The audacity of success

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by Bernie Niemeier

“Hope is not a strategy” is a phrase that I’ve gleaned from years of working with professional trainers and business consultants.  I’ll now take that idea in a little different direction: Strategy is less important than hope.
At some point in most companies’ annual planning cycle, conference rooms are filled with managers talking about strategy.  But strategy is overrated.
Real leaders focus on tactical success.  Companies that are good at execution always outperform companies that are superior at planning.  The reason, of course, is that things change.
A lot is changing in Virginia, as the presidential election revealed.  The attention we received as a battleground state has confirmed something that I’ve long suspected.  Virginia has an outsized influence on the rest of the country.  This is as true in business as it is in politics.
The history of the commonwealth is indeed the history of our nation.  This has long caused the rest of the country to respect Virginia for the quality of its ideas and leadership.
Our proximity to Washington D.C., a major international airport and one of the largest seaports in the world, are all distinct advantages that make Virginia a great environment for business.
Virtually every economic development meeting I attend touts the commonwealth’s success in being named the “Best State for Business” by Forbes.com for three years running and the “America’s Top State for Business” by CNBC in 2007.
“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”  This quote from a previous generation remains good advice today.  Because of Virginia’s success, we have the even greater task of maintaining our excellent reputation.
In 2008, our first-place ranking from CNBC was eclipsed by Texas, which was ranked No. 1 on transportation.
Ironically, Texas’ rise to the top spot was announced by CNBC on the same day that Virginia’s General Assembly failed to take action on new transportation funding.
The state budget crisis will undoubtedly be the center of attention in the 2009 assembly which convenes next month. But that doesn’t mean the legislature can continue to ignore the state’s growing needs to invest in transportation, education and work-force development.  Virginia is a leading business state today because it had leaders in the past who were good at execution, creating the infrastructure and institutions we rely upon. Virginia will not be a leading state much longer if it rests upon its laurels.
The deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans and within the parties themselves have brought our legislative process almost to a halt.  Virginia’s status as the only state that does not allow gubernatorial succession only makes matters worse.  Our governors and their four-year teams of political appointees are easily outlasted by career legislators, lobbyists and mid-level state agency bureaucrats.
The slowing global economy and credit crisis make it difficult for the commonwealth to address its future needs in the coming session.  However, a year ago we had little idea how badly the economy would affect Virginia’s budget projections.
As of this writing, we’re seeing lower gas prices and a stronger dollar, both of which we would have been glad to see just a few months ago.  Who knows where we’ll be 12 months from now?
The study of economic and business theory tell us that algebra can be used to describe short-term decisions, but calculus is required to truly understand longer-term business cycles.
Lately, most of the economic projections I’ve heard sound like algebra — things are bad and will get worse.  I much prefer the optimism of calculus — these are not straight lines, they are curves and what goes down must come up.
How soon?  Who knows?  But it is our job in business to work hard and smart to be ready for the inevitable upside of the economy.  Virginia’s natural advantages and track record of business success should leave us in good position.  The audacity of success is that it requires more of us.  It is our job to rise to that challenge. 

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