Chamber Executive Article Archive

Others First Legacy and Lessons in Leadership

By Ian Scott

Winter 2015

The chamber industry has more than its fair share of strong personalities. Have a nightcap at the hotel bar at an ACCE convention and you’re sure to hear fascinating anecdotes about chamber executives and the work they do: how a blunder started out as forceful leadership, or why someone’s brilliant foresight was merely hubris. The stories are funny, faintly scandalous, and always instructive. The tone shifts, however, when Jim Anderson’s name comes up. There are smiles for sure, and maybe a chuckle about his love of dancing, but mostly there’s a pronounced mood of respect and admiration. And comments like: “How can anyone that accomplished be that humble?” or “He always has dead-on advice.” or “He was the first person to call and congratulate me when I got this job.” James B. Anderson, CCE, IOM, retired as president of the Springfield (Mo.) Area Chamber of Commerce on June 30 after serving in the role since 1988. Before joining the Springfield Chamber, he served for nine years as president of the Jefferson City (Mo.) Area Chamber. He was ACCE’s Board Chairman in 1994, chairman of the Board of Regents for the Institute for Organizational Management’s SMU campus, and he sat on the national board of trustees for IOM and served as a trustee for ACCE’s Benefits Trust. He’s earned many of the profession’s highest accolades, including the ACCE Chairman’s Award in 1992 and ACCE Chamber of the Year in 2012. An ACCE Life Member, he also has an honorary doctorate from Drury University, a Missouri State University distinguished alumni award, the Springfieldian Award, the Missourian Award and too many more to list. He was interviewed by Ian Scott, ACCE’s V.P. of Communications and Networks.

If you hadn’t been a chamber executive, in what other profession could you have seen yourself building a career?

Certainly in education. I was a high school teacher in Jefferson City, Mo., for four years out of college and then a school administrator for four years on top of that. I know I could have built a rewarding career in public education.

What got you out of education and into the Jefferson City Chamber?

After four years of teaching I took a role as director of School-Community Relations. As the name implies, I was involved in community affairs and civic engagement across Jefferson City, and one of the organizations I became very active in was the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce. In fact, I was serving on the board of directors and was chair of the chamber’s education committee.

The chamber exec retired and a search committee was formed. Several friends on the search committee encouraged me to apply for that job, and honestly I did not have interest in doing so. This was back in the fall of 1978. I had just gotten married that August. They kept encouraging me and I decided to try because I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go through an interview process again. Frankly I was not that serious about the job, but I got the offer. It took me three weeks before I gave them an answer, which shows how uncertain I was. I started as president of the Jefferson City Area Chamber on the first day of February 1979. Literally I went from one side of the board table to the other, and I think that experience served me well because I always had that volunteer leadership perspective.

You’ve politely declined your fair share of headhunter’s calls during your career. Could you talk about what kept you in Springfield for more than 25 years?

It’s the people I worked with and worked for that kept me in Springfield. This sounds like “chamber talk” I know. Also I think where an exec can really make a significant difference is in emerging second-tier cities like Springfield. It’s probably my bias, but I feel they don’t have the fragmentation that occurs in a lot of major metro areas. The chamber is still the go-to organization in the community. Also, it was the size of the community—we’re just under half a million in the MSA—where you’re large enough to have the amenities of a metropolitan area but still have the charm and feel of a smaller town.

Was there ever an opportunity somewhere else that piqued your interest?

I guess I’ll spill some secrets, now that I’m retired. There were two or three that sometimes make me wonder what might have been. I had opportunities to look at Austin, Nashville and Raleigh— and that was before Harvey (Schmitt, president of the Raleigh Chamber since 1994). Those three areas are just tremendous, in my opinion. Yeah, from time to time I wondered what it would have been like, but honestly I have no regrets at all about these past 35 years.

Did you ever seriously contemplate leaving the chamber profession?

Never. I had some opportunities to go into the private sector, some opportunities to go into higher education, but I never gave it serious thought. Honestly, I think I could have stayed at the Springfield Chamber longer but I’ve seen a lot of people in our profession and others who stay too long. I was bound and determined not to stay too long. I wanted to leave when things were going well. The opportunity arose two years ago when the CEO of this large healthcare system, who is a personal friend and active in the chamber, approached me with an opportunity. He said “I’ll give you some time. I know you’re going to retire one of these days.” About a year later he asked how much longer, so I retired probably a year earlier than I would have otherwise. But I have no regrets, I think I left the chamber at the right time. This encore career, as I call it, I plan on doing as long as my health and energy are there. The job is structured so that some of it can be part time, so it’s a great transition job to someday retiring. I have too much energy to sit still right now. I need to do something meaningful. And frankly, it still allows me to be active in the community I love.

