I remember reading in college about philosophers who were “economic determinists.” Karl Marx falls into this category, portraying our motives, cultures, politics and histories as driven by the competition for survival and wealth. Literature, art, relationships . . . all determined in the end by the competition for resources.
Even though nearly all of you would reject Marxism as your preferred explanation of just about anything, most chamber executives (and I) do assume that the future of our communities will be largely driven by sustainable prosperity, i.e., economic determinism.
Those who lead business-civic organizations like chambers also firmly endorse “on-the-other-hand-ism” as their philosophical approach. There is a pragmatic instinct that shapes their worldview.
While you might have strong beliefs, you’re forced to recognize that many important people in your town, state or board room may not share those beliefs. You must seek to understand where they’re coming from. Your decisions, whether about programs you offer, prices you charge, or policies you espouse, instinctively take the other guy’s perspective into account. It isn’t indecision or lack of confidence; it’s respect. It’s because your job requires you to undertake the most difficult kind of leadership: leading without authority.
I’m amused when I hear corporate lobbyists championing a specific piece of legislation accuse a chamber of wimping out for not supporting their “obviously pro-business” position. In most of the situations you face, purity of thought and clarity of direction are rare. For some organizations, a pledge against all new taxes or parts per billion of greenhouse gas is, frankly, easy. For a heterogeneous, fiercely independent, consensus-driven organization like a chamber of commerce, not so much. And it is much easier to launch or kill an event when the only consideration is the P&L. You must pause and reflect seriously about “the other hand.”
Just because it’s hard to take bold policy positions doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them. Just because it’s hard to decide between two programs that serve different clusters of members doesn’t mean you should offer both. In the end, you and your board get paid the big bucks (?) and sit at the grown-ups’ table to make such decisions and move forward. You must act.
When chambers are criticized for being ineffective and/or lacking value (please check a dictionary before calling this “relevance”), the critics are often more frustrated with lack of action than they are with wrong positions or programs. The safe course might seem to be “no position” or “let’s do that dinner one more year.” It might seem smart to try to be all things to all people. You may believe that your actual mission is to avoid member resignations at all costs. I wish I could tell you that endless consideration of the negative consequences of action was the best way to preserve your personal position and organizational stature.
I wish I could tell you that the chamber could be a safe neutral place, like Switzerland. Unfortunately, in this volatile world, with predators and competitors on every side—and with generational change causing investment realignments every few weeks—the no-risk course for your organization may in fact be the riskiest of all.
ACCE is not beyond such considerations. Two years ago, the staff and board were locked in deliberations about the risks and rewards of siting our 2015 convention in Montreal. With proper vetting but no hand-wringing, we decided that we and our members were grown up enough for a powerful conference outside the U.S. border (though within sight of it). “We can do this!” echoed from the staff meeting to the board room.
Now, here we are entering convention season 2015 with more enthusiasm than ever. But we’re not naïve. We know people may worry about speaking or understanding French, even though they can’t understand cabbies in their own cities or teenagers in their own families. And we know there will be other issues that we, and you, will fret about. But the upside of this meeting is huge for economic determinists like you and me.
ACCE will be modeling the imperative for American business to think outside its borders. The meeting will demonstrate to our many members in Canada that they are indeed part of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. Yes, a superior proposal from a Canadian city can and should win the opportunity to host. The meeting will give members who have not traveled internationally a chance to see a truly global city. And, importantly, it shows that we too can be audacious, but only after contemplating … on the other hand …
Mick Fleming is president of ACCE.
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