Economic Developers — If you want more ribbon cuttings make this one small change.
So you’ve worked for months with a brand new business and helped with networking, business planning, financing, administrative red tape and they are about to launch. You suggest a grand opening with a ribbon cutting…and they pass.
Because as one small business owner said to me, “it’s just an event where someone else is going to take credit for my business.”
It’s simple; if we want more ribbon cuttings we have to stop saying that we build businesses and create jobs.
While it’s generally accepted that job creation is a cornerstone metric of economic development, economic developers don’t actually build businesses and create jobs — they support startups and existing businesses and they facilitate job creation.
Wrong. Words matter. We cannot take the credit unless we are assuming the risk as well. Why isn’t business failure a statistic directly associated with economic development in the same way that business success is?
My office is responsible for 120 business openings and 200 new jobs.
My office is responsible for 97 business closures and 120 lost jobs.
While we may report the number of closures, we certainly don’t accept the responsibility for them. For most in economic development, reporting the wins is a requirement of the job (a spreadsheet, a news release, an evaluation) and the business closures…well, that’s on the business owners. We don’t associate the first 5-year business failure rate with economic developers, do we?
Let’s just call things what they are. If we seek to be the trusted advisors to and supporters of business owners, we have to be that — advisors and supporters. What’s the saying about actors in a play…”there are no small parts, only small actors.” The same applies to economic development. The supporting roles are essential.
Or, we could dispense with the self-serving language altogether and come up with something new — something authentic in a world where social trust and transparency are increasingly in jeopardy. Maybe we need new metrics as we espouse new values. There are currently 1.84 billion Google results for the search term “failure” and they are, for the most part, supportive of it. How many studies and speeches have we seen that tell us to fail fast and fail often. Our own economic development systems are designed to support winners not losers. We are clearly misaligned in our words and deeds.
In a social negotiation of credit and responsibility, an honourable metric might be business and job retention. Economic development offices assist with struggling companies as much or more than they do startups and yet retention isn’t a metric that’s given a lot of airtime. It’s not as sexy as a new business announcement but I don’t think any business owner who received support and guidance through one of the most difficult times of their life would begrudge that credit. It can be the toughest and most fulfilling work we do. It requires great trust and greater discretion and is often its own reward. Humility and empathy are at the core of boots on the ground retention economic development.
I’ve filled out my share of spreadsheets with a job creation column. It never felt good but it was the expectation. And that’s the great thing about expectations that don’t align with our beliefs — they present us with an opportunity to ask important questions that hopefully lead to positive change.
In rural areas, economic development is about people. When the wins and losses become the focus instead of the people and businesses being counted, we all suffer. New authentic measures of economic support are needed.
Here’s what we know for sure:
1. Language matters.
2. Trust matters.
3. Without 1 and 2, ribbon cutting — not so much.