a profession that requires you to learn almost everything about what almost everybody does for a living.

Whether you're a chamber generalist (CEO) or a specialist, understanding the back stories of members and their institutions will enhance your performance. I was reminded of this repeatedly during the extensive travel I undertook this year, visiting chamber people in towns as disparate as Dallas, Newport Beach, Calif., and Great Falls, Mont.

I've also observed the same phenomenon in chambers around the world. The friends I've made in Norway, India, Brazil and Singapore describe similar continuous learning curves in their professional lives. In listening to your stories of victories achieved and deferred, I'm amazed at the power of economic sector knowledge and how it's acquired.

Local Economies, Local Knowledge

Tours of high tech steel plants, meetings with freight forwarders, and visits to the "back of the house" at resort hotels open your eyes and your mind. You have regular conversations with retailers fighting for shipments of hot items, hospitals converting to electronic records, builders waiting for steel, media companies competing for eyeballs, oil explorers, colleges, florists, CPAs, litigators, philanthropists . . . in the chamber world, the variety is endless.

You've learned the impact that an early Easter has on hoteliers if you work in Florida. You know the percentage of spouses expected to reside near Fort Drum after the Mountain Division deploys if you live in Northern New York. If you work in Canada, you understand surgeon shortages at hospitals. And, if your chamber is in Maine, you know about shipping patterns for both lobstermen and L.L. Bean.

Speaking of shipping, a lot of the knowledge you accumulate about the businesses vital to your region deals with their transportation issues. With a port handling giant cargo containers filled with everything stores sell to Alaska residents, chambers near Tacoma know when ice will close off northern harbors. The Detroit and Windsor Ontario Chambers know roughly how many trucks full of auto parts must cross the bridges in both directions each year. The chamber teams in San Diego, El Paso and McAllen help Homeland Security track border crossing times that affect not only the 18-wheelers, but also tourists and salesmen on both sides of the gates.

As a chamber leader in a mid-size town in the Southeast or Northwest, you understand the economics of Delta's regional jet service. And if you're in a larger metro area, you can easily explain the NFL's socialistic (that's the NFL commissioner's adjective, not mine) revenue-sharing model. The chamber execs in Little Rock, Ark., and Ames, Iowa, can do more than spell nanotechnology; they know how it's being used in agriculture and diagnostic medicine. Chamber leaders on Michigan's west coast speak confidently about lithium energy storage technology. Bob Van Deventer in Saginaw, Mich., and James Chavez in Clarksville, Tenn., know what makes the solar industry viable.

Lately, depending where you live, you've had to learn about fracking, post office volume, dredging depths, or H1-B visas. Whew! It's daunting when aggregated, but you somehow handle the acquisition (and application) of such industry knowledge routinely in your business life. You probably demonstrated this skill before your first interview to get a job at a chamber.

Your reservoir of information about the companies and industries in your chamber gets deeper every day. It helps you improve the likelihood of success for many of "your" companies, thereby improving your chances for personal and organizational success.

Students with no Declared Major

On a study trip to Central Italy years ago, I learned how companies in specific industries were encouraged to cluster in certain valleys or coastal towns. The government didn't have to do much to make these clusters succeed, except:

• announce the "reality"
• provide service people, including chamber staffs who know a lot about the chosen specialty
• limit incentives and training in that region to companies engaged in the 'right' business.

For very good reasons, America doesn't work that way. We use the markets and (usually) modest incentives to determine where companies locate. Few clusters ever develop in this country where we think they "should." As a result, you, as a student of your regional industries, don't get to major in any one sector or cluster, like the Italians do.

A state like Delaware might be rich in pharmaceuticals firms, but Mark Kleinschmitt wasn't recruited to run the chamber in New Castle County because of his high grades in chemistry. Bill Connors didn't answer a "chamber exec wanted" advertisement in the Boise Statesman that listed knowledge of potatoes or blue Astro Turf as a job requirement. Chamber executives don't show up with adequate industry knowledge; they acquire it. You must be capable of absorbing and applying enough information about every industry and you must be nimble enough to learn about more companies and sectors next week!

In some cases, a major regional industry that had become well-known to chamber staff might wither or die. What happens? Usually, chamber and economic development people already have been identifying and attracting other kinds of businesses. Nobody in Houston or on Florida's space coast has been waiting around for the demise of NASA's shuttle program. They've been learning about the needs of health care and logistics companies.

So how do you do it? How does Eddie McBride know enough about cotton to help his growers and processors in Lubbock, Texas, even though his prior career involved making fast jets go faster? How does a nice girl from Cleveland like Maryanne Virgili make a lifelong career helping destination companies attract tourists to Glenwood Springs, Colo.? When Mike Varney moves from Las Vegas to a university town like Tucson, how does he conquer the economics of out-of-state tuition ratios, and help calculate the tech transfer potential of a research center?

Nerdy, but you can't help it

The two overdeveloped traits found in every (yes, every) successful chamber exec are intellectual curiosity and humility. Yes, humility, because successful execs willingly accept the fact that they don't know how companies and industries work, rather than acting on assumptions. Lack of knowledge doesn't damage their egos.

And, yes, you're curious. You genuinely want to know how the pig in the pen ends up in the sausage, even if it ain't pretty. Factory tours are cool. Seeing newly developed logistics software do its thing is awesome. You listen empathetically as a paving company CFO laments government slow pay. It's nerdy, I know, but you can't help it.