Healthcare has got to be the most volatile industry in the whole country right now. What was so intriguing about this opportunity?

I love challenges and I’m stupid enough to think I’ll make a dent. It’s going to be tough. Obviously our state has not expanded Medicaid yet, and it’s not going to be easy this next legislative session. Springfield was the first chamber in the state to endorse Medicaid expansion, so it’s always been an issue that I believed in personally, and one our volunteer leadership embraced. Again, it’s another opportunity to hopefully make a difference.

Healthcare has got to be the most volatile industry in the whole country right now. What was so intriguing about this opportunity?

I love challenges and I’m stupid enough to think I’ll make a dent. It’s going to be tough. Obviously our state has not expanded Medicaid yet, and it’s not going to be easy this next legislative session. Springfield was the first chamber in the state to endorse Medicaid expansion, so it’s always been an issue that I believed in personally, and one our volunteer leadership embraced. Again, it’s another opportunity to hopefully make a difference.

Several of your supporters hoped you’d seek elected office. Did you ever consider that, or would you ever consider it?

I had a couple of overtures over the years, and certainly a lot in the last few months. But no, I really don’t have interest in elected office. At one point in my career I probably thought that would be a great thing, but I have less interest in doing that today. I think that’s due to the nature of the system today, both at our state level and certainly at the federal level. It’s not as much fun anymore. I guess I’m pretty naïve but I believe in compromise and collaboration, and there’s not a whole lot of that going on these days.

If you could wave your wand and fix one thing about the political system what would it be?

Our state passed term limits a few years ago and it’s been a killer because lawmakers turn over every few years and they’re always looking for that next job. There is not the sufficient memory and institutional knowledge that you had before term limits. I know there can be abuses with long-serving folks; a Speaker of the House who did political favors for cash is the reason we now have term limits. But it was an overreaction to that abuse. I believe that we already had term limits because of something called elections.

On the national level I think too much is being done by polling and by political operatives. People don’t make a statement or take a position without first checking poll results. I’m afraid the days of statesmanship are history. These days we have more politicians than we have folks that govern.

As you reflect on your career, is there a single moment that stands out as being the most memorable?

There was a turning point. I had not been in Springfield very long and our largest manufacturer and one of our largest employers, Zenith Electronics Corporation, announced they were closing and moving jobs to Mexico. It made national news because it was the last domestic television manufacturer in the country. It was a huge deal locally because they had employed around 5,000 or 6,000 people in our region. We could have wrung our hands and said “woe is us,” but we didn’t do that. The chamber assembled all the usual suspects—the mayor, city manager, and certainly our volunteer leadership—and decided we were going to create new opportunities. First we had to find a use for Zenith’s two million square foot manufacturing facility. That building is now the world headquarters of Bass Pro Shops. It’s a privately held company, and we convinced their owner, Johnny Morris, to take over that space. It’s community recycling at its very best. People will drive by that facility today and have no idea it used to be a manufacturing plant.

The second thing we did is form a public-private partnership, focused on economic development, with the city, chamber and public utility. This was economic development collaboration at a level this community had never seen before. It was very controversial. There was a major public effort—print, TV, and radio ads—to fire me, the city manager, and the CEO of the utility. There were some folks in town, primarily private sector leaders, who didn’t want to compete for labor, wages or salaries, and they knew an aggressive approach to economic development was going to cause that to happen. I literally was called a socialist at a city council meeting in 1990.

That was a real turning point, for my career as well as this community. Those were some tough days. I had a young family at the time and for them to see all the ads calling for my dismissal was hard. We survived and the outgrowth of the new effort was a 350-acre industrial park we called the Partnership Industrial Center. In just a few years we had recruited 22 manufacturers and more jobs than Zenith.

In those toughest moments, what gave you confidence in the direction you were headed?

Certainly the volunteer leadership was very supportive. We had a newspaper publisher who was very supportive. We had editorial support even though there were ads calling for dismissal. And certainly the friendship and the trust and confidence with the city manager and the CEO of the utility. We were all hanging in there together. Those were not easy days for any of us, but we knew what we were doing was right—we knew it was going to make a difference in our community. Looking back, on paper it probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to do, but I have always been a risk taker.

