For more than 35 years, I have served communities and businesses by leading in various economic development roles. Along the way I have gained a great deal of knowledge working with colleagues and community members, each of whom has a distinct viewpoint. Here I share some insights and advice for economic developers serving today and into the future.
1. Stay Motivated in the Purpose of Economic Development
The great thing about economic development is that you’re always working toward something much bigger than yourself. Understanding this is important for keeping us motivated during the difficult times inherent in our profession. For example, we are often asked to uproot our families and move somewhere else. Sometimes this is due to greater opportunities opening up elsewhere; other times, it’s due to changes beyond one’s control.
We are also vulnerable to politics. Changes in political leadership often lead to changes in economic development leadership. Whatever the case, making a move often involves asking those we love to make life changes in support of the work we do.
Our profession also involves dealing with setbacks that range from seeing a company go out of business to dealing with changes in the economic climate. We must remember that economic development success happens in waves over years, where you can look back and see some enduring value of your contributions despite the bumps in the road.
2. Know That Leadership Requires Statesmanship
What does it mean to be a statesman? To me it means having the integrity and courage to do the right thing when you’re making decisions, and to stick to something that you believe is for the greater good. This can be particularly challenging given the complex and competing dynamics that are a natural part of economic development, and balancing the choices that people around us may make.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how important it is to nurture and cultivate those around us to help them do the right thing. As economic developers, we are called to keep the bigger picture and greater good in mind, and can inspire others to lead with a greater vision as well.
3. Remember That it is About the People, Not the Project
We sometimes become very project-focused and forget about the people. You can think you’re doing the right thing and that you’re being strategic in helping your community without realizing you’re not considering the people who may be affected.
For example, we often focus on recruiting or growing jobs in our communities that are highly skilled and highly paid, without including job growth for others in the community that do not fit that profile. When we fail to do this, our economic development efforts are not as inclusive as they could be. We must be able to understand the many voices that will be touched by our leadership, which requires us to listen empathetically to multiple constituencies and to be open to various points of view.
4. Embrace Technology-Led Economic Development
Technological advancements have changed the way we live, work, and do business. Economic developers can provide leadership in advocating for new technologies as well as educating others about their benefits. This is especially important given the uncertainty associated with such technologies.
Bringing together all the stakeholders in the technological ecosystem together, including business, government, higher education, and the investment community, is an ideal role for economic developers to play. I have seen technology-led economic development efforts build the sense of community, the momentum, and the critical mass needed to sustain regional economies.
The ability of communities to retain, develop, and attract human capital is essential to success in economic development. First, people now place great value on their ability to balance work, home life, and quality leisure time in the community. Once they find a place with those attributes, they are less willing to move. Second, the resource that drives most industries today is human capital, rather than natural resources. The combination of these two trends are why industries are moving to the workforce, rather than expecting the workforce to come to them, as they did in the past.
Another trend is that the term “status quo” is quickly disappearing from our everyday vocabulary. We are challenged with keeping our knowledge and skills up to date so we can deal with this constant change.
Finally, I see our profession being challenged to help our elected leaders and others, who sometimes have misperceptions about economic development, understand the multi-faceted nature of our work and its impacts on our communities.
I will leave you with this. “There is an old adage that the only two things certain in life are death and taxes. I would add the word ‘change’ to this saying.”