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Outlook on Leadership

by Dan Wyant

Chairman & President

Policy development: 5 ways to help your business remain relevant

By Dan Wyant

There was once a time when business owners could operate successfully without having a presence in the political arena. Not so today.

From the emergence of self-driving cars to the Internet of Things, our business environment is one of dramatic change — and new technologies are causing the pace of change to accelerate even more. As businesses strive to remain relevant, their leaders’ ability to understand government processes and influence policy becomes increasingly more important.

Critical policies for your business might revolve around regulation. Or it could focus on taxes, tariffs, talent or other resources. My point is two-fold:

  1. With the right policy, being relevant is much easier.
  2. You can’t leave it up to others — You have to get involved.

So how do you go about having a hand in policy development? From my experience, five major themes emerge:

Engage at the grassroots — Getting involved in your industry or trade associations is important, but you can’t expect these organizations to do it alone. The issues are too complex. Both state and federal officials respond best to local contacts, so get to know those officials. Invite them to visit your business. If appropriate, invite them to use your facility when needed. Go to functions that they host. Bottom line, be proactive about cultivating relationships. Relationships matter.

Identify champions — Elections matter. As my friend Rob Fowler says, “personnel is policy” which means who we put in office affects how an administration’s policies are executed and advanced. So identify people who have passion for your issues — either incumbent officials or individuals who have the right temperament to succeed in government. Encourage them to run. Volunteer for their campaigns. Donate money. Equip them with the background necessary to be successful. For example, the Michigan Farm Bureau has a candidate school for its members with political aptitude.

Establish priorities — You know your business better than anyone else, so develop policy internally, rather than relying on elected officials to take the lead. What’s more, don’t give elected officials a list of 10 issues you want them to focus on. That’s way too many. Instead, identify one, two or three of your top priorities. Otherwise it dilutes your ability to communicate and confuses policymakers. In Michigan, we used to have elected officials with a deep understanding of different disciplines and the policy issues around them. You could have a conversation with them, and they got it pretty quickly. Yet since term limits have been established, much of that subject-matter expertise has disappeared. With newer elected officials, you have to do more of the legwork for them and package the proposals in more detail.

Pursue diverse partnerships — Due to dramatic change and the complexity of today’s issues, it’s important to cross-pollinate interests. For example, many farmers use pesticide and nutrients that can adversely affect water quality, and nonfarm neighbors will increasingly expect farmers to be better environmental stewards. Yet rather than using top-down, command-and-control regulations that add significant cost to doing business and make it difficult for farmers to survive, there are more proactive, cost-sharing ways to solve the problem. Instead of putting farmers and environmentalists in adversarial roles from the get-go, the goal should be to develop policies that can be win-win scenarios. And you’ll need to be proactive about developing relationships with nontraditional partners to identify those win-win strategies.

Grow young talent — I’m a big fan of leadership development, and the sooner you start, the better off you are. For example, programs like the Great Lakes Leadership Academy (GLLA) helps young leaders develop new skills, and broadens their perspectives by exposing them to leaders in different fields. GLLA understands the value of diverse partnerships and that it’s important to understand before you can be understood. Around me, I see leaders who start talking about succession planning at end of their careers; yet they would have been better off to start mentoring earlier. You have to elevate young talent to keep your pipeline full.

In summary, businesses need to remain relevant — relevant being code for survival in a rapidly changing and extremely challenging environment. Today’s divisive political climate has moved us away from statesmanship into a bitter partisanship where officials don’t attempt to find common ground or work across party lines. Bottom line, nothing gets done. So as a business leader, you need to get involved. Relationships matter. Elections matter. Policy matters. The world is run by those who show up.

Published 10/16/2018