CEO Partnerships: The Next Great Leap in Economic Development

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In the face of gridlock at the federal level in Washington, D.C., states and cities are turning to the economic development profession as never before for help in spurring their regional economies.

This type of shared peer-to-peer learning is essential in helping any state or region overcome its internal political and institutional rivalries to concentrate on the patterns of interaction among all the players that create wealth for an entire community or state. The lessons sink in and are absorbed.

All of the above sets the stage for the fourth and final goal—overcoming the silo effect. One of the major problems in many regions is that different players—universities, incubators, investors, start-ups, large companies, chambers of commerce, political leaders, and others—don’t truly communicate with each other. They speak different languages with different vocabularies. They don’t agree on metrics to evaluate success, or lack thereof.

That means economic development professionals must work to leave their own comfortable silos and facilitate the emergence of broad-based consensuses regarding regional development strategies. A piece of this is educating the different players about behaviors. One set of behaviors at the micro level may seem rational but seen in the broader context of cluster development strategy, they are irrational. Many universities, for example, still look at technology transfer offices as a way to avoid having technology “leak” from the university and create wealth for the private sector.

“Economic developers must become genuine regional leaders who can communicate a clear set of policy choices to all other constituencies.”

One of the worst-case scenarios for university leaders is how Gatorade escaped from the University of Florida’s football program in the 1960s without the university earning a nickel on it until it sued for a percentage of the sales. But rather than worrying about damage limitation, more universities should be gearing up to follow the lead of Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in actively promoting the commercialization of their technologies. Universities may fear a loss in the short term, but over the long run, successful technology commercialization creates huge wealth and prestige for a community and therefore for the universities.

It’s much the same message to CEOs. At the micro level, it may not seem rational to use shareholders’ money to support an economic development organization and it may seem unwise to spend precious time sitting on a board of directors, but if enough CEOs do that, it can have a hugely positive impact on a region’s growth and on every company’s bottom line results.

In short, economic developers must become genuine regional leaders who can communicate a clear set of policy choices to all other constituencies. That requires genuine thought leadership. “That is a dramatic shift in the economic development discipline,” says Phoenix’s Comacho. “We have to be the convening agent to have the discussions about creating the next economy.”

It won’t be easy to achieve all this because the generation of people who have created today’s economic development profession will be retiring in coming years. “We’re going to be looking at a scenario all around the country where the baby boomers are going to be stepping back from their positions,” says the IEDC’s Finkle. “Are there enough younger people who will be ready to rise into these leadership roles? Do they have right skills sets, the right attitude, the right political moxie?” Much work clearly remains to be done.

Key Takeaways

Engagement Matters  Get involved locally—a healthy community means a healthier talent pool for businesses

A Seat at the Table Private sector CEOs can encourage development by serving on the boards of local EDOs

Foster Conversation Economic development professionals, educational institutions and business leaders must all work together


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