Archive for the ‘Business Growth’ Category

Robert Kaplan, Leadership And Heavy Weather

December 1, 2011

Not to toot our own horn or anything, but . . .

On November 17th, we were lucky to have a visit from one of the best business speakers I’ve seen in a while.  The Chamber marked the return of Insight Kansas City with a presentation by Harvard Business School professor Robert Kaplan here at Union Station.  Kaplan was touring in support of his new book, What To Ask The Person In The Mirror and was wearing two hats – speaking on business leadership from his position in the HBS department of Organizational Behavior, and speaking on overall economic conditions, given his experience in accounting, finance and investment banking.  Both parts of his presentation were outstanding and I’ll briefly summarize them in sequence.

The guts of the leadership portion of his presentation came down to something  that doesn’t happen all that often – asking ourselves fundamental questions about what our business is for:

  • Have you developed and communicated a vision for your business?
  • How often do you articulate your strategy to your people?
  • If asked, would your employees be able to repeat it?

“To make money” Kaplan emphasized, is not a vision for a business.  Heaven knows it’s a necessary part of operating one, but as a vision, it’s empty.  You could argue that “to make money” was Bernie Madoff’s vision for his particular “business”.  If a business owner doesn’t  – or can’t – tell colleagues what their company’s vision is, and can’t get that clear, understandable vision into every employee’s vocabulary, then it’s time to step back, think, adjust and articulate just why they are doing what they do.

A second salient point of Kaplan’s leadership presentation was all about feedback:

  • Do you tell people things they do not want to hear?
  • Do you wait for annual performance reviews to do so?
  • Do you have 5 or 6 people who will tell you the truth (whether you like it or not)?

Kaplan administered a quick left hook to the idea of annual performance reviews as the place to address performance issues.  If you deal with problems by . . . waiting eight months to deal with problems, why bother?  Conversely, if you as an executive or employer are bluntly honest in how you deal with people in your organization, it only works if you’re prepared for blunt honesty pointed in your direction.  The most soothing and comfortable place in the world is that place where you’re surrounded by people telling you what they think you want to hear.  It’s also the most dangerous.

In the closing third of the presentation, Kaplan dug into an analysis of what he sees as an economy still capable of serving up substantial shocks in the years ahead.  As consumers continue to pay off debts, governments also must deleverage.  But this is a process that will take years.  And unlike consumers, governments face the task of trying to maintain economic growth while paying off their own debts.

Above all, the amount of complex derivatives sloshing through the economy – in effect insurance on securities – remains enormous, perhaps as much as $60 trillion worldwide.  The Fed does not closely regulate these securities, and as one-on-one agreements between individual corporations and financial firms they’re not traded openly on any exchange.  Given this, and in light of the EU debt crisis, the potential for volatility remains strong, and business must be prepared for turbulence.

How can business prepare for such turbulence?  It’s not just a case of adopting a more conservative mindset towards expenditures.  It’s about getting back to the basics – articulating a clear vision, focusing on core strengths and aligning your company’s strengths with where you need to go in unsettled times.  As Henry Kaiser said, “Challenges are just opportunities with their work clothes on” and unsettled times can be moments of outstanding opportunity – if you ask the right questions of the person in the mirror.

The Big 5 Ideas and Their Champions

September 16, 2011

September 16, 2011

Chamber President and CEO James A. Heeter

Chamber Chair Greg Graves pushed the ‘send’ button on an email seven months ago, and that’s what started the journey to the Big 5. He asked 17 friends to convene a “no bad ideas” meeting to talk about goals for the region. I still have that email, in which Greg writes, “Jim Heeter and I either like you, respect you, fear you, or think you’ll offer a unique perspective. I’ll let you guess on that one.”

We wound up convening two dozen meetings, with still more ideas gathered through The Chamber website, during radio appearances, via email and letters and just being buttonholed on the street.

It took seven months to get to the Big 5 – seven months of meetings and discussion with people from all over the KC region, all of them passionate about improving this place we all call home. Our first list of big ideas numbered 182. Here – in no particular order – are the final Big 5:

1.       The World’s Symposium on Animal Health — Champion:  Gary Forsee

The KC Animal Health Corridor, situated between Columbia, Missouri, and Manhattan, Kansas, already boasts the single largest concentration of animal health interests in the world. In fact, KC area companies account for nearly 32 percent of total sales in the $19 billion global animal health market. Holding a global symposium cements the image of the Corridor as THE center for animal health.

2.       The Urban Core Neighborhood Initiative —Champion:  Terry Dunn, JE Dunn Construction

Spurring economic development, preventing violence, improving education in the urban core were ideas that came up at many of the Big 5 meetings. Dunn and Stewart are already meeting with key leadership, organizations and foundations, and hope to have a strategic plan within the next 90 to 120 days.

