Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Transportation Directors Shoes to Fill

St. Louis news of late has been filled with death, tragedy and crime. We know that’s not the entire story. There is a lot of positive activity happening below the surface of the news cycle. St. Louis has become an entrepreneurial hub. Our region has talented, creative, and energetic people working every day to create a vibrant, active region. Organizations and agencies are collaborating at an increasing rate. Together, we are focusing our collective activities towards the same targeted outcomes – economic inclusion, talent attraction, and increasing transportation options.

We are in a moment of great opportunity with significant changes in City and County staff. County Executive Stenger is working to fill high-level positions in his administration, and the selections he makes will shape the future of the region. Mayor Slay announced this week a new Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, and Director of Operations. We applaud his decision to promote the next generation to positions of power. They know better than many which assets will bring new residents and businesses to our region.

Both City and County are working to fill vacant Director of Transportation positions. The importance of placing the right people into these positions cannot be overstated, as they will determine how streets are designed throughout the region and who can safely use them. The Directors of Transportation can choose to continue on the current path of car-centric road design or choose to diversify transportation options. They can help make St. Louis a more livable region with a North-South Metrolink line, protected bike lanes the whole family can ride, and pedestrian crossings that accommodate all people regardless of age or ability.

We are counting on our leaders to choose wisely, selecting staff who are innovative, with a collaborative and transparent nature, and are willing to work hand-in-hand with private and public businesses for the betterment of the region. We need a 21st century vision and plan for the St. Louis we want to become, and stand ready to support our leaders and put in the work to take the region to the next level.

As we plan for our future, we should always focus our energies towards principles that ensure community advancement.  We must collaborate, be inclusive, and promote transparency to meet our region’s highest potential. Together, our region can lead in fostering a healthy, active community where walking, biking, and public transit are a part of our daily lives.

–Ralph Pfremmer, Trailnet Executive Director

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Undercurrents, Ethics and Disasters Together

There is an undercurrent brewing in St. Louis (no, not a story on malt beverage).  It's hidden, tucked beneath the radar of local, regional and national media who appear to be working hard to deliver the #ferguson #riotous doom and gloom.  Since all of us seem to be wearing the lead vest of uncertainty , I find it appropriate to mention a couple things contradictory to the abysmal spiral of all things St. Louis.  I am hoping this piece will turn out that way...

There are things happening!  Strategies being put forth and worthy of replacing the ongoing negativity; things centered on recovery and promise, not death and destruction.

Has there ever been as obvious an appetite for blood letting on behalf of the media?  Seriously.  It's as if a shift towards optimism is too risky; too dangerous for opportunistic media, in troubled times. Does highlighting positive change destine alienate readership? Perhaps a "Joplin like" tornado needs to hurry up and hit in order to make way for the story telling of perseverance and the recovery of a city held hostage.  

The difference between the St. Louis disaster and the Joplin disaster is obvious.  Joplin had little or no warning, the other, well... it's complicated.  St. Louis is ready to take the hit and get it over with, regardless of how complicated. The sirens have been wailing for quite a while. 

It's a pity that our sister cities see St. Louis within the ranks of others deeply rooted in conflict that they point to us and simply say "hopeless". It's from a social and economic development perspective that we fall short, among other things. This while the Grand Jury decision holds us in .  And, while we continue to be reactive to all things unfolding. 

With the politics, it's the status quo and St. Louis is no stranger to it. We have come to expect and accept it. It is just not that easy to break out of complacency or it likely would have occurred by now. Other cities and their regions have bottomed out as a result of the same problems: Detroit, Memphis, Birmingham, Cleveland and even Kansas City to name a few.  They had no choice but to organize in a forward motion once their community had had enough.  What's consistent among these cities is the fact that they are notably on the way back with boosted economies.  None are perfect but all are getting better.  The leadership is including everyone in the planning and they are very careful when executing things.

