Monday, April 2, 2007

ED Leader Profile: Jeffrey A. Finkle

Jeff Finkle is the President and CEO of the International Economic Development Council, which is known as IEDC to most economic development professionals. For those of you not aware of IEDC, it is the national professional association for economic developers. Over 4,500 economic development professionals and others interested in economic development issues belong to the Washington-based organization. IEDC operates several programs developing the knowledge and skills of economic developers and advocating for economic development issues on the national, state and local levels.

I first met Jeff Finkle in 1986, the same year he assumed the reins of the National Council of Urban Economic Development (CUED), which joined with the American Economic Development Council (AEDC) in 2001 to form IEDC. Because of his position, Jeff Finkle has better access than most of us to economic developers and their leaders across the country and internationally. For this reason, I decided to interview Jeff about his thoughts on economic development leadership.

As background, Jeff grew up in Newark, Ohio, just east of Columbus. In 1976, he graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Political Science. Immediately upon graduation, Jeff went to work for Karl Rove, a longstanding Republican Party influential type, who currently serves as President Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Jeff’s first job was to visit college campuses and encourage students to get involved in Republican politics.

I asked Jeff what he learned about leadership from his early experience in Republican politics, and he said: “ I learned the age-old principle of the ‘power of leverage;” that is by getting many people involved in something, you can leverage a difference. Some call it the ‘pyramid effect.’ Whatever you call it, it has worked consistently throughout my career.” Jeff went on to say that for the leverage principle to work, you must be organized. You need a strategy to gain people’s involvement and commitment. He added that you must appeal to them personally. People want to feel they are personally significant to outcomes.

After his initial career assignment, Jeff went to work for the Ohio Republican Party, where as a young professional, he managed the incumbent Secretary of State Ted Brown’s 1978 re-election campaign, who lost his seat when he was narrowly defeated by Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. in a race that required a recount. Jeff said that from this experience he learned how to deal with and position leaders. He added that a key lesson for him from this experience is that sometimes you can do everything in your power to win, and you can still lose.

I asked Jeff if he thought politics and economic development were strange bedfellows. I shared with Jeff that in my career, I have seen where politics has both helped and hurt economic development. Moreover, some economic developers, especially those working in private sector economic development organizations, see politics as a negative factor in economic development. I asked Jeff about his view on this observation. He responded: “I think you ignore politics and elected officials at your own peril. To categorically write-off government as a factor in economic development is a mistake. Smart economic developers know that government is a powerful stakeholder in the economic development process. While it is true that political issues can negatively impact economic development, it is equally true that they can have a tremendous positive influence.” Jeff urges economic developers to see politics more in terms of public service, rather than focusing too much on power plays by political leaders. In this same sense, Jeff said that economic development should be seen as public service. Every economic development organization exists, to some degree, to serve the public interests of a geographic area.

Jeff spent the next seven years of his career in state and Federal government. The first two years he spent working for Ohio Governor James Rhodes in the state’s Department of Mental Health and Retardation. His work there involved helping the state make strategic decisions about the opening, expansion, and closing of its state mental health and retardation facilities. From this experience, Jeff says he learned how organizations make difficult decisions on whether to invest in or divest themselves of facilities. This, he says, was perfect training for understanding business facility decisions, an issue of keen interest to all economic developers.

For the next five years, Jeff worked in the Reagan Administration in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where he started as a Special Assistant and was promoted quickly to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Program Management, overseeing the Department’s popular Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program and the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) Program. From this experience, Jeff says he learned how things did and did not get done in Federal agencies related to economic development. Most of all, he learned how building partnerships with sister Federal agencies, state governments, and cities could accelerate action and get results. Jeff cities the UDAG program as one of the most popular and most effective federal policy tools for economic development. He attributes the UDAG’s effectiveness and impact to the program’s flexibility and the fact it encouraged local governments to be highly creative in responding to their economic development needs in partnership with the Federal government and the private sector.

In 1986, Jeff was recruited to the job of President of the National Council for Urban Economic Development (CUED), which was then a financially ailing organization that was losing members. Jeff instituted several aggressive financial and organizational changes that turned around the organization and put it back on a successful growth track. Jeff steered CUED until its merger with AEDC in 2001 to form IEDC. After personnel deliberations by the merging organizations’ boards, it was decided that Jeff was to head the new joint organization.

I asked Jeff what he has learned about leadership from his time at CUED and IEDC. Jeff said that by far the most important lesson was it is important not to think of leadership in the abstract. “Leadership is always embodied in specific personalities. Your chances of working successfully with any leader increase exponentially when you know, understand, and respect the person inside the leadership position. There were a number of times in my career when the only reason I could get something done in working with a leader was because I had a relationship with that person. So in addition to the principle of the power of leverage, I would add a second principle: the power of relationship.” Jeff quipped following this comment and said “friendships always last longer than relationships based upon sheer business convenience. I’ll take a leader who is my friend any day over one who is not.”

Jeff confided to me during our interview that he learned everything he ever needed to know about management and leadership from being a paperboy as a 12-year old boy. “Having a paper delivery route taught me about the importance of cash flow, sales, human resource management, treating people right, integrity, customer service, and honoring your commitments. Everything I learned after that simply reinforced that initial training.”

I asked Jeff what type of leader he was. Jeff said that he sees his style of leadership as “behind the scenes,” rather than center stage. Jeff said he has been more effective (influential) by giving the stage over to others than hogging it for himself. He added that: “economic development needs different types of leaders. The key is finding the right leader for the right job. You have to know people to make that match.” Most organizations and communities need both out-front and behind the scenes leaders.”

I asked Jeff whether IEDC members had struggles in dealing with their leadership. He said that they most definitely did. We talked some about turnover in top jobs in the field and the challenge of matching the right economic development CEO with an area’s needs and values. He reminded me that executive search, even in the best hands, was more an art than science. Jeff said he advises economic developers to be careful when looking for top jobs to make certain the job is right for them in terms of personal qualities, expectations, area values, and other factors. He added that there is more to it than more money and more power. “Some times areas pick the wrong person for the job, some times economic developers take the wrong job, and some times things change once you go to work for an organization. There is no substitute for good up-front due diligence on everybody’s part, and an ongoing willingness to learn and grow once you are in the job.”

I told Jeff my main reason for starting the Economic Development Leader Journal and why I was writing a book on economic development leadership. Namely, I am undertaking this work because we are not thinking about leadership strategically and we are not using leadership as a source of real competitive advantage for economic development. Jeff agreed with me and said that there was a definite need for more leadership education and leadership development. He said he was glad I had taken up this work.

Finally, Jeff and I talked about his outlook for leadership in economic development. He said he was optimistic, but confessed that we’re not doing enough to guarantee the field has the right supply of leaders in the future. He said that IEDC was giving much more attention to the issue, especially through its Leadership Summit, which is held each January. Jeff added that we need to work harder at bolstering leadership on two interrelated levels: the economic developer as leader; and volunteer leadership. He said both were important. Jeff noted that he sees more women, minorities, and younger professionals stepping into economic development leadership roles. This is important, he said, because leadership must reflect communities and society. When it doesn’t we have problems.

Jeff added at the end of our interview that he was most impressed with economic developers and volunteer leaders that exhibited a high degree of entrepreneurship in their approach to their work. “Leaders in economic development will always need to be creative and innovative in their approaches to getting things done. The solutions are not just sitting on a shelf somewhere to be pulled off and used. We must create those solutions.”

You can contact Jeff Finkle by email at IEDC at: Don Iannone’s email at ED Leader is:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeff delivered our paper and babysat our boys. He was special then as he is today