Cliff Oxford: How Entrepreneurs Can Trump Donald Trump

Cliff Oxford

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

"Now what?” This is an unexpected question many entrepreneurs face after successfully exiting and selling their businesses. Life after selling can be a mixed bag of good and bad, but surprisingly often, just sheer misery. What causes the misery? You have to remember, even though they have experience and some business and financial success, you’re still dealing basically with the same personality, an overachieving entrepreneur who has zero respect for status quo, a big time thinker and problem solver – not exactly the profile of someone who is going to retire in the Bahamas. I remember I would drop the kids off at school and be home bored to tears by 10am. Although none of us would like to admit it, the post sale personality is more that of a Donald Trump who absurdly believes he could be president more so than a retiree personality propping their feet up and watching life pass them by.

I had never heard a real good answer or solution to this post company sale trauma until Sam Williams told me about his book, The CEO as Urban Statesman, revealing case studies on how and why big-time CEOs involved themselves in solving big-time city problems so both can be huge economic engines in our economy.

My response to Sam was successful entrepreneurs who have exited and sold their company might even be better for this job than the Fortune 100 CEOs that he appreciates in his book.  Although, as the former President of Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, he always has been a big supporter of entrepreneurs including this one, Sam caught on quickly to the creative impact that an entrepreneurial mind could have on stubborn urban problems that plague cities.  He just “gets it,” which is one of the reasons I always liked Sam and welcomed his advice. I was not surprised when he came back with guidelines from his book on how successful entrepreneurs could make a difference stepping into the public policy arena.  I think Sam is on to something large so I will share his real-world examples on how entrepreneurs can make a difference in big cities.  As you will see, his big idea is not about starting another inner city incubator in a run down building but focuses more on how entrepreneurs can help solve structural and societal issues stopping economic city growth.

  1. Select a ripe issue. Pick a problem that is ready to be solved – that is at the point where if not dealt with, an opportunity will be lost, or a crisis will become irreversible. Such issues are characterized by a widespread perception of their importance and by a sense of urgency. Grady Hospital in Atlanta, for example, was within months of running out of money when a group of urban statesmen began the push for its restructure; had Grady been forced to close, every emergency room in Atlanta would have been flooded with patients unable to pay for their own care. The problem they faced was both important and urgent.
  1. Play to your strengths. Be the “right entrepreneur” for the job at hand and work on a problem that matches your skill set. In his book, Sam has some good examples.  Don’t try to go along and be the sole entrepreneur hero. Dr. Mae Jemison, who led Houston’s disaster task force, was a master at managing group dynamics; Salt Lake City banker Scott Anderson was exceptionally skilled at working with politicians. Entrepreneurs should isolate the skills that are their particular strengths and look for problems that require them.
  1. Find a forum. Don’t try to go it alone; find a civic organization to provide support. This strategy is especially important for the “between jobs” entrepreneur who does not have a corporate structure for support. The tasks urban statesmen typically undertake require logistical and administrative support, research, media support, and wide-ranging civic and political connections. This support most often and most effectively comes from the staff of business-civic organizations.
  1. Get invited in. Don’t be a disruptor as you probably were in the entrepreneurial world. Make sure the people with the problem are willing to accept your help. Entering the public policy arena when one is not perceived to be a ‘public policy person’ – that is to say, a politician or government official – can be difficult. At some level, the involvement of business executives in policy development is perceived as ‘meddling.’ So before ‘experts’ from the business community delve into broader quality-of-life issues, it is important that they be asked for their opinions and involvement.  Such an invitation was particularly important in the case of Atlanta’s Grady Hospital; without an invitation from the existing hospital authority, the restructuring proposal would never have gotten off the ground.
  1. Do your homework. Big city problems affect a lot of people so don’t work on the fly. Make sure you do adequate and accurate fact-finding. A theme that runs consistently through the Williams’s case studies is that successful urban statesmanship requires extensive research.  In each case, the urban statesman involved anchored the policy change he or she proposed in comprehensive documentation of the problem being addressed. Salt Lake City’s tax proposal, for instance, came out of extensive studies by national-level experts; Dr. Mae Jemison’s taskforce recommendations relied on testimony from a wide variety of experts.
  1. Define your mission, scope of work, and timeline.  Know what you are doing and when you’ll be done. Business executives operating in the policy arena need to know what they are expected to do, and when (or by when) they are going to do it. A clearly defined task list and timetable clarify for all involved the demands managing a policy change will make on participants in the effort.
  1. Create a clear, simple action plan. Answer the question, “What should happen now?” in a way people understand. Regardless of how complicated the issue being addressed may be, the effective urban statesman must be able to articulate clearly and briefly, in terms all the stakeholders can understand, what the problem is, how and why his/her plan will solve that problem, and how this plan stacks up against any alternatives.
  1. Be transparent with the public and the press. Openness creates a sense of trust and credibility that is crucial to the success of the urban statesman. Reporters and other observers are extremely sensitive to any attempts to misrepresent or hide the truth. If misrepresentations come to light, urban statesmen quickly lose their credibility, and hence their effectiveness. Four of the five cases Williams discusses involved intense media scrutiny, and any hint of dissembling could have doomed an otherwise effective urban statesman’s effort.

Entrepreneurs, like other business leaders, have leadership and execution skills that can aide in the development and successful implementation of a wide range of public policy solutions.  The use of those skills can benefit all of us, in our capacities both as business people and as citizens, and they can benefit our communities as well.  They say misery likes company. In the case, misery just might like the city and all the problems that come with it.

Used with permission. Reach Cliff at cliff@oxford-center.com

About Cliff Oxford

Cliff Oxford, who is founder of The Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs and writes The Next Level blog for the New York Times, started his career at U.P.S., where he developed a technologically advanced help-desk system that was recognized for saving the company more than $250 million in its first year. In 1995, he left U.P.S. to start STI Knowledge, an information technology company with offices in the United States, Britain, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines that made the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America three years in a row. After selling the company, Mr. Oxford endowed Emory University’s executive M.B.A. program and created a fully accredited Entrepreneur MBA with Brenau University. More recently, he has started an education company, the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. Its mission is to encourage business economic development by helping business owners and CEOs thrive in fast growth. Used with permission.