Here in the Lou we have not realized that which is surely our destiny and that which is the result of a sweeping under the carpet.   It is our disaster and we will need to overcome.  We will need to embrace the concept of failure in order to move forward in recovery. We have allowed the system to manage our destiny; on that writes plans and policy for the people vs. the people writing plans and policy for themselves.  

Our contemporary cities might ask: "Is there true cultural inclusion and equality of power"?  

Here it gets complicated too.  St. Louis leadership defaults in to an alignment that masquerades in the form of political and ethnic buffering. As a result things center a little more on keeping power in office rather than focusing on community advancement.  Again, the power making plans for the people, versus listening and helping the people write the plans for themselves.  It is a big hurdle for progress.  It is a functional government impact gap.  

No agenda (or lack of an agenda) can be forced on a community forever. The result is certainly where we are today.  We are in the midst of disaster. My guess is that  most of the people making up the St. Louis region (divided among 91 local municipalities not including IL), would agree.   

As for ethics, one could argue that there are varying levels of ethical standards in government.  We get reminded of this; our local municipalities so often reported on by the media...thanks for that Elliot Davis and others.  The issue of city and county working together and sharing resources is taking place outside of the politics surrounding this issue.  

How about we really hone in on community performance and measure progress outside of political context? The good folks in office have their hands full and are centered on some very important issues during this crisis. They are important to the mix of things but what if choose to utilize our advocates in order to become better united and represented adequately.  There is a difference between a vote and an advocacy membership.  Most advocates are mission driven, purposed, monitored and transparent for all to see.

Lets focus on our vitals without the complications of sorting out the political stuff. Let's define the benchmarks.  Let's monitor our performance by engaging the public for the purpose of writing plans and letting our advocates help get them into policy.  This is the way it should work.  City and County government has much to do, they will get on board. 

How about we create a category to benchmark relating to attracting and retaining young people?  We need to focus on the millennial generation.  They're centered on all things creative and innovative and centered on social conscientiousness .  If we ignore this we will fail.  They will leave. We need infrastructure that lends itself to their comfort and their ability to thrive.  Who would argue that?

How about we focus diligently on alternate transportation?  We can continue to focus on multi-mode transportation and the assets needed to accommodate movement.   This demographic appears centered on returning to the city.

How about an all out focus on the pedestrian?  Let's make accessibility and connectivity to our neighborhoods a priority.  Let's strengthen this infrastructure so that they can become vibrant again. And what about the economic inclusion piece--the people residing in our historic neighborhoods so rich with the spirit of cultural storytelling?  Let's give them access to advocates that listen and introduce opportunities to endeavor while celebrating their heritage. What's keeping us from helping get this stuff moving forward? Lets help them write their plan while helping transcend one generation to the next.

Is the undercurrent brewing powerful enough to embrace the things that will help our community? I think so.  Can we embrace each other and our differences in order to repair this stuff? This is the key.  Are we capable of being more "together" than ever before?  I think the disaster will reveal the goodness of our collective community.  Are we capable of writing a plan together that will celebrate, unite and ignite our future...together?  Yes.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Don't Gap the Boomer

Since moving in the direction of business development and doing a little consulting and on all sorts of things, I cannot help but take a particular interest in the Millennial Generation (Gen Y).  I figure I can take a little license on the topic, because I have been teaching Business (Dining) Etiquette for over a decade. While I continue to provide my popular program at the local Universities here in St. Louis, I thought it time to dig a little deeper into the grey matter of our youth.  For good reason.  

It's been a pretty significant jump into the psyche of those born post 1981 to 1994. I sought first to find out what is in store for my kid, who sits smack dab in the middle. Some folks think Millennials could be the most influential generation yet. I tend to agree with this but feel there is a significant disconnect between the two. Take senior management for instance, now often represented by the Baby Boomer.  Enter the Millennial, our beloved Millennials and the widening interpersonal communication gap. We both need each other, desperately.

