Memo to Barry Johnson. Heading: Build chamber relevance
By Michael Lewis
Barry, you didn't seek this advice, but it's free - a price the red-ink Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce can afford as you step in as its fourth CEO in just over two years.
We've been together at dozens, maybe hundreds, of chamber events over the decades. You know the chamber inside out. You've been chairman and No. 2 staffer under George Foyo. Heck, you even managed the Greater Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce in Missouri half a lifetime ago.
But as both a chamber member and journalistic observer, let me share an insider/outsider's thoughts about an icon that must rethink its role.
For decades, the chamber acted as county conscience when government ducked big-picture issues. From education to homelessness, the chamber took on those challenges. In fact, it tried to fill so many vacuums that it set more than 300 goals at its annual conferences.
The group was respected. It was top of mind. It was one of the nation's larger chambers. Shortsighted elected officials railed against the downtown powerhouse.
In a few short years, however, much has changed.
First, while the chamber undertook hundreds of challenges simultaneously, it couldn't handle them all.
Goals were phrased "investigate" or "study" or "meet on" or "work toward," and they were accomplished. Virtually never, however, were goals couched as "solve" or "achieve" - goals to complete a task. Because aims were to be met in a year and often were massive, closure was impossible. Advance the ball, yes. Score a touchdown, no.
So as the chamber targeted everything, major achievements became few.
Second, other power centers grew, often with the chamber's selfless encouragement. The Beacon Council and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau were spun out of the chamber. Non-profit organizations attacked specific targets vigorously. Other chambers in a growing county captured local members. The Greater Miami chamber no longer stood head and shoulders above all.
Third, the chamber mysteriously lost ability to fund its daily activities and had to focus on fundraising just to keep afloat. The mystery was solved when members found losses of about $2 million linked to midlevel employees who embarrassingly managed to bilk Miami's power brokers for years undetected - a black eye for the chamber, which subsequently lost thousands of members and slipped into the red.
Fourth, chamber leadership, for decades in the hands of Bill Cullom, shifted rapidly through two more regimes in a bit over two years.
Now, Barry, it's in your hands. When I asked if that merited congratulations or condolences, you said that's to be determined.
It is indeed.
You've had a lifetime of perfect training for this job. You look and act the part. You know the chamber and the players. And you know how to walk the line between the volunteers who annually chair the chamber and the executive who must keep it running.
You also watched Bill Cullom nudge volunteers along a path that maintained the chamber's tone and focus over the years. You know that you'll have to do the same.
But, Barry, the path now should be far different. That is your challenge.
Your focus must be to make sure that the chamber is relevant, top-of-mind in the business community and government when key issues are involved.
Those issues must no longer be hundreds but rather a carefully chosen handful that then must be resolved. And they need to be concerns in which the chamber can succeed. Members may oppose plague, pestilence, poverty and Fidel Castro, but the chamber has no leverage in those areas.
What are this community's most important challenges? Transportation, affordable housing, education, our airport and local government's effectiveness or lack thereof.
Barry, could you get the volunteers to focus on these five targets year after year, not just to support ongoing efforts but to achieve very specific targets? Think how relevant the chamber would become and how much more important membership would be. Everyone wants a seat at a table of power.
Would this make the chamber controversial? Yes. You don't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
But it would also make the chamber more relevant. It would again be top of mind.
Would everyone be happy? No. Every member has a pet project that would dilute chamber efforts. And taking strong positions on matters governmental - hence, political - would rile some.
Over the years, for example, the chamber has studiously avoided a key issue: Who should run Miami International Airport? Everyone knows the county commission is the wrong choice, but the chamber has refused to ruffle feathers by stating the obvious and then doing something about it.
But in refusing to enter vital arenas with strong stances, the chamber has lost its vitality and visibility. Look what happened, Barry, when you were named CEO last week. The Miami Herald noted this once-key job change with a brief item inside its local section, a third of it devoted to the past theft of chamber funds. How relevant, how vital, does that make the chamber seem?
Better to be a controversial advocate than a forgotten fence-sitter.
Barry, you have the ability to rebuild the chamber's greatness and at the same time help push the business community to new heights. But to do so, you'll have to take some heat from both members and government.
Congratulations or condolences? Barry, the determination is yours. I hope to see you sweating it out.