3.       The Making of America’s Most Entrepreneurial City — Champion:  Peter deSilva, UMB Bank

We’ve got the assets and the history, and, like the Urban Core initiative, entrepreneurship was another consistent idea in our meetings. As deSilva says, better to grow our own rather than try to woo fickle corporations to locate here. Business growth and job creation aren’t coming from the big guys these days; they’re coming from entrepreneurs and small businesses

4.        The KC Regional Translational Research Institute — Champion:  Dr. Patrick James, Quest Diagnostics

The overarching goal here is to make KC a nationally-recognized center for translational research. The five year goal is to raise $60 million to triple the recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) granted to area researchers. “This could be transformative,” Dr. James says. “It’s a force for further economic collaboration… and an engine for economic growth that will touch all parts of our regional economy.”

5.       The New UMKC Downtown Conservatory — Champion:  Leo Morton, UMKC

This “Big Idea” calls for relocating the renowned UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance to a new downtown location. Currently the Conservatory is housed on the UMKC campus in three different buildings that require extensive renovation. By moving the campus downtown, it leverages new and existing assets including the Kauffman Performing Arts Center and the Crossroads Arts District, and grows Downtown.

So, that’s the list. It was, I admit, hard to get to the final five. There were a lot of great ideas from which to choose. But we believe these five goals will create jobs and build a greater community for all of us.

It’s up to the Champions to come up with their plans for implementation. Incoming Chamber Chair Frank Ellis promises regular updates as to our progress on each. So stay tuned – and thanks to all of you who shared your ideas with us.

This has been fun. Now the hard work starts.

Check out the Big 5 in the news and the videos from the Big 5 roll out on ChamberTV.

Regional Business Survey: KC Business Activity Growing – Along With Uncertainty

August 30, 2011

August 30, 2011

David Albrecht, Director, International Programs & Business Research

Well, another six months have come and gone, leaving the latest iteration of The Chamber’s Regional Business Survey bobbing in their wake. As always, the results make for interesting reading, assuming you’re someone willing to devote at least a small chunk of your free time to digging into the percentages.

Two trends stand out in the latest report. First is improvement in current business activity reported by survey participants. This growth hasn’t exactly been explosive over the grand total of five surveys since we kicked off the program back in the summer of 2009. It has, however, been quite encouraging. Two years ago, 40.3% of participating businesses characterized their business activity as “Strong” or “Very Strong.” In the most recent survey, over 57% chose one of these two categories, and these combined totals have increased survey over survey for two years now. Clearly, at least for some Kansas City companies, things are looking up.

At the same time, uncertainty hangs over the survey like fog over the Golden Gate Bridge. When asked whether economic growth in the region was heading in the right or wrong direction, a narrow plurality this time around chose Option Three – “Not Sure” – to the tune of 46.1%. The most popular choice among six alternatives for those asked to name the “Most Immediate Problem for Business” was “Unpredictability of Business Conditions.” And nowhere did business uncertainty show up more clearly than in hiring expectations. Just over 25% of those surveyed expect to have more employees in six months than they have now. This is a meaty drop from the 42% expecting more crowded assembly lines or cube farms just one year ago.

What can we make of this contradiction? That’s a tough call. Kansas City businesses haven’t exactly been standing still since things got weird back in 2008. 28.5% percent have indeed cut staff, and nearly 66% have cut spending. At the same time, 41% have expanded products or services, nearly 55% have increased their marketing efforts and nearly three-quarters have spent more time than ever building up relationships and beefing up their networking.

But with jitterbugging stock markets, political food fights filling the cable channels, and plenty of businesses in a tight fight with a short stick for that next customer, it may be that that inherent Midwestern conservatism for which we’re not too-unjustly famed is inspiring companies to wait and see just a little bit longer.

If you’d like to dig into the whole shebang, just click here and have at it!

Next Steps for the Big 5

July 26, 2011

July 26, 2011

E. Frank Ellis, Chairman & CEO Swope Community Enterprises, and The Chamber's First Vice-Chair

Dreaming of what can be has been an enjoyable experience, but now comes the hard part.

As you know, we’re working to determine The Chamber’s “Big 5” goals for the region. We started by asking the question, “If you were CEO of ‘Big KC,’ what goals would you set?” We collected ideas from the Web and from about two dozen meetings with elected, civic, and business leaders across the region.

On July 12, we held an all-day session where many of those same people helped us pare the list to 20 Big Ideas. It was no easy task, but the discussions were both thoughtful and animated. (Here’s a link to a video from the seven-hour session and a small photo gallery of the day.)

Now we’re preparing for August 29, when The Chamber Board will make the final decision. Chamber Chair Greg Graves has assigned me the task leading a task force to handle the next phase of the process.

The group will include the 24 community leaders who convened our original “No Bad Ideas” sessions. The easy part, I think, will be selecting the “Big 5” ideas we’ll recommend to the Board. More difficult but critical will be quantifying what success looks like.

We also need to find a “Big Champion” for each of the ideas. For some of the ideas, it may be appropriate for The Chamber to take the lead, but there are some initiatives on the list that are already underway. In those cases, our role will be to bring to bear the not-insubstantial resources of the regional business community.

That’s the plan. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.