I have immersed myself in many studies and reports on the topic, most outlining needs, likes and dislikes, peculiarities, values etc..  Being a Baby Boomer, I find it quite interesting the similarities. One being that we are consistent in the numbers that we represent during our periods of coming to age.  The Harvard Business review predicted that in 2016, Millennials will make up over half of the work force.  Way back in 1965, the same thing was happening, over half of the American population was over the age of 25.  

What makes this even more interesting is how advertising and marketing shaped the Boomers self-perception, and now shapes the Millennial; who they are, what they are entitled to and what motivates them.  Marketeers, just like back in the 60's, focused diligently on the volume to sell consumer products; music, fashion and technology, with less attention placed on other demographics by default. 

In my new module, we will discover together how the Boomers match up with the Millennial; how they line up with one another.  I will draw attention to the gap that has been created by (you guessed it) technology.  I will present compelling evidence that a focus on conventional relationship management still requires skill building and commitment. As obvious as the Boomer having much to learn about what ignites the next greatest generation, is the the gap by which Millennials communicate face to face. Don't Gap the Boomer!    

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Gap the Boomer

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“Authentic brands don't emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does...” ― Howard Shultz

A brand is more than a logo, name, tag line or slogan.  It’s the experience that prospects, clients and customers live while engaging us.  There are ways to get buy in from employees and performance that not only encourages others to perform, but utilizes these employees as ambassadors promoting the business externally.  It is employee enrichment through cultural meaning. Authenticity is key. Think Whole Foods. 

First you need a dream. Personifying the culture you want also means committing to a (loftier) version of whatever personal policies manual you have.  It has been my experience that companies who embark and embody the collective spirit process (pursuit of the dream) get better results. While conventional manuals are ever so important to meeting HR best practice methods, if executed correctly, the dream can have much more impact than any policy driven mandate.

It is a way of life, the dream; an expectation and delivery of the coolness factor in the work environment, purposed for the new employee and the outer community.  The dream can be documented and utilized within a performance management strategy if positioned accordingly. Think bike shop employee being active in the local amateur bicycle race scene, or music store employees performing or teaching lessons. These are endorsements to user groups, audiences recognizing credibility and seeking cultural connection to the products or services that the employees sell.  Authenticity is what our customers are looking for. The more front and center the dream, the better connection to your employees, prospects and customers.

When determining the dream, it is important to identify what's going on in the business. The life cycle of every company requires cultural improvement at some point. Some cases are worse than others and most have conflict stemming from poor alignment.  Alignment problems often come about from a lack of trust on how and when to express oneself; if it is accepted, if it is encouraged, feared, subject to retaliation.  The best performance plans comes from within, the worst come from the top, from fear.  Fear comes from people not understanding one another.  I will try and explain...

There are reasons Baby Boomers are considered more conventional than the Millennial. They are a product of what happened during their lifetime and also what was passed on to them from their parents, the Silent Generation.  They consider themselves differently and are looked at differently.  They think that their work ethic is measured by the number of hours worked vs. the importance placed on productivity by today's standard.  They also think that close personal relationships are crazy important to getting results (this I live by).   Loyalty too. These values are significantly different than folks 25 or 30 years younger working in the same organization, often the Millennial reporting to the Baby Boomer or early X'er.  

The less conventional Millennial has different values.  This group, having grown up with cell phones and computers all of their lives, want instant gratification and prefer that everybody wins and gets recognized. They feel entitled due to parenting styles of the Late Boomer or early X'er. This group searches for the individual who helps them achieve their goals and wants open and constant communication, ongoing and when they want it.  They need fulfillment and prefer to work together with peers. They want to work when they want to work.  They work to live rather than live to work, unlike the Boomers.

The Gap has to be assessed, exposed and managed.  There is hope.

In consideration of the Gap, the people and the dream then become the necessary components of the Cultural Brand Strategy found in some of the hottest companies out there, Google, Whole Foods, Virgin, Apple; companies committed to attracting employees who get it. Regardless of the age (or generation) of the employees, declaring the dream is putting forth first the commitment to collective personality and second the authentic presence of how, together, they enhance the community. This is important to customers even though they might not consciously reflect upon it during the buying process.
And while the brand certainly always includes the logo, color palette and slogan, these are only basic creative elements that convey meaning. Instead, the brand lives and breathes in every day-to-day interaction with anyone connected to it.   

