Monday, August 15, 2005

More voices, more tools

You would think after seeking out so many big changes in my life, I would get used to people not believing me, people thinking I am wrong, and worse. But no.

Listening to me rant about training and infrastructure needs in the Vermont economy not long ago, a new friend looked at me and said, “You know, you are right about many things, maybe even most things. But you are Cassandra here—they will never believe you.”

Eureka! I have been looking for the perfect name for a new German Shepherd girl puppy.

Cassandra was the woman cursed by gods of old to be a prophetess, but never to be believed. What better name for a German Shepherd? If baby Cassandra (now just two weeks old, and I don’t even know which one she is) is anything like her mother or my old Max (see left in mid-lecture), she will be forever warning of aliens and axe-murderers, thieves and terrorists, all right outside that door that I am refusing to open for her. Can’t I see that she needs to investigate? Can’t I at least see that she is starving? And as for that last task—whatever I was doing—she hopes I know I did it all wrong.

Yes, living with German Shepherds should be good training for the judgments of humans. And when my ex-husband accused me of selling out on moral, ethical and spiritual levels all at once because I chose to go to business school...well that was twenty-five years ago, so you would think I would be over it. What I said to him then—more calm and clear-eyed than I can believe in retrospect—was that I didn’t see why people who had bad motives should be the only ones with the good tools. Nor did I see why people with good motives should stay out of the fray. The fray is where real decisions get made and real good gets done.

Now stop it, stop it, stop it. Okay, maybe it is just the negative voices in my head and not you, my reader, but please know I do accept the value of the meditative life. I believe that what we do every minute is homage to God. I carve out time for mindfulness, and without that meditative space, I am nothing. But for reasons I do not understand, I am also called to the fray.

I also believe in the idea that each of us is called to do some particular work in some particular place. Based on my girlhood in rural Georgia, my business training, and my two decades on Wall Street, I have views to share with Vermonters. If I could only get them to listen! Here’s what I would say, if anyone were listening, and perhaps I should just keep saying these things anyway, felling my metaphorical trees in the metaphorical forest.

The world has changed in some interesting ways. It is much more about transactions, and—because we engage with more people and travel further from our local comfort zones—less about relationships. But people crave relationship, even in business settings, and we need to learn new ways to foster connection. A series of successful transactions leads strong relationships, not the reverse.

Customers are more demanding than ever. We need to offer the best solution with the delivery that is most responsive and lowest cost and lowest risk to the customer. The customer will not trust that we can deliver until we show it.

Success in economic terms (and, I would argue, other parts of life as well) is about creating as many options as possible, then delivering with excellence.

What this new economic world requires of us is skill and will: the skill to communicate and negotiate, the skill to deliver, the will to continue building new skills, and the will to hold fast to the belief that there is always another option.

I say these same things over and over again every day in my job in economic development. Some people consider me a skilled communicator, but I know that I am impatient and that I routinely underestimate the number of times that a message must be delivered before it is really heard. Lest you think I am the only person saying these things, I refer you to this blog I discovered over the weekend: Ripples post-corporate adventures I know that it looks like arrogance when I keep saying, “No, really. I have something to say here.” But I have to keep saying it.

I have to keep saying it, because I believe that in many ways Vermonters are well equipped by temperament and tradition for this fast paced, rough and tumble global economy. Vermonters are accustomed to dealing with impossible challenges, from keeping everyone warm enough to survive harsh winters to taking on global warming, healthcare for all, genetically modified seeds, agricultural policies and other really, really big issues in Town Meeting. Vermonters are accustomed to working two or three jobs, plus odd jobs and a little sugaring on the side, to make ends meet. Vermonters are good at inventing new options. Vermonters are good at putting it all in perspective, stepping back to watch the seasons roll, bringing new days and new options to the forefront. Vermont does not have good infrastructure, but Vermont has flexibility and innovation and sheer will to create opportunities.

What Vermonters are not good at—nor are humans anywhere—is listening to input from people that have different experience to bring to the table. We’re not trying to take over, you know, we just have something to say. We accept that we will never be accepted, but please, take our ideas!

I’m not from here, but I am from a place very like here. The county in north Georgia where I learned to love rural life is in many ways—economically, demographically, and topographically—uncannily, spookily, like my new home in Vermont, so I draw the line at being called a flatlander. And the years I spent away from rural life were years in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, all great cities full of great people with lots of great ideas. If only all of us country mice and city mice could draw the magic circle wide enough to let in all the great ideas...and if we had the tools to process those good ideas effectively...then what might we all grow to be?

To get to that place, we will need to encourage more voices, more conflict, more inclusion, more tools. One of Vermont's challenges will be to get meaningful input from the business community, a group of people who do not gravitate to the public meeting, the ad hoc task force, the "visioning" and strategic planning exercise, all techniques at which Vermont excels. We are awash in non-profits in Vermont, with one for every 200 people, and we are short on business.

Why should we bother getting input from people who shy away from the processes and tools that dominate in Vermont? Because they have other, different tools. Tools that may be more effective in certain circumstances. Because the very fact that they have a different view makes their views new information and potentially valuable. There is a level at which if your view is what I expect, it is uninteresting to me. It is only if it is unexpected that it becomes information.

Please let my day be filled with people who have different views, with original and exciting visions of what Vermont--my chosen home--can become.


carlakeet said...

I feel like there's a light bulb joke in there... don't the Vermonters have to WANT to change?

It's definitely good to be in the fray - good for you, really! I myself once was but (Cassandra here!) - watch out - in the long run it can be VERY exhausting. Because people (especially those in power) believe what they wish to believe, whether Cassandra is right or not. Though being in the fray definitely lets you influence things (at least).

I'm curious - with the principles you outline, do you have specifics in mind? I'm guessing that your audience is smart, experienced but maybe parochial in their views and not very sophisticated - and that they like it that way. Maybe they simply don't understand or relate to broad, philosophical concepts and might "get it" with plain examples. (For example, what do you mean by "infrastructure" - do you mean paved roads? answering machines? cell phones? wi-fi?)).

Interesting post!

Karen said...

You are so right! I am trapped in a lightbulb joke!

After two years on the job, I have learned to say, "Okay, whatever you want. Let me know if there is some way I can help." And there are enough people who want to work with me to keep me very, very busy.

So why keep ranting? Because it generates ideas...that lead to projects...that lead people back to me, saying, "Uh...that thing that you exactly would we tackle that?" To which I reply, "Well, I'm not entirely sure, but what if we start with...." And so it goes.

That is the place for the specifics, the plain examples. It seems to work.

I'm just impatient.

To answer your specific question, the critical infrastructure needs to me are broadband and more reliable, reasonable cost electric power. Do you know we have state highways in Vermont that are not paved? And are not open in the winter? That, oddly, works in this brave new internet based world we live in. Absence of communications infrastructure does not.

Hon, you may be taking a break from the fray, but I hope to see you back after a rest. We need your good ideas, and if you take it in small bites, the fray can be exhilirating. If the bites get too big, we call it addiction, and that's why I left New York. It was too much adrenaline for me.