Awards program gives business owners an opportunity for reflection

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Print this page by Rebecca R. Rubin

Editor’s note: Rebecca R. Rubin, the CEO of Marstel-Day, a Fredericksburg-based environmental consulting firm, spoke to the finalists of the second annual Tayloe Murphy Resilience Awards on Sept. 7 at the University of Virginia. Marstel-Day was the winner of the Chairman’s Award in the program’s inaugural year, and Rubin was a judge for this year’s awards.
When I first heard about the Tayloe Murphy Awards for business resilience, which for us was last year and the inaugural year of the competition, my initial reaction was that it was a novel but somewhat perplexing idea.

It’s not like you sit around at the end of the work day reflecting on your company and thinking “Gosh. We are so resilient”

So, I’d like to share with you a personal perspective, not just on the resilience awards themselves but on the award process and what it means to enter this competition in the context of today’s business climate.

First of all, the award process

For those of us at my company, Marstel-Day, the Tayloe Murphy Resilience Awards process became a highly deliberative event — we had to think about it — are we resilient?

We knew what the word meant, but did it apply to us? If so, how?

We had to examine its meaning and whether we qualified in our own minds. Did we measure up?

I have come to really love this competition because it requires a deeply thoughtful process to get through it. You have to answer some questions that most of us, as business owners, just don’t take enough time to contemplate on a regular basis — but this award causes us to stop and take a strategic pause to consider things.

What does my company care about? What are its values, and how are those retained without dilution of ideals, even as we grow? Does my company cherish its employees and how is that expressed? How does it partner with the community? What is its role in the web of life, in ecology, in the words of the application form “environmental and social innovation?”

In my experience, this is one of the rare occasions when one applies for a business award as though it were an end unto itself, and learns about one’s own company along the way.  It is a kind of self-evaluation.
The thinkers, developers and promoters behind this award —  the Hon Tayloe Murphy Jr., Dr. Greg Fairchild, Marc Johnson, Betsy Dance and their partners at Virginia Business Magazine, (specifically Bernie Niemeier and Lane Kelly) — have caused us to examine ourselves as companies and to evaluate our contribution to the world around us.

I suspect that many of you, in the act of completing the nomination form, have experienced something similar.

On the business climate

Those of you in business here tonight know just how hard it is right now — and how scary it can be that it is so hard. The business climate is very vexing. Some newspapers describe it as dismal. The unemployment rate stayed constant at 9.1 percent in August, the first time in 11 months that there has been no job growth in the United States. As business owners, we take that hard because we feel that adding to job growth is part of our affirmative duty. This lengthening downturn may dampen our spirits.

Add to that the fact that owning and managing one’s own business is not “like” anything else. It is intensely personal and uniquely challenging. It tests our resolve and our patience, and requires constant vigilance to achieve our goals — whatever those may be and however you may measure them. Notably, as a business owner, there is a great deal of competition and the path forward is strewn with obstacles —  it is not strewn with a whole lot of external recognition and kind words.

Allow me to offer you the thought that just being here tonight is a chance to step back from the usual fray of business, to take a moment away, and to realize that someone is listening; somebody cares. This award is unusual in that regard. Its design is to honor you and your perseverance.

Environmental and social innovation

The award application also asks an unusually important question about environmental and social innovation. I found that question very encouraging and illuminating because it reinforced the pressing need for a close coupling between environmental and social considerations in a world that is turning out to be dramatically different than perhaps what we had thought it might be.

As has been observed by sources as mainstream as Time magazine: there have been “….34 consecutive years that global temperatures have been above average,  nine years since 2000 that have ranked as the top 10 hottest ever, and 49 states that all had snow on the ground at one time.” I would add to that the swath of simultaneous tornadoes that swept the country in 2011, and, of course, our latest and greatest event— an earthquake.

The irony for me was that I was on a flight home from California where earthquakes are supposed to happen, only to arrive back in Virginia to find that one had happened here.

The bottom line is that— for us to be both competitive and contributing as Virginia businesses— the natural environment needs to be recognized and integrated as part of our new business environment and factored into our business strategies.

To be honest with you, early on I tried hoping that things were sort of OK, that our environment would recover naturally, and that somehow all of our worldwide natural resource issues and problems would resolve of their own accord.

Eventually I realized that was pretty lame —  especially as a business strategy —  and that unquestionably things had changed in a manner that would require adaptation, yes, but also conscious endeavor to avoid further destruction and to make restitution of the natural resource base. And I would note that without this natural resource base, economic development most certainly has its limits, its threshold, its upper bound. Call it what you will, we as businesses cannot prosper let alone survive without working in better concert with nature.

So, at the risk of sounding like the voice of gloom and doom, I think we all need to accept and embrace just how difficult and uncertain these times really are as a result of environmental and other factors, and just how vulnerable we may be. For me at least, adjusting my basis allowed me to be clearer and bolder in my actions, and this in turn changed my vision for my company, from one of simply providing environmental services to one of environmental outreach and advocacy.

So I offer you this thought. From the standpoint of business sustainability and resiliency, going forward, that you may need to make hard decisions and tradeoffs, sometimes decisions you are not used to making. It may be a stretch of our collective imagination, patience and pocketbook as well. Just remember:  No deposit, no return.

I think you will all find that — win, lose or draw — you will look at your company differently and examine its strengths and weaknesses in a new light as a result of this Resilience Award process.

You will also be more visible within your business community and beyond. If selected, you will either experience directly the benefits of close coordination with other like-minded business owners in a collaborative, exec education setting or you will, like me, get to witness firsthand the exuberance of one of your employees who learns that she gets to attend a Darden Executive Education course as a result of this award.

As a judge of these awards, I was awed to see back to back to back so many amazing companies. You all are and will continue to be economic exemplars and drivers in your respective fields. The challenges you face may be very different and peculiar to your field, but you share a common trait. You’re all here because you’ve worked your tailbones off.

I hope you are celebrating yourselves tonight. I hope you are looking at yourselves and at whatever the company is that you’ve worked so hard to build and thinking that tonight you are just going to sit back and enjoy the luster, the dazzle and the resplendence. You deserve it. 

A final point: It has been observed elsewhere in the context of natural capital that “… a true resource is one that returns over and over again.” These resilience awards certainly fall into that category. I believe that they are not meant to be just a capstone event. They are an invocation, a call to each of us business owners to continue forward on our right path and remain vigilant in our pursuit of our business goals and growth, especially in ways that work in tandem with environmental and social good.


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