The people and the dream are a companies biggest asset.  A solid Cultural Brand Strategy then includes:

  • the images necessary to frame the look and culture (unique to the marketplace) and able to be conveyed in all media types.
  • the messages delivered consistently on websites, social media platforms, brochures, signage, product identifiers, proposals, training materials and sales campaigns, email and uniforms, salutations, hello's, goodbye's. 
  • the Dream; purpose and message transparent to all stakeholders, prospects, clients, customers, their parents, children, competitors, vendors, lenders, employees and anyone in community.
  • the style, pride and delivery of how employees interact with customers; body language and broadcast of excellence (living the dream).
  • a distinguishable reference to how our customer’s opinion of us stacks up versus our competition.
  • a significant community presence outlining altruistic, ethical, moral and world-focused endeavor specific to the customers appeal.
  • a clear understanding of who our customer is and what makes them think the way they do.
I think the development of a Cultural Brand Strategy can happen at any time in the course of business. Usually at a point of conflict or at the collision of process over innovation--the inability to grow horizontally because of too much process.  Cultural change requires an open an honest inventory of the Executive team; a loosening of the ties to fit in a little better with employees.  Which often fits in a little better with customers.  ifyouknowhatimtalkinbout.  


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Jeff Zornes; Farmer

I was given a bit of counseling not long ago from someone I respect immensely.  He said, (like in grasshopper): "There are three things that are certain--everything in your life is impermanent, everything in your life is imperfect and everything in your life is impersonal".  "Go now and think about it until next time we meet".  He said.

And I have been reciting this all week; meditating on the meaning turned mantra, a perfect fit to go along with some of the interesting places that I have journeyed this week.  I have been out and about, on a path to become educated on small business incubators, regional and municipal economic development agencies, non-profits, for profits, start-ups, wind downs, a whole hodgepodge of influence from some really cool people.  All in the spirit of discussing business development, and particularly referring to our various local economies. Something has summoned me to this recently. It is too early to suggest what the outcome might be.

I have spoken with farmers and grocers, entrepreneurs at local accelerators, real estate brokers, church pastors, bankers, beer makers, coffee roasters, musicians, lawyers.  It has been a busy week and it is merely Wednesday.  There is much to understand.  I will keep you posted on my journey.

The reason for this post is to highlight one of the people that I encountered on my recent journey.

Meet Jeff Zornes; Farmer.

At first glance you wouldn't think Jeff was a farmer, and if you were to ask him 10 years ago if this would be his vocation, he likely would have laughed, having been on the executive real estate development scene for many years.  However, Jeff Zornes is indeed a farmer and a businessman on the verge of creating something great in the name of cause marketing.  His local farm is located at Ranken Tech, in the heart of North St. Louis, in the parking lot, inside of a steel shipping container.

There will be lots more to discuss with Jeff and his goal to help ignite a funding mechanism for one of my favorite local non-profit organizations, Urban Future.  Take a look at this technology.  Jeff's first harvest is tomorrow, basil, and some of the best I have ever seen and tasted.  Right here, local and cultivated with purpose in North St. Louis!!!

Jeff utilizes discarded freight containers for the farm.

Utilizing space at our local technical training school, Ranken Technical College

Jeff monitors the staging of plants until harvest time.

A view down the center of the container.

So how is that for innovation?  I could have written about any of my visits this week; all so inspiring. But Jeff's story is unique, and interesting, like all the stories of our innovative heroes out there. 

When I asked Jeff how it has been going, he mentioned that he had not quite perfected the process, this being his first harvest, and he still needs to pack and prepare for distribution by local distributor, Old Tyme Produce

He also mentioned that the single unit container was not at all what he has planned for the bigger picture.   Rather, once things get dialed in better, and some of the challenges are overcome that he has had to deal with on the technology, he plans on expanding his capability.   

