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Chaos Begs for Effective Leadership

In light of the horrific events over the last few weeks, I struggled with sending out a blog post talking about COVID-19 impacts and how communities are feverishly working to repair and recover. However, the theme that consistently rises to the surface through any time of chaos is effective leadership. Today's blog post illustrates what effective leadership looks like in the Midwest.

Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

As everyone is beginning to settle into a new rhythm, I wanted to share some thoughts on effective leadership that I’ve seen throughout the U.S. Particularly, I am highlighting one economic development organization (EDO) of which I have been impressed with their response to their community’s needs: the Cornerstone Alliance of Berrien County, Michigan.

Before I begin -- I want to recognize that this virus was going to be disruptive regardless of proactive measures. But how we respond it so painfully critical to the long-term sustainability of our people and businesses. As economic developers, we are familiar with chaos. Particularly for local-level leaders, chaos is what they deal with from sunrise to sunset. A million-page (slight exaggeration) RFI response due in 24 hours? No problem! Help with putting together a business plan for a toy store? You got it! Calling legislators to urge funding for major broadband infrastructure issues? Yep. Economic development covers a long spectrum of topics. Local leaders are warriors on the economic front lines.

The U.S. Army concept “VUCA” can accurately describe chaos as “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the world.” But turning those definitions on its head, leadership experts explain the remedy is also VUCA, standing for Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. Local leaders in economic development deploy these approaches on a daily basis in their work. I’d like to highlight one of many exemplary responses: Rob Cleveland, President and CEO of the Cornerstone Alliance, used VUCA approaches to swiftly and effectively respond to the COVID-19 lockdown.

The COVID-19 fires began around March 11th and 12th. By Friday the 13th, Rob gave the plan to not come back to the office. At that point, information and things were changing so quickly, the team knew they wouldn’t have clear answers for the business community for a while, but that was gravely important to collect data and be ready for action. But before they dispersed, the Cornerstone Alliance developed a survey mechanism to help them navigate the chaos. The number of initial responses collected was around 100. Six weeks later -- over 220 businesses provided feedback with more than 80% of those being small businesses. The benefits of businesses taking the survey? Those who responded are getting critical information on tools and resources first.

Simultaneously, a COVID-19 response Task Force was formed, shifting the current team’s responsibilities from business development to current projects, while the remaining team became assigned task managers for businesses identified in the survey system. This move to ensure the businesses were only hearing information from the case manager -- not the president or communications person -- was intentional. Personal connections and relationships were monumental to ensure all business leaders were effectively cared for.

Further to this, its current resource programs are constantly evolving as needed, and the direction of focus is being defined by the business community (bottom-up, not top-down). For example, the Cornerstone Alliance conducted triage through the Michigan Small Business Relief grant program. Because the Cornerstone Alliance community has an immensely strong tourism economy, Rob and his team recognized that many businesses were going to have challenges paying the rent with local tourism down significantly. Partnering with the Berrien Community Foundation and the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council, Cornerstone Alliance developed the Rent and Mortgage Payment Program (RAMPP) to address the tangible, immediate, and specific needs of its community.

As the discussions progressed on how to re-open the economy, Cornerstone Alliance then partnered with a local healthcare provider Spectrum Health Lakeland to develop an Employer Toolkit to assist businesses to navigate reopening to the community, welcoming employees back on-sit, and/or adapting to a new environment. The guide includes expert tips, best practices, checklists, and ready-to-use signage. Now, the organization is working to get PPE for manufacturers, construction workers, and any company that needs it.

What’s next? No one can truly predict it accurately. But leaders like Rob are not sitting around waiting for another attraction project. In my opinion, there isn’t a better example of not being afraid to fail, as there is no playbook to recovering from the virus’s impact. You just have to proactively go out, do something, but also know when to be patient. This comes from the art of listening and feeling the pulse of your community.

And as time draws closer to budget season, I know many leaders will be closely looking at the tax impacts on their organizations. Cuts are likely and people are worried about their jobs and available resources. One thing is certain -- uncertainty is here and will be here for a while. And uncertainty lights a fight or flight response in us. As a means to cope with uncertainty, we analyze a situation to help us feel in control. And beyond COVID-19’s impact, the racial tensions in America right now are at an extreme height. Economic developers are stretched on a lot of dimensions trying to be helpful to everyone. Our communities need a new path to leadership that cares about everyone. Rob and his team exemplify this.

My call-to-action to you? Double down on your local ecosystem. That is the path to recovery, thriving, and sustainability. Follow the beacon Rob and his team are shining out from the North Pier Lighthouse.

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