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Changing Leadership: A Time to Ask Questions?

August 5, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
When you have a going concern, one of the hardest things to do is to change direction.

This applies to business, government and nonprofit organizations. Changes are afoot among several key organizations including the APA and Trudeau Institute. There have been recent changes at the top at several important community organizations as well and candidates are being appointed to run for local government.

Leader vs. Direction I was thinking on how different the processes on hiring a new leader for each of these positions really are. More importantly, it raises the question in some cases “is this an opportunity to analyze what we have done, what the current conditions are, and should we reassess new opportunities and challenges to create a new direction?”

Most of the process to hire a new leader often comes in closed-door internal processes and this is totally appropriate. However, for all of us, at some point in this process should we ask the question to our customers “What is important to you?”

Based on these answers, do we need the same qualities and attributes common in previous leadership or do we need new strengths and skills?

It is interesting to me that while often our local government candidates may be chosen by familiarity, running for office is a great opportunity for the customers, in this case voters, to get an idea on what they see as the priorities for the future.

In community organizations governed by a volunteer board, it may boil down to two questions: should we ask these strategic questions before we hire a new leader or hire a new executive and have them steward a possible new direction? Neither option is necessarily a wrong one. The only thing for certain is that businesses, non-profit and municipal organizations are also enterprises that operate in an environment that is constantly changing.

Thinking Then & Now I am thinking of the time period when the temporary study commission was working on the recommendations that led to the creation of the APA in 1973. In terms of an economic and community planning perspective, how different the world was viewed back then. While always relying on a small business base, a large portion of the Adirondack economy was based on large, land resourced industries such as wood products and mining. The U.S. economy was big business driven and the vernacular at the time was often caged in terms of “corporate America,” industrial recruitment, urban planning and rigid top-down management. The post World War II era was filled with both optimism and fear but it seemed to revolve around the word “big.” A new middle class was emerging, suburbs and urban sprawl were the rage of the day, and cars were bigger and faster. There was also the fear that the next war would not only possibly damage this country but devastate the world. Nuclear proliferation was a new big fear. Perhaps it was my youth, but everything seemed to be big: the American dream had endless possibilities, economically we were #1 and we could just grow and consume what we wanted.

This was all before the time when small business became a key engine to spur the economy. This was before new thinking in terms of sustainability, downsizing, entrepreneurial development, planning from the bottom up and where unidentified terrorists have the potential to wreck more havoc than most wars in our history. New opportunities and challenges arose that seemed to be based on “small” and “speed.” We are much more cognizant now of what is happening in the world due to almost instantaneous news, tweets or texts.

Are our land use threats still predominantly large industrial companies? Or, have new threats emerged such as land values? For example, do our children have the same opportunity as my father and that is to live the American dream by buying a piece of your own land and thriving as a self-made entrepreneur? Why is it that business properties that have served the public for generations close but often do not re-open? Why is the fate of many of these beautiful landmarks a private sub-divided property? Is this not a new threat to our land use? Is this a new conversation on what is “public access” and should these properties be given some planning and incentive tools so they can be “preserved” if they want to be for younger generations of entrepreneurs?

Are the perceived threats that led to the creation of the APA still valid today? Perhaps some would argue that from a residential perspective this may still be the case. Fewer may argue this from a business development perspective.

“Old Mr. Pete” I think of my own community and how it has changed from the 1970’s to today. The Lake Clear, Upper Saranac, St. Regis and Paul Smith's region were once a thriving bastion of business activity. At one time they even had “main streets.” The area was dotted with small business enterprises that in many cases had been here for generations. We even had our own business association. We marketed our region and worked together; referred each other's businesses and help each other in times of need.

As a new business ourselves back then, I remember my father often talking to old “Mr. Pete” asking him for advice on how to survive the brutal seasonality of our business climate. I remember him saying something like this once: “Ya pay all of your bills in the summer. Save what ya make in the fall for winter. And whatever ya do, make sure ya have venison in the freezer for spring, ‘cause it gets pretty lean ‘round here until summer comes.”

Okay, some things don’t change.

Most of these businesses are gone now. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don't know. All I know is that our community has changed and I think this story is the same for many of our outlying communities.

Was this always the plan or are these new challenges and opportunities that require new thinking? While historical challenges still remain, there are new opportunities and issues that face the Adirondacks today.

A Question or a Plan? Should we ask some of these questions before the next chairman of the APA is put in place? Would it be worthwhile to hold a series of informal meetings throughout the Park with local government, environmental and business interests, state representatives and interested citizens to consider today’s challenges and opportunities? What does the APA staff itself think on ideas for going forward?

Could this information be used to prioritize a new strategic initiative? For example, should the still vacant economic affairs position at the APA become a priority to fill and should this position be an important voice in the new regional economic cabinets proposed by Gov. Cuomo?

In a perfect world, it would be great to look at the reasons why all of our businesses, nonprofit organizations and local government entities were formed in the first place.

What need(s) were meant to be addressed? Are those needs still prevalent today? In our new vernacular of sustainability and “growth with focus” can they be filled by someone else? Have new challenges and opportunities arrived? Is our organization the best to service these needs and what should our priorities be going forward?

In the long run though, if we at least ask the questions, will we be more successful in meeting the needs of today’s world and our customers?


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