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The importance of being earnest

- Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor. He writes on economic development.

In 90% of life, being humble is a good thing. In economic development, it can be a death sentence.

“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

We’re Iowans. We’re nice. How do you do? 

So starts the biggest uphill battle an economic developer can hope to never face. I wrote recently about the increasing role of capacity building in modern economic development — that successful practitioners today are spending less time selling and more time improving their product. But while there is a pronounced trend toward asset building Nice_guy at the expense of traditional cold call/trade show/road warrior selling by local and regional economic developers, transactional acumen remains a critical skill for all of us. What makes the sales-ish process in economic development perhaps a bit unique is the fact that practitioners must rely on the collective will of our community colleagues — including both those who are involved in projects day-to-day (like city staff and real estate developers) and everyday people who are often a great source of leads — to play as big a role in making the sale as any one economic developer. And what makes the sales process uniquely challenging in a state full of humble, nose-to-the-grindstone people, like Iowa, is the fact that we’ve got a potential sales force (everyday citizens) who hate to sell.

Aww shucks.

We generate more power from renewable resources than any state in the country (which is huge for many heavy-power tech projects), but it’s no big deal; just ask an Iowan. 

We produce more corn than any other state and most nations (a huge separator for the growing roster of major-user biomaterial producer projects), but that’s just what we do. Ask an Iowan.

We invented the digital computer in Ames, Iowa! Important? Sure! Brag about it a little? Bad form; ask an Iowan.

It’s not that Iowans aren’t proud of our state and its accomplishments; it’s that we are, owing to our German, Norwegian and Quaker roots, a work-is-a-virtue bunch adhering to a societal construct that deems self-promotion and immodesty as taboo and to be avoided. For more on this and a fascinating glimpse at what makes Midwesterners and 11 other regional American populaces tick, read Colin Woodard’s American Nations. You can find my review of the book here.

In Iowa we’re modest and unassuming by nature, and in nine out of 10 walks of life, that’s a great personal or organizational attribute. But in economic development, if not properly managed and mitigated, it can be a death sentence. Our collective ability to compete for capital, talent and innovation in a global economy churning at a blistering pace relies heavily upon our ability — and willingness — to discover, organize and effectively promote our strengths as a state and region.

CXR to the rescue

While I would argue that the decade-long trend toward an increasingly data-intensive site selection process wherein assets and good ideas trump salesmanship is an encouraging trend for the promotionally challenged (that’s us), it remains that, fundamentally, economic development is an enterprise sales endeavor. To make the point again, one of the things that discern the work of economic development from sales in a traditional sense is the fact that to do it well and be successful, economic development practitioners must rely on the collective will of the constituents in the region to promote themselves. The Cultivation Corridor and any other economic development organization in the region desperately needs for Central Iowans to continue the citizen trend we really started to see emerge with the rollout of Capital Crossroads some years ago: a pride in authorship for the spectacular story of growth and prosperity our region has been writing for a decade.

Power of the people

One of the things I’m asked most is where leads for new projects come from. While it’s true that a significant proportion of leads for economic development groups like the Cultivation Corridor come from traditional sources like consultant relationships and trade show networking, often our most actionable and qualified leads come from within the region. They come from existing companies exploring joint ventures with another company, from individuals who on a business trip read in the regional newspaper that an existing company was being yanked around on permits for an expansion, from a local supply chain logistics consultant who identifies a gaping hole in the middle of the country for a particular 3PL service offering. What translates these scenarios from latency to project action is the willingness of the applicable discoverer of information to ask him- or herself an important question: “Why not Iowa?”

Each of the preceding three scenarios is true, and each translated into a jobs creation project in my career. The power of our local stakeholders (especially you, if you’re actually still reading this 800 words in) to deliver ideas that translate into opportunity for our region and state is enormous — and critical to our collective success. So be nice, but keep a bit of a prideful edge, will you?

Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.  Contact him:

Human: 515-360-1732

Digital: bwillett@cultivationcorridor.org / @brent_willett LinkedIn.com/in/brentwillett

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