Another outgrowth of that period was that my board wanted to create an employment agreement that specified a year of severance in case I’d be terminated for taking a calculated risk like I’d just come through. They wanted me to have the financial security to confidently take risks that needed to be taken.

Are there any moments that still sting, decisions you wish you could have taken back?

I’ve been disappointed in some coworkers when I felt like they had let the team down, and I’ve even been disappointed in a volunteer leader before. There were some election losses that I scratch my head over. I guess those would be the biggest disappointments, but overall we had a pretty good track record on campaigns. We’ve managed 31 campaigns and had 27 wins and 4 losses, but those losses were hard to take because I felt like they would have been progressive steps in the right direction. The voters didn’t see it that way.

Was there ever a time when you felt like you were too far in front of your board on an issue?

At times I felt like I was challenging the board. One was 14 or 15 years ago when our school district was starting to have some problems, and quite frankly it stemmed from the school board. We had some board members with special agendas beyond the kids. I was getting so frustrated because the chamber’s volunteer leadership didn’t seem to be too concerned about it. Of course from my background I have always been partial towards the role of education in economic and community development. I really got frustrated during a planning retreat and I asked them how bad it would have to get before we get off our duffs and did something. I guess I gave a pretty sharp challenge because right then we decided to recruit endorsed candidates for the Board of Education. We have done that ever since, and it really turned the school district around. That was a time when I was really pushing volunteer leaders pretty hard.

Was there ever a time when you’ve gotten resistance from the board and had to backtrack?

Not direct resistance, but a couple times I came on a little too strong and I would get comments—not directly, but third hand like “has he forgotten who he works for?” Only a couple of times that’s happened, usually at board planning sessions. I think the value of those is that you get to challenge the status quo and really examine what you’ve done in the past.

I really tried to stay in sync with the board, but I will tell you I did a lot of what I call missionary work before a critical meeting. I never leave items to chance, I would spend a lot of time trying to build a coalition.

The most important relationship throughout your career?

Certainly peers. That’s not to diminish the volunteer leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working for, but I would say those peer relationships were the most important. I learned from so many others and I have just enjoyed tremendous peer relationships over these years.

Who are your personal heroes, who are the people you look up?

In our profession, certainly Bill Dower. There aren’t too many people who will know William A. Dower. He’s a past chairman of ACCE from the Jerry Bartels and John Duncan era. He was in Springfield in the ‘50s and went to Kansas City and then San Francisco for 16 years. Diane Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco then and I think she finally got to him and he retired. But he couldn’t stand to be retired long, so he came back to the chamber in Springfield. He was in Springfield twice, and I followed Bill Dower after his second stint. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. He’s an institution, a legend in our business for those as old as I am. Another one, more recent, is Rex Jennings. I always admired his leadership style. There are many others I’ve learned from and admire in the profession, but if I start naming more names the conversation will never end. I should also mention the superintendent of schools I worked for in Jefferson City who influenced my life tremendously. There’s also a CEO of a utility, a former chairman of our board, who I consider a mentor. In the historical realm I admire John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman. I’ve respected the difference they made and admired their style of leadership.

What traits of those leaders do you seek to model?

Certainly integrity. I think it all starts with integrity. Also these are decisive people, but not people who fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t just make a decision; they accept responsibility for that decision. If things don’t go well they don’t go to the blame game. I think those are people who have led with humility. And visionary. I know that’s an overused word, but I think vision is critical. They are persuasive people, you wanted to follow them, they led by example, they had positive attitudes, they were great communicators, they inspired confidence.

Throughout your career, where have you turned for inspiration? What gets you through the tough weeks?

I don’t wear my faith on my sleeve, but my faith is very, very important to me. I believe the old African proverb: when you pray move your feet. I’m a firm believer that if people can’t tell I’m a person of conviction by my actions then obviously my actions need to be changed. Of course my spouse Janet and our daughters keep me well-grounded, thank heavens for them. And then friends. I never talked about it much, but I’ve always had a kitchen cabinet. I think maybe it was Eisenhower that coined that term, but I’m a firm believer in a kitchen cabinet—a few people who will always tell me what I need to know, not what they think I want to hear. That’s sometimes been a coworker, sometimes close friends.

Is there a book you’ve reread multiple times?

