The Secret Sauce to a Long Career in Economic Development – Advice from the Best

What is the key to staying in the same position, in the same community for a long time and continuing to be successful? In a profession of musical chairs, what’s the secret sauce to longevity? We asked six economic developers who have been in the same position in the same community for more than 20 years. A key ingredient in the secret sauce is attitude. “Economic development is a noble cause, a noble job. What I get to do is pay the world back,” said Scott Millar, President, Catawba County EDC. Along with Scott, we got advice and tips from Donny Hicks, Executive Director at Gaston County EDC, David Ginn, President &CEO at Charleston Regional Development Alliance, Mark Farris, President & CEO at Greenville Area Development Corporation, Jennifer Lantz, Executive Director at Wilson EDC, and Chris Platè, Executive Director at Monroe-Union County Economic Development.

How do you stay on the leading edge, innovative, creative, and not get stale after staying in the same organization and place for a long time?

You have to be creative and always find new ways to do things. Constantly look at things differently. Chris Platè advised that “a little revolution every once in a while is not a bad thing,” meaning constantly looking at the organization and asking how can we do things better.  Mark Farris says he is a “thief” and steals ideas. He stays on top of what other leaders across the country are doing. David Ginn said he learned early in his career to make decisions for the long term. He says, “Making decisions for the long term can look very different than decisions made for the short term.” Donny Hicks chimed in with how developers who stay in the same place have to live with their decisions, so their decision-making process is different. He went on to say that he avoids getting stale by staying relevant to the situation at hand and the current economy.

After being in the same job for more than two decades, how do you make sure that others do not see you as outdated and out of touch.

At the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, David employs a team management approach to bring out innovation and creativity, recognizing the talents of younger, more junior staff. Empowering younger professionals was a theme among everyone. On the flip side, most have long term staff as well. Some on Mark’s staff have been with the organization more than 20 years. These leaders shared that a high level of trust and comfort with staff allows them and their ideas to be challenged. Chris said it is good to have staff that will say, “Hey, you’re an idiot, do not step on that land mine.” Jennifer said it takes a special personality to have longevity in economic development. She said it was a kind of charm, a way to make people around you comfortable. She also said, “There isn’t anyone on this call who isn’t a consensus builder.”

How do you keep long term staff engaged and motivated?

Jennifer led off with the statement that “you can set the world on fire with good staff.” During budget planning, Mark asks staff what programs they want to implement, what tools they need to do their jobs better, and what professional development they want. Each of these leaders stressed open and strong communications with staff. They mentor people on their team and support them when they want to grow beyond the organization.

In economic development, people often get fired not because they are doing a bad job but because they get sideways with elected or volunteer leadership. How have you managed not to get fired?

Scott’s advice is to maintain alignment between expectations and funding. If expectations are high and funding is low, there is a problem. “No surprises” is Mark’s advice. He makes sure his board and leadership hear news from him first – good or bad. Chris says it is important to fight the default of playing it safe as you get older and have more to lose, like retirement benefits. The catch is that if you play it safe, you might get fired because you are not innovating. Jennifer started educating her leadership from day one that “economic development is not a political sport.” She does not play politics and does not interfere with other organizations and their leadership. Donny says it is hard not getting sideways with municipalities when you work in a county with lots of towns and cities. It is hard because all of the municipalities are different and do not have the same opportunities. His tips are: 1) stay in engaged with them; and 2) stand your ground when you know what you are doing is in the best interest of the county. It doesn’t hurt to remind officials of the cost/benefit of economic development and that your department/organization is one of the few profit centers for the county.

What attracted you to stay in this place so long?

Answers to this question were more personal. For some, it fit with their lifestyle and became home. For others, like Donny, it was that the location presented a challenge. Rebuilding the Gaston County economy after the collapse of the local manufacturing sector has been personally rewarding. David had a similar experience having moved to Charleston shortly after the base closure resulted in the loss of 22,000 jobs. Everyone agreed that truly loving the community comes through when you meet with clients. There is an authenticity to your sales approach.

What advice would you give someone who wants to stay in the same place?

David said, “There is power in a five-year strategy for the organization. If you want to be successful in this kind of work and sustain that success, that is the only way to do it. A strategic plan lets you know your strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, it aligns everyone with you.”

Jennifer’s parting words were, “You cannot play it safe. If you try to do the same thing over and over, you will fail. Be willing to embrace the challenges.”

If you love your job, love your organization, love your community, and you want to stay and continue to be successful, you can make it happen. These professionals show it can be done. Instead of moving for greener grass, water your own grass with innovation, a long-term view, savvy leadership, and staying above politics.  

Follow Up Note: It was coincidental but timely that we were reading Adam Grant’s book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know during this project. Each one of these leaders is constantly rethinking to let go of views that no longer serve them to innovate and stay on the leading edge. We highly recommend the book.

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