Three little words strung together form a simple concept: good to great.
Apply that simple concept to something, anything — a business, a life, even a community — and transform it from just fine to fantastic.
Nearly five years ago some local movers and shakers decided it was time to apply the idea to the Columbia metropolitan area. They wanted others to see Columbia as more than just a government town, with resources and opportunity following the interstates elsewhere.
By identifying problems, bringing the right people to the table and capitalizing on the momentum created by incremental success, the Navigating from Good to Great program, led by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, has made progress in changing perspective and the business-as-usual mentality.
A Good Idea for Progress
In his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t, Jim Collins decries fear, money and drastic change as the catalysts to greatness. Instead, according to the author, the keys to making a business, or anything else, great hinge on people and momentum. He found, after studying thousands of companies over many decades, that the formula for sustained and significant success equals the right people and steady effort.
The book’s conclusions resonated with Columbia business leaders.
In 2006, coming off the Base Realignment and Closure battles and eventual wins, the Chamber, led by Ike McLeese, decided it was time to identify major missions beyond the typical.
Key chamber members and area decision makers identified initiatives that could positively impact the Midlands and set about a five-year plan for progress. Those who originally invested in the plan included most of the area banks, major employers, commercial real estate firms, SCE&G and some small business members. With $3.5 million in pledges, including $100,000 each year for the last three years from the city of Columbia, The Navigating from Good to Great Foundation was established to focus attention on specific areas, including transportation, workforce, business clustering, riverfront development, business and talent retention programs and inter-regional cooperation among public and private sectors.
“The program is aimed at making our community a better place to work and live and raise a family,” says Ted Speth, chairman of the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation. “Trying to get everyone focused and working together is what Good to Great is all about.”
The Chamber knew for it to work, the foundation would require a team which understood the mission. John Mikula, a former consultant and the Foundation’s initial fundraiser, was hired as the senior vice president for business retention and expansion programs. C. Grant Jackson, the former business editor at The State newspaper, was hired as the senior vice president for community development.
Some might assume that John and Grant were hired as fixers, solving the problems as identified. However, both men are quick to say the role of Good to Great is that of “initiator” and “convener.” Their jobs, they say, are to bring people together and open dialog on the issues.
John communicates with existing businesses and gives them a voice. In two years of working in partnership with the City of Columbia’s retention and expansion program Business in Motion, he and Ryan Coleman from the city have met with more than 250 local businesses to collect vital information and fill out questionnaires about their needs and wants. The data is synthesized and shared with county and city councils.
“You get a lot of opinion in the political arena, but this is data driven,” says John.
Grant’s focus on community development and quality of life issues attracts and retains people to the area and also helps drive the economy. His work helps spotlight initiatives from clean air to leveraging a knowledge economy, from energy collaboratives to riverfront development. He’s also worked to help people view Columbia as more than the city and embrace a regional perspective to our Famously Hot home.
A third member of the team, Katherine Swartz, came on board in 2010. As the chamber’s vice president for leadership development and executive director of Columbia Opportunity Resource (COR), Katherine is leading efforts to attract, engage and retain talent in Columbia.
COR originally began as an all-volunteer, non-profit organization in 2005. Though it is still a non-profit, now COR is a strategic partner with the Chamber and the Navigating from Good to Great Foundation. In fact, under Katherine’s short tenure, COR relaunched in 2011 honing its focus on community involvement, leadership development and promoting Columbia to those aged 19 to 45.
Interestingly, Katherine herself was an example of the historical Columbia brain-drain, which leads young professionals and graduating students to leave the city for areas they perceive have more to offer. Raised here and a graduate of USC, Katherine left for Atlanta as a young adult and lived there for eight years.
“I felt like I had maxed out my opportunity in Columbia when I was 22,” says Katherine. Now she hopes COR can help show young professionals the region offers more than they imagine. “Columbians have a lot of passion for their community,” says Katherine. “What’s going to take us to great is more people putting action behind their words.”
Momentum and Challenges
In the four years of the Good to Great campaign, businesses, government and community partnerships appear to be resulting in incremental success. And investors continue to believe in the program despite the downturned economy. In a time when many businesses are reevaluating where to put their dollars and which programs to support, less than four percent of those who invest with Good to Great have altered their commitments, according to John Mikula.
“That’s a testimony to the community and their support of this great start to changing this community to a great community,” he says.
Some results are tangible, while others are harder to measure.
Businesses like Nucor Building Systems in Swansea are linking with area high schools to build a workforce. The steel and metal building manufacturer uses trained welders and CAD operators, but had a small talent pool in the area from which to recruit. Good to Great connected the business with area schools. Programs were launched to expose students to design and welding and to educate teachers of the potential career path. After three years, the workforce pipeline has grown and more students are interested in the industry, according to Ike McLeese.
Colleges and universities are getting into the act by understanding business clusters that exist in our area, like insurance technology. The Midlands is one of the leading insurance technology hubs in the country, with large corporations like Blue Cross Blue Shield and small proprietorships peppering the region. With the help of Good to Great, Neil McLean and New Carolina: South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness helped make educational institutions more aware of this opportunity, and they now are able to better inform and prepare students for this career field, while helping to serve the needs of this business sector.
Perhaps one of the areas Good to Great principals feel most proud of is their involvement with the creation of the Midlands Housing Alliance’s Transitions, a program and center to assist the region’s homeless population. For years the homeless issue has plagued the city. Agreement and buy-in from certain sectors was elusive. Now the effort and spirit of cooperation is marked by concrete results at the corner of Main and Elmwood. Transitions opened in May, and the Good to Great team says they were proud to be a partner in that effort.
Poor inter-government relations have plagued the region for as long as many can remember. “There was a divide between Richland and Lexington counties which prohibited our ability to grow,” says Ted Speth. He thinks Good to Great helped people understand the river is not a wall that divides the area.
Ted hopes that with Richland and Lexington counties working more closely together, the us-versus-them mentality can evolve into agreement, resulting in progress for the region.
Additionally, Good to Great efforts helped establish The MIDSTATE Chambers Coalition in early 2011. The group includes members from 19 chambers of commerce in 11 counties, including Richland and Lexington counties, collectively working for business retention and public policy.
Good to Great is entering its fifth year of work. While success is evident, there are still areas of opportunity, including transportation, riverfront development and trained workforce for the 21st century, says Ike McLeese.
But incremental progress is how momentum builds, how change occurs and how good communities become great regions. “There is always more we can do to make this a better community for business and families,” says Grant Jackson. “It’s a journey in moving the community forward.”