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|Sunday, January 01, 2006|
A new Oregon requires a new way of doing business
By Christina Williams
Complaining about a lack of leadership is practically a sport in Oregon.
The leadership gap has been blamed for everything from paralysis in the Legislature to dismal funding for public schools to trouble retaining businesses to a lack of support for local philanthropic organizations.
The standard leadership lament in Oregon usually conjures up the days of Tom McCall as the kind of moderate but decisive leader who's absent today. As governor from 1967 to 1975, McCall is credited for the bottle bill, land use laws and environmental stewardship efforts such as cleaning up the Willamette River and restricting development along the coast.
The 1970s-era business community was also different. The state's biggest industries were more likely to be natural-resources based. And Oregon's homegrown companies — Willamette Industries, Fred Meyer, U.S. Bancorp, Meier and Frank, all of which have been acquired by out-of-state companies — were still based at home.
Back then, leadership was one person stepping forward to lead a like-minded community toward a shared goal. The names of leaders were well known — the captains of industry, the politically anointed — and the top-down version of communication was the accepted norm.
"I'd say the state under Tom McCall was a pretty laid back but not very dynamic place," says Rick Mowday, professor of management at the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon.
Oregon has changed dramatically since then and so has the definition of what it takes to lead this state.
Sure, Oregon is still a small state — and, most would agree, laid back. But its population has grown a hefty 71% (to 3.6 million in 2004) since 1970. The makeup of its industries has slanted away from timber and fishing and toward high tech, manufacturing and services, businesses with contractors, customers and partners all over the globe.
Oregon's ever-present urban-rural divide has deepened — in 1970 urban Oregonians made 14% more than their rural counterparts. By 2003, that gap had stretched to 29%.
Life at the Capitol has also become trickier. Changes to the state's tax structure wrought by Measures 5 (passed in 1990) and 50 (passed in 1997) shifted the tax burdens of services such as schools from local to state governments and from property taxes to recession-buffeted income taxes. Piled on top of an unbalanced tax structure are such wedge-driving issues as gay marriage, property rights post Measure 37 and ongoing tensions between environmentalists and many Oregon industries.
"Leadership in Oregon is worse today than it's ever been, in my experience," says Russell Dondero, adjunct professor at Portland State University and longtime observer of Oregon politics. "But the problems are more acute and there's more political scar tissue."
In other words, leading in Oregon — or anywhere in a world where competition and markets are global and changes come fast — is no longer an easy task.
"It's a totally different environment," says Mowday. "You need different skills to be successful."
And maybe the problem in Oregon isn't leadership, but how we look at it.
TO SURVIVE IN TODAY'S WORLD, leadership has changed. It had to.
Just like businesses have had to become more nimble to survive in the slick, global economy, leadership has morphed into something that's smarter, more flexible and more comfortable with change.
At the heart of the new model is an inclusive style that brings in a variety of advisers to collectively hammer out the best method to achieve agreed-upon goals. "Is it not the height of hubris to think that one person has all the answers?" asks Robin Teater, executive director of American Leadership Forum's Oregon chapter. "Leadership is being willing to trust other people. It's not Jack Welch."
In addition to collaboration, the new leaders empower others, providing the hope and inspiration and keeping a low profile to the extent that when goals are achieved, the stakeholders in the process come away believing they're the ones who did it. "Leaders trust others, even if the risk seems great," says Jay Casbon, campus executive officer at the Oregon State University's nascent Cascades Campus in Bend. "They aren't control freaks."
Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning in Cambridge, Mass., says that the old powerful-boss model actually impedes the creativity and risk-taking that leads to innovation and survival. Another leadership scholar, Ronald Heifetz, author of Leadership Without Easy Answers and professor at Harvard University, advises leaders to keep employees and constituents in a "productive discomfort zone." It's precisely when you shake things up that great ideas emerge.
In addition to shaking up the status quo, today's leaders have a laser-like focus on the end result. They have a clear sense of where they need to be, even though the path to get there is likely to change along the way.
And what about the charisma factor? It's highly overrated. In a class on CEO leadership at U of O, Mowday hosted several big-company executives. "Each of them was very different but I wouldn't call any of them charismatic."
Still, communication is important and so is the emotional intelligence required to connect with people. Melody Rose, program director for the NEW Leadership Oregon, a leadership training program for women at Portland State University, sums it up: "If you're not going to bring people with you, you aren't going to be a leader."
FOR ALL OUR MOANING about a lack of leaders in Oregon, the new rules of leadership are actually in play — they're not just theories.
