Developing More and Better Regional Business-Civic Leaders

Growing a regional economy in ways that expand opportunity for all requires distinctive leadership skills that are different from managing a business or running a government agency. Currently, leaders with the requisite skills are in short supply. And when they move on, burn out, or pass away, they often leave a vacuum that is hard to fill.

That is a key finding of a study I conducted of 10 regions participating in the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation, an effort designed to deploy a new model of economic development that promises better results for more people and communities.

An important backdrop for that finding is that inclusive regional economic growth doesn’t happen on its own. Somebody has to bring together key stakeholders across program and jurisdictional boundaries, develop a common plan, and oversee implementation through a network of partnering organizations. In the regions I studied, the individuals best equipped to perform those core leadership functions came from many different kinds of organizations, but business leaders were particularly important since it has proven to be difficult to implement economic growth strategies without their active engagement.

In the past, CEOs of large regional corporations, banks, and utilities embraced this role. But globalization has shifted CEOs’ focus outside their home regions, and mergers and acquisitions have thinned their ranks and shortened their tenure in any one region. As a result, the pool of high-level corporate leadership available to participate in regional partnerships is shallower, more transient, and less influential than in the past.

Fortunately, there are some innovative efforts under way to develop the next generation of regional civic leaders from the business community. Those efforts focus on educating mid-level executives about the regional economy and plans for growth, engaging them in carrying out those plans, and building their capacity to sustain and expand this vital work as their own careers advance.

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