What Good Businesses Do

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One phrase you often hear from politicians – and you usually don't hear it from politicians on the left side of the spectrum – is that “the government should be run more like a business.”  

And to that I say, hell yes.  Let’s do it. But let’s not run it like a crappy business.

I first joined the working world in June of 1985.  I was the fifteen year old kid with the fluorescent vest and the orange flag on the road crew, waving traffic past while they were tearing up the main street of my town.  My very first day, my supervisor Dave walks up and tells me I’m standing in the wrong place.

“I need ya to stand over there, right in front of the backhoe.”

And because I am the same now as I was then, I decided it was very important to give him some feedback.  “I will, definitely, if those are your wishes, but, I think I’m much more visible standing here than I would be over there by the backhoe.”

“Yeah, but you stand over by the backhoe and people would have to run you over before they could run into the backhoe, and that backhoe’s worth a heckuva lot more to me than you are.”

And that’s a great lesson for day one!  Since that day I’ve worked in a lot of companies.  I’ve worked in big ones and small ones, ones that did business all over the world and ones that covered a tiny neighborhood.  I’ve designed payment processing systems for international internet retailers and I’ve made cappuccinos. I’ve harvested roses from a greenhouse and I’ve negotiated contracts worth millions.  I know business from every level, from the basement to the executive floor. And I have a lot of experience in what makes a crappy business and what makes a good one.

Good businesses invest in research and development.  Crappy businesses cut it when the market becomes challenging.  And then they come out on the other side of a challenging patch, and they have nothing new to offer, while their competitors have been developing new products and services, so it's 24-7-365 bad patch from then on. With nothing new to offer your customers, they’re going to go somewhere else.  Our state’s main resource is our people – our workforce - and our R&D is our educational system, both K through 12 and Higher Education.

When we invest in public education, we’re developing a workforce of the future, and if we do that, we’ll attract the businesses of the future here.  The businesses of the future are looking for employees that are as sharp and agile as the companies are; employees that can reason their way out of challenging situations with creative solutions.  I have yet to meet a recruiter that's told me, "What we're really looking for is employees that perform well on standardized tests."  One of the things you learn in business is that “what gets measured gets done.” We’re only measuring one thing.  Why not design our public school system so that we’re actually developing the workforce that we want, and measure the things we want instead? And this can be a targeted investment, because – and this may shock you – we already know what to do to generate successfully educated students, we just choose not to.  If we invest in universal pre-K, smaller class sizes, and teacher benefits, it will have direct economic benefits to this state. We just have to look into the future to see them and stop looking at only what’s happening right now. That’s what good businesses do.

And we could also have a world-class economic model similar to what they have in Silicon Valley or more recently in the Raleigh Durham Research Triangle of North Carolina, where tech business is growing like gangbusters these days.  What do both those places have in common? Those states invested in research facilities for higher education as a specific focus, and those universities generated highly educated people ready to start global businesses right in their own backyards.  

Good businesses invest in supply chain and infrastructure – moving things from where they are to where they need to be.  If everything keeps heading in the direction it’s headed, many many more people are coming to this area and this state. Would you say that our supply chain is optimized for handling 50% more people?  Well if you were on any highway in the Metroplex during daylight any weekday, I bet you’d say no.  It’s not even sufficient to cover the load we have right now, and what’s the plan for more?  More toll roads? Arlington recently decided to sell all its buses and try a corporation that does Uber, but like Uber for public transportation. So instead of moving 15 people at a time, you can move two. We need to do better to swiftly move people and resources around this state, and we need to do it in ways that aren’t carbon intensive.  One of the requirements Amazon had for its second headquarters was a well-developed public transportation system. We’ve got the start of one, and it’s growing, but we could do better. If we were able to quickly move people from every corner of the four main counties of the Metroplex to any other corner, imagine the economic benefit of that. Now expand that thinking: what if we were quickly able to move people by bullet train from any major city in Texas to any other city?  Imagine the economic benefit of allowing someone to commute to work – from Houston to Dallas – in an hour and a half?

So those things sound great, right?  But usually the next question is: where’s that money going to come from?  Well that leads me to the next thing good businesses do: they charge their customers a fair price for their products.  They don’t give it away. Right now the State of Texas is letting big businesses walk all over them because they believe that they have to throw money at businesses, or they won’t want to locate here.  Kansas tried it too, a little while back, and it didn’t work there either. A business will take a steep discount if you throw one at them, and cost of location is certainly one thing they consider, but there’s a laundry list of other things they consider.  Like an educated workforce. Like transportation infrastructure. Like access to natural resources. And like a cultural fit. Also: how good are the tacos? We’re not Kansas. We can charge a fair price to corporations in order to build a state that more corporations will want to come to.

And I suspect the reason we don’t do that is because our leaders are doing things that good businesses don’t do: they’re only listening to the corporations.  What I’ve discovered working at agile companies, where things change quickly, is that you need to bring all the stakeholders together, as often as possible, to develop the best solutions.  And the people you bring together need to bring very diverse perspectives and requirements, because when you only hear one side of the story, you tend to come up with really bad decisions.  That’s what bad businesses do.

I had the privilege of sitting down to lunch with a community leader last week, and he has a doctorate in management studies, and he said, “when you get right down to it, there are really only two emotions that move people to do stuff – we put some window dressing on them and call them other things, but there are really only two: love and fear.”  Our leaders right now are motivating us right now with fear, like “our women are at risk for assault from transgenders in the restroom,” or, “MS 13 is invading our southern borders” or “Muslims are trying to implement Sharia Law everywhere” or “liberals are coming for your guns.” I was actually called a “baby killing pussy hat wearing DEMONcrat” earlier this week.  So fear works. But think about your own job history. Think about the best boss you ever had. Did they use fear or love to motivate you? My favorite was a different Dave – not the one that loved the backhoe. He was the Dave that loved his job, and the people that worked for him. He didn’t go around hugging people all the time, but you knew where you stood with him.  He was an expert at communicating his vision to you and getting you to want that bright future too. That’s the kind of leader that good businesses have. Crappy businesses focus on the bottom line to the detriment of everything else.  Good businesses know that if you focus on the people doing the work for you, good work naturally follows.  They hire leaders that understand that simple truth.  I’m striving to be that kind of leader for you, every day, because in the long run, love works better than fear.