I love Tuesdays with Morrie. I’ve read it and re-read it, I’d like to read it again. I think there’s just a lot of lessons in Mitch Albom’s book, and I’ve read several of his books. The message there is obviously to live life to the fullest every day and enjoy people.

Let’s shift gears and talk about where the profession is heading. What do you believe changed the most about the chamber profession during your tenure?

Technology has changed everything the most. In the old days when I started in this business, the term information broker was used often to describe the role of the chamber. Well, that’s not the case anymore because you can get information instantaneously. You don’t need the chamber for that, but you do need the chamber.

What excites you the most about the future for chambers?

I would say expectations. People’s expectations for return on investment are higher today than ever, and they’ll be higher next year. That’s both the direct return from chamber membership and the ability to move the community forward. Patience levels are thinner, expectations are higher.

How did you handle those members who wanted to see their dues come back to them threefold in the first month of chamber membership? Was there a successful way to communicate the bigger purpose of the chamber?

I’m always a firm believer in member orientation briefings. We always tried to convey that we are creating opportunities for business. I had a chairman years ago who came up with a phrase better than any I’ve ever heard: “The chamber cannot guarantee your success or your profitability, but we can guarantee the right business climate for you to succeed.” I really think he figured it out. We can’t guarantee a profitable bottom line for each individual member but we should be able to develop the right business climate and create opportunities for business to do business.

Where do you see the biggest opportunity for chambers?

With technology and an age of entrepreneurship like we’ve never seen before, I think there’s still a big role for the chamber in building relationships. It’s not too sophisticated, but the chamber is all about building relationships. The vehicles for building those relationships are going to look different, but I think that has to always be a focus.

What worries you most for chamber?

Relevance. If there is anything that kept me awake at night it was fear about being ahead of the curve. Are we as innovative, as creative, as we need to be? Have we done the right horizon scanning? And then there is demographic change. This was one of the challenges I gave to our team as I was going out the door. Chambers are built on relationships; that’s where the financial support and leadership comes from, but that’s changing because many of the leaders who have been through thick and thin with us are retiring. So, what are the new relationships? Who are the new audiences? It’s easy to get in that comfort zone, thinking that great volunteer is always going to be there. Well, they’re not, and you constantly have to build those new relationships and those new audiences.

Is the industry getting ahead of the curve?

I think so, and I honestly believe ACCE is the catalyst. We have a national association that I think keeps future challenges at the forefront. It’s a cultural thing, and I think Mick (Fleming, ACCE president) has done a tremendous job in providing that culture. We also have dynamite leadership. While many of the veterans are retiring there is great bench strength in the industry.

It’s important to always ask why. That keeps everything going the right direction that hopefully addresses that question of relevancy. I think we always have to focus on value, how you deliver that value, how you communicate that value, that’s just part of the basics of what we do.

What elements of chamber work are most at risk?

I think the membership-based revenue model is being challenged. I know there are some emerging new models out there, but I honestly have not seen many chambers execute well on nontraditional models. Some are trying now, of course, but I think we mostly fall back on the default of membership as we’ve always known it. I’m not sure that’s going to work going forward, but maybe it will last.

Our leadership programs here in Springfield continue to be vital but I get concerned about them because most leadership development programs I’ve seen are pretty traditional in their approach. I question whether we’re doing enough to cultivate future leaders.

Talking with a young chamber exec who’s contemplating a future in this industry, what’s the one piece of advice you’d want that person to remember?

Get a mentor and become a sponge. I was privileged to have folks help me along the way. That’s the most important thing I would say to anyone in the industry: find someone you can learn from and soak up all you can. I saw a recent report from Gallup that identified two key career success factors for college grads. Turns out your alma mater doesn’t matter nearly as much as having a mentor relationship with a college professor and doing an internship.

Also embrace continuous learning. Go to every professional development opportunity you can, read everything you can, study everything you can. We have to be ready to improve every day in this profession.

The same young chamber exec tells you she is considering a higher paying corporate job. Would you encourage her to stay at the chamber?

I have encouraged people to leave for other opportunities I knew were better fits, and I’ve encouraged people to stay. I think the key there is what makes them happy. I know it’s easy to say, but it’s all about happiness. I have seen folks who are making great money who are very unhappy and vice versa. I know that we all have good days and bad days, but I only want to work with generally happy people. I don’t want to work with someone that’s just down on their job, down on life all the time.

Any final advice?

Always challenge your comfort zone. Challenge the status quo. We just can’t get comfortable.

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