Oregon's American Leadership Forum chapter, for example, has been up and running since 1986 and has put 392 Oregonians, between 20 and 25 each year, through a rigorous yearlong training in adaptive thinking and collective intelligence. Its graduates include Duncan Wyse, whose Oregon Business Council launched the collaborative Oregon Business Plan effort in 2002. Others include Susan Castillo, superintendent of public instruction, U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, Judi Johansen, CEO of PacifiCorp — and this magazine's publisher, Gillian Floren.
Statewide efforts such as the Chalkboard Project, which has worked to bring parents, teachers unions and state school officials to one table with a goal to improve schools, and the Oregon Business Plan, which deploys volunteers to work on initiatives to enhance the state's business climate, provide solid examples.
Regions far away from the Portland Metro region also have something to teach about collaborative leadership. Take Southern Oregon, for example. Two hundred miles from Salem, the residents of the towns and cities of Southern Oregon often describe themselves as stepchildren when it comes to relating to, or getting attention from, the rest of the state. But their seclusion has evolved into a benefit.
"When you have fewer resources, you do a better job of working together," says Kathy Bryon, executive director of the Medford-based Gordon Elwood Foundation, which backs and organizes myriad community projects.
Bryon isn't worried about leadership, especially not in her neck of the woods, but what she does worry about is connectedness.
"In Oregon, well, really in society, we have all these silos — education, different industries, different branches of government. You can talk about collaboration but it's very different in reality," she says.
Setting out to work on connectedness, Bryon followed on the heels of some ambitious regional planning work done by the Rogue Valley Civic League's Healthy and Sustainable Communities Project in 1997. The Gordon Ellwood Foundation formed the Learning Community in 2004. Based on Peter Senge's idea of a learning organization (team learning around a shared vision), the group brought together leaders from a variety of organizations throughout the Rogue Valley and has tackled community issues such as poverty and methamphetamine use.
The group has at once capitalized on the commitment of local leaders who are already knee-deep in local issues — "The people who are business leaders here are on 10 nonprofit boards," says Bryon — and supports them to take on new challenges as a group.
In La Grande, the Eastern Oregon business community has coalesced around Eastern Oregon University as one of the region's primary economic engines. Beyond attracting students to the area and providing training for the workforce, EOU is putting the finishing touches on a $30 million science center, built with the help of business leaders who pitched in to raise funds. The school also buddied up with the city and the Union County Economic Development Corporation to buy land and draw up plans for the La Grande Business and Technology Park. Recruitment for tenants is already underway.
"It doesn't hurt that our mayor is an economist," says Tim Seydel, EOU's assistant vice president for university advancement. "We look at things from a business perspective. We have to."
The university, Seydel explains, is pretty well entangled with the business community, and while it's more a function of the community's small size than anything else, the closeness is an effective means of pushing leaders of different silos to work together. "It's what we call supermarket checkout line accountability," he says. "People will come up to us and ask, 'What's going on with the new building?' We answer them."
THE TOUGHEST TASK of new leadership is translating attributes such as checkout line accountability to a larger scale. How many Oregonians, for example, run into their state representative at the supermarket (or even know what they look like, for that matter)? Same goes for running a small company, where it's easy to collect input and communicate goals, as opposed to a large company where a certain amount of bureaucracy is a must.
Playing by leadership's new rules is by no means easy. It's a long, messy process designed to make people uncomfortable. It requires an unwavering directional compass and a passion that's not easily extinguished. And it counts on good followership — citizens, employees and stakeholders who don't just sit back waiting to be told what to do.
"Oregon's got to get real," says OSU's Casbon. "If you look at the data — what we're doing with hunger, what we're doing with basic infrastructure — we don't look so good. Oregonians want to kick back but the shadow of that is a lack of excellence in some key areas."
The old model of leadership works well for people who prefer to kick back. But the one-guy-with-all-the-answers routine just doesn't fly anymore.
In an online survey of Oregon Business readers (see Input, p. 10), 49% strongly agree that there's a lack of leadership in Oregon; 42% say they somewhat agree. Fewer than 10% of readers see enough leaders around the state.
There's a lot of work to be done in Oregon to restore the state's reputation as a place from which bold ideas come. Oregon companies that are led with openness for feedback and that offer a welcome mat for change will be stars in the constellation of a healthy economy. And most agree that collaborative model of leadership is the best chance to bridge the divides between urban and rural, red and blue and actually move forward on an agenda for fixing the state's problems.
"The role of business leadership is to realize that if things continue to go the way they are in Oregon, the business environment is going to deteriorate," says Russ Dondero of PSU. "In their long-term interest, they become problem solvers, not flame throwers."
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