Profiles in VUCA

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?

That’s really easy. I can do it in two words: making friends.

Our job is to make friends with people inside the community and communicate the return on investment they’ll receive for funding economic development.  We also have to make friends outside Saratoga county so they will invest and grow here.

While a lot of people will say economic development is about the scientific analysis of data, it’s not. That comes into play, but in the end, people make these decisions with emotion, then justify it with logic. So it’s a relationship building process, nothing more, nothing less.

 

Your career spans more than 20 years, but how did you decide to enter the field in the first place?

I grew up in a place called Rockford, Illinois. It was a manufacturing community that was very tied to the auto industry and manufacturing.

When I was just graduating high school and going to college, we were hit very hard by a recession. I didn’t quite understand what a recession was, but I saw the impact very clearly. My dad still had his job but there were a lot of people that didn’t—unemployment was at 25%!

I saw that and thought, “What can we do to stop the hemorrhaging? What can we do to grow the economy?”

After all these years, I’m still not sure what the right formula is, and I keep applying new ones, but the goal remains the same. You want to be able to create your own prosperity and your own wealth in each community. It just takes a small seed, a very small initiative to start.

One person, with one idea about one thing, can change the world, the economy, and people’s lives. That’s what drives me everyday… and keeps me up at night.

 

What is your biggest challenge?

I think that my biggest challenge is disseminating information to the people that make decisions in our community about the future of the organization and what we’re trying to achieve.

These different stakeholders have different ideologies about how to create jobs and economic development. As economic developers, we have to walk the fine line between these ideologies, and provide detailed, consistent, and clear information that helps them understand what is at stake moving forward.

I start with the goals and explain how we’re going to accomplish them. Then each time I share information, I try to do so in the context of those original goals. Getting through to people can be a challenge, and I work at it constantly.

 

How have you seen the industry change over the course of your career?

I remember when I graduated high school around the 1980’s, my dad worked for a company that made manufacturing machines. That time period was around the last time someone from high school could get a diploma, walk across the street to the factory, get a job, work there for the next 30 years, and retire.

Globalization, technology, changes in education, and other factors have been eating away at that status quo. You just don’t have the social contract anymore, or this idea that people go to work, earn a wage, have a home, send their kids to school…it’s not the same.

Now there’s chaos, uncertainty, despair, and depression. I think this has to do with economic uncertainty in some way, and technology moving so fast.

But there is hope in economic development.

Every day, I am driven by the idea that perhaps the one or two things I do can change someone’s life for the better. For instance, if I can help a company overcome an obstacle to grow their business, then they are able to employ somebody—say an old Joe who hasn’t had a job in 9 months, but suddenly he has a job and his whole world has changed.

As economic developers, we tend to look at things from a 30,000 foot view, but when you get granular, you’re changing lives, you’re giving opportunity, you’re giving hope.

 

How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?

I’ve sometimes shied away from working on workforce issues because it can be so volatile.

A community, state, or region will say, “we need to do a workforce assessment and study what type of workforce employers need—and where are the gaps among the existing workforce?”

The workforce study group may report “today we need twenty welders, ten engineers, and ten technicians.”

But it’s a very temporal situation, so by the time the education system ramps up a welding, engineering, and technicians certification program, markets could have changed.

We’ve seen this again and again.

For instance, in Illinois, we did one of these studies. But by the time people were graduating from the nursing certification programs at the community college, the hospital said, “no, we have enough nurses now, thank you.” Now we have trained nurses with nowhere to go.

So there’s that volatility in the marketplace and the inability, at least in our current structures, for people to respond quickly.

How about life in general?! [laughs]

I think all of economic development has some level of uncertainty.

Here’s an example: I work with a group of people called site consultants. Site consultants are hired by corporate America to go out and find locations for new factories, expansions, and so on.

So, site consultant Bob gets a call back from a big warehouse distribution company or a retailer like Walmart, and they say, “we need a warehouse distribution center in the northeast part of the United States. Find a location in any one of these 5 states.”  

The site consultant takes into account things like distance to market, transportation, infrastructure, availability of land, building, workers, and more. When Bob comes to us, we provide them the information about our site and then they huddle with their corporate client to make decision.

It could take a couple of weeks or months. I’ve seen it go on for a year! The whole time you’re dealing with the uncertainty of the outcome.

What’s more, when they do reveal the result, and they pick another community, 99% of the time the decision process is kept secret. That adds another layer of uncertainty.

My own strategy and tactic is to appeal to that affinity factor. What is it about our community that this decision-maker may like or dislike? I try to find out what that is and appeal to that.

Just think about the decision making process: it’s very complex, not only for the company that’s looking to locate, but also for community that’s willing to accept them.

There are a lot of players involved, and several moving parts that make a project happen.

In Saratoga County, we have one of the most technologically advanced semiconductor fabrication complexes in the world. It took 6 years to build amid different business maneuvers with different entities in different parts of the world.  

It’s one thing for companies to say, “we’ll build our 15 billion dollar, 2 million square foot plant in your community, but here’s what we need,” and another to bring all that to bear. The process to make that project happen is utterly complex, utterly time-consuming, and it creates all kinds of political, financial, and personal issues that make it uncertain whether it’ll occur.

I think all of economic development is about ambiguity. It’s harder for us to implement changes compared to the private sector because we just don’t have the kind of funding most organizations have.

This means we are often lagging behind the private sector—for example, when it comes to marketing and advertising.

But the other part is just the failure on our part to look at things more holistically than the private sector does. That leaves us with this inability to put into play practices, tactics, and strategies that we know will result in investment, jobs, and capital investment.

In other words, you’re playing it by ear, or to some degree, you’re guessing. “This region or this town did it this way, so maybe it’ll work for us too,” we’ll say, without being able to really scientifically, in a disciplined way, test the validity of that tactic or issue.

This inability to be agile leaves us more susceptible to ambiguity in the environment.

 

When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?

I’ve always kind of taken things as they come, yet strive to be creative, aggressive, and positive about what we have in terms of how we can grow and create prosperity.

More recently, through meditation, wisdom, and age, I’ve realized that there are certain things you can’t control. You work with what you have and you don’t get ruffled.

I look at VUCA and say, “how do we work our way through that? What do we do with this situation and issue?”

There are solutions to every problem—the fun part is finding out what that solution is.

When you’re younger and when you don’t have the experience, knowledge, and scars, you tend to want to fight it and be anxiety-ridden. But if you approach it from a more zen-like attitude, you can get a lot done.

It doesn’t mean I don’t get upset or frustrated; it just means I try to approach it differently.

That’s what really drives me and makes me so interested in the idea of foresight. How can I do economic development from a really different perspective, knowing what the potential scenarios might be moving forward, based on a good scan of what’s coming down the pike?

 

How do you react to VUCA?

At The Futures School, we applaud Marty’s zen-like approach to navigating our VUCA environment.

It comes naturally to him and others who have a futurist mindset. They’re able to be more adaptive, resilient, and transformative.

Do you have these attributes? Take our quiz to find out.