When I asked him if he minds being a farmer rather than a real estate executive from his past, he simply smiled and said he has work to do. 

This speaks to the kind of spirit we find with innovators like Jeff, doers like Jeff. I felt the urge to tell him what my council told me a few short days ago.  Jeff's start up condition isn't at all permanent, his technology not perfect and I am pretty sure he wouldn't take it personally if one of his old real estate cronies questioned his reasoning.  

Jeff gets it, as all of us should, ifyouknowhatimtalkinbout...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What is your MBA?

I have had a handful of conversations recently where the term "MBA" was used figuratively rather than in the traditional academic sense.  I thought that this would be a good topic to discuss.  

My question is: who has the better MBA, the hard knocks trial and error ass kicking entrepreneur or the (conventional and/or unconventional) student/professional going the academic route right out of college?

Out of coincidence, I just spoke with an MBA candidate last night.   He hasn't quite yet gotten through his undergrad economics degree and has another major along side it too, Philosophy.  He noted that the double major is important to rounding things off.  I do get this.  But he was already getting in the mindset of an MBA, the summer after his junior year.  He is under the impression that, without an MBA, the remarkable achievement of applying for, being accepted, attending and paying for 4 years of undergrad college might be flat; not good enough. Flat in the sense of his own marketability.  Flat in the sense of his own distinction towards his classmates and other employment candidates upon graduation.  I can't really argue this, but there is another way of looking at it.    

When I asked him what he wanted to do after all of this school he said: "I don't know, but first I gotta get my MBA and then I will figure out what I want to do". Case in point.

Since when did this become the standard?  And why such a gap between academic success and figuring out what students want to do--especially in business?  Is it practical to sink funds into what "could be" versus that which is necessary for the target of tangible result?  At what point does practicality weigh in for our graduating seniors.  Let's consider the ROI folks.

There indeed continues to be a lack of practicality driving conformity into our educational system.  Is there not so much more to learn from starting and/or participating in the start-up of a business rather than investing in a degree on the come.  Is there nothing of value in the trial and error, success and fail journey of being an entrepreneur?  I would argue that everything represented and covered in most MBA programs might equal or run about the same cost.  While this might sound a bit lofty, I am living proof of education for the sake of education and the incremental use of funds for the purpose of generating other funds.

And since I mentor a handful of graduating seniors who all want to discuss what they should do next, I typically always get answers like:  "I don't know, I may get my masters, after I pay my debt down".  

The average debt of a graduating senior at the end of 2013 was $29,000.00, this according to the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).  Seven out of 10 seniors graduated with student loan debt, and over a 5th of it owed to private lenders who charge higher interest rates. 

That said, the odds of getting a job are still in favor of the college graduate, CNN reported in 2012 that high school grads can expect unemployment rates of 17,9% compared to that of college grads at 7.7%.  I think these are awful figures and wouldn't attempt to spin it like CNN. While tuition rate increases seem to have tapered off, possibly due to future declining enrollments, if there is no return on this investment, nor any real and apparent tangible return in sight, is the debt worth it?  This is elementary.

I got my MBA by electing to go into business; by making mistakes and then work-shopping the results with others like me; business people with experiences similar to mine who have made similar mistakes like mine.  I got my MBA by going through a recession, by over investing in a housing market, by failing to provide my customers with increases while they were passing increases on to their customers, by going through an acquisition.  I got an MBA by experiencing the banking industry turn from a lending community to a checkbook facilitating community.  My MBA was written in the form of an Ode to the IRS (and that is a whole other story).

I am proud of my MBA.

Students, I am not knocking higher education, but consider your options.  Use some creativity, pay some dues instead of debt, and seek to emulate your heroes.  But don't fall victim to the debt by conformity.  Either way, get your MBA.  Which one is right for you?--ifyouknowwhatimtalkinbout.--rp