Matters Column

Thoughts about what is ahead for Michigan

January 5, 2013
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Times are changing. Education — once considered a privilege for the select few able to rise to the top of their class, born into families able to pay for additional schooling, or perhaps for those blessed with exceptional athletic abilities — has become a necessity if individuals expect to find a job. 

Continuing to learn through a life-long educational process has become a “given” if one is to advance in (or even retain) his or her job. Job seekers, once expected to have a high school diploma, must now be able to read for understanding and apply facts to problem-solving situations in order to remain employed. As the labor pool changes, so do employer expectations and minimum job requirements. 

West Michigan business, once able to thrive by servicing a local market, must now compete on an international stage. Some of the manufacturing organizations based here have become global business leaders headquartered here but “making stuff” elsewhere — replacing their lower-skilled production employees with highly specialized office and/or research staff.

Organizations thinking about change are probably a bit late in their transformation, many already left behind by more proactive peers. 

Individually, unless we intentionally move forward, we will find ourselves drifting without direction. Unless we intentionally grasp new opportunities as they present themselves, we will have to pick up the pieces of lives that “left the station, nevermore to return.” We must leverage our strengths and abilities to move forward, capturing not only the winds of change but the imagination to travel toward the fulfillment of our goals.

What is ahead for business in Michigan? Is the light at the end of the tunnel one of hope or is it an early indicator of a train travelling unimpeded down the tracks toward impending disaster? Should we prepare for the future by dwelling on what did not work in the past or by seeking those things that have yet to be attempted?

Far too many people look into the tunnel and see only darkness, rather than moving into it and turning around to look toward the light outside. I prefer to look back just long enough to acknowledge my shortcomings, analyze why an action may have brought an unexpected result, then move forward toward the hope of a brighter tomorrow, paying attention to the lessons learned in the past so they will not become obstacles in the future.

Understanding yesterday’s mistakes and acting to prevent them from recurring helps them become tomorrow’s memories rather than a predictor of future and ongoing reality.  

The only way we can thrive is by learning to accept the previously unacceptable, to innovate rather than dwell in the comfort of what always was. What has passed will never again be and what “is today” is not a definitive indicator of tomorrow.

We must learn to think rather than simply thinking that we can "do as expected." We must move away from rewarding effort toward recognizing accomplishment.  We must strengthen teams but insure there is competent leadership driving them toward a common goal. We must recognize it is OK to treat individuals differently as long as we measure their performance against defined standards and reward it based on their ability to achieve rather than comparing them to each other, expecting all to do and be the same.    

West Michigan is becoming a globally competitive leader by doing what we always do: innovating, creating, recognizing and responding to opportunity. Embracing the possibilities an uncertain future offers is much more productive than worrying about things we cannot control or obsessing over change that will happen regardless of what we do.

Knowledge is power and the application of power expresses itself as wisdom — but is merely knowing and applying knowledge enough? Knowing the facts is important and applying them to the resolution of an issue critical if we are to make our region stronger. 

When we look outside ourselves, sharing what we see with those around us, we can experience a vast potential that becomes reality only when we intentionally initiate and advance our thoughts into concrete and observable action.

We should not hold ourselves responsible for creating and furnishing jobs; rather we should create a product or service that is wanted or needed by the public so that jobs follow. Wealth is the byproduct of innovation leveraged into action by those seeing the potential of reality just outside the tunnel rather than being lost in the darkness within.

Do not accept a world defined by “what is” and limited by “why change.” Revel instead in what might be but has not yet become – in the world of unknown possibility rather than the land of anticipated and expected probability.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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