Still, curiosity and humility are not sufficient to ensure that you learn what you must to drive your organization forward and support your members. Here are some fast tracks to industry and sector knowledge:
• Force yourself to visit companies and people outside your comfort zone. The insider tour of the brewery is enjoyable, but instead of taking it a third time this summer, go to the turkey processor's aromatic facility. Go to the staging center at a major ambulance company. Ask a financial advisor or natural gas trader to walk you through their processes.
• Suck the industry reps and trade associations dry. Every quarter, connect with somebody in your region, or at the capital, who represents an association. Buy lunch for the guy or gal who works for the home builders or convenience stores association. What keeps them awake at night?
• Allow yourself the luxury of following threads. I'm not saying waste half a day clicking through the Jersey Shore family heritage because you're dealing with a company based in Trenton. But if you happen to be reading the list of top 20 economic development organizations in the country, click on the Southeast Louisiana Chamber and Alliance. That link might take you all the way down to the reasons that SWLA oil refining executives consider grade school discipline part of economic development, which is a fact you can use in a dozen future conversations. If one of your board members is on a hospital board, take the extra step to find out who else sits at that table.
• Bring your own value and knowledge to every meeting. During the period that I was selling magazine advertising in New York, I made lifelong friends of some of my customers. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, I tapped each of these clients for everything they knew. But in order for the guy from Pfizer to start bragging about Viagra sales, or the gal from IBM to talk about the company's plans for Mexico, I had to put some social and political capital into the discussion. In an interview-style meeting, you learn a few interesting things. During a meeting in which you're invested as much as the other party, you learn infinitely more.
• Seek out a couple of unlikely coalition partners. Every time you're working on a public policy issue, whether it relates to signage limitations, workers comp, or landfills, make new friends. When you do this, you are forced to learn about what others do, even if you eventually decide that you don't want a given company, group or individual to be your bedfellow. The process of coalition development also helps you better understand the primary members you're trying to represent.

This last item begins to highlight the actual purpose of knowing so darn much. What the heck is all of this industry and company knowledge, sometimes trivia, good for? Among other things, it enables you to make critical intellectual leaps when reacting to public policy proposals at every level.

Policy Currency

You subconsciously weigh the impact of the mayor's traffic control proposal on each potentially affected business. You can envision how county reassessments will alter the arithmetic of a home builder's development. You don't easily step in traps set by state senate staffers seeking your endorsement of a "no brainer" bill for business. And, you know whether to lend your name to a federal fight on healthcare, or a candidate running for the state legislature.

ACCE's Information Office, Policy Clearinghouse, and extensive Peer Networks can certainly cut your learning curve on all of these questions. Our resources are wellsprings of sample proposals, bills, position papers, warning notes, propaganda, agendas and celebratory announcements—but they're of limited value to those who don't take the time to know local companies and industries.

The Business of Your Business

Cross-sector knowledge enables you to articulate the needs of business in general by understanding so many industries specifically. It gives you the capacity to bring real value into every conversation with an influential member of your community, whether that person is a potential funder, a clergyman, a newspaper editor, or a school principal. And in case you hadn't noticed, this wealth of knowledge also makes you an influential person.

On the business side of your business, breadth of knowledge is your currency. It allows you to sell a new member by understanding the value derived by an existing one. Name-dropping is often attempted by someone hoping to close a prospect, but dropping names without providing context about the referenced individual is hollow, and sometimes dangerous in sales settings.

Lack of company and industry knowledge is often the cause of expensive program and event missteps. Surveys of member preferences and needs are wonderful tools, but self-selection of respondents (only those who love and hate you answer the questionnaires) can lead to lost investments. Look at the data, of course, but then use the information in your head about companies, industries and your regional business culture. Scanning the file drawers in your brain as you evaluate a new program or project may be as valuable as your shaky customer preference research. It isn't really your "gut" telling you the program is going to be a dog; it's your head full of knowledge about companies and industries.

Pricing is the one place where all that knowledge works against healthy decisions. As we learn more about companies and industries, our empathy becomes sympathy. This contributes to the chronic undervaluing of chamber membership and sponsorship (a topic for another day).

One of the greatest perks of chamber work, other than the big salary, short hours and luxurious vacation time, is that you know things before others do. This makes you a person whose counsel and wisdom are sought. Neighbors will ask you what the heck is going on at city hall and which end of the riverfront development will be built first. Staff members value this in-the-know position too, so don't assume it's reserved for the CEO. When recruiting potential staff stars from outside the chamber industry, use this perk ("you'll know everything about everybody") as an incentive to bring 'em aboard. Make sure your existing team knows they're a hell of a lot smarter than they think they are and that knowledge is a powerful thing for their careers and personal satisfaction.

Deal Making and Placemaking

The most important value of the knowledge you accumulate about company needs relates to economic development. Every chamber plays a role in economic development, whether or not your organization is paid to do the work. Whether you're the lead (funded) entity for economic development or a key part of the placemaking and business retention team, you need personal understanding about how "your" companies work and what the world demands of them. You need to pay attention to the sectors that have been identified as growth industries for your region and use your head (imagination) to understand what makes them tick. Whether your work with these firms focuses on friction reduction (networking and regulatory compliance), or capacity building (training classes), access to capital, real estate, marketing, talent attraction (quality of life), or any of the other economic development functions, you need to know your own.

The cool part is that you already do. Nobody does it like you do. You learn it before you know you've learned it. Your intuition is usually right because you've absorbed so much by paying attention.

This near-infinite capacity to learn about what others do for a living might be the most critical determinant in a chamber professional's career. The stories in this issue about small business and start-up programs in Durham and Boise further demonstrate the breadth of knowledge required to do your jobs effectively. It's endless, but it's also fun. Your intellectual curiosity and humility will serve you well as you take your organization and career success . . . onward.

Mick Fleming is president of ACCE.

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