If We're in Recovery, Why's It Feel like the ER?

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting, Inc.

The best way we Northeast Ohioans know that ice and snow are giving way to summer is when the new crop of orange barrels sprout up everywhere. But with this sign of change comes the dread of detours, delays and dust. Similarly, as we hear our region's economy is in recovery, many business owners feel “over a barrel” and few feel "fully recovered”. Instead, there is a pervasive attitude of wait-and-see: a deep vein of hope tinged with nagging doubt. Many owners are proceeding with caution if they proceed at all. Important decisions are put on hold, and customers and suppliers alike need constant affirmation. Gone is the old confidence, the enthusiastic, seize-the-decade spirit of the 90's boom years.

What if a recovery happened and nobody came?

We live in uncertain times. The 9-11 attacks murdered not only 3,000 people but also the famed American invincibility, our old national belief that oceans and optimism could protect us. Faced with sunny economic news, we recall on some level that perfect blue September sky — how the world looked to us after sunrise but before the clouds blackened with smoke and ash — and cant quite believe our current weather will hold.

This new caution is rooted partly in psychology, partly in politics, and is exacerbated by regional peculiarities. First, the good economic news is too intangible to inspire true confidence when set against visceral images of war, threats of terrorist attacks, and rising inflation. Sure, GDP is healthy, the stock market is trending upward, and unemployment figures look better every month, but what do these numbers mean if you cant buy a gallon of milk without sticker shock or turn on the TV without seeing another blindfolded hostage begging for his life? The phenomenon I see among business owners might be called "the vertigo of riding the roller coaster”, and politicians and media stoke it. Turn on Fox News and President Bush credits his policies for stimulating the current "great recovery”. Switch to NPR and John Kerry warns of impending job losses that invoke the Great Depression. The extreme nature of these competing claims (neither of which, in their extremity, is true) creates a whiplash effect. Does this transitional period mean we are on the brink of being discharged from the hospital or heading back into surgery? How can we make wise business decisions when the future is even less clear than the present?

What we crave is proof to fortify our shaky conviction, but here in Northeast Ohio the evidence is mixed. While President Bush celebrates positive signs for the national economy, Ohio continues to bleed jobs. In the Canton area alone, stalwart companies Hoover and Timken have announced mass layoffs and closings. The state is broke, and school districts are suffering, as voters turned down levies in record numbers in 2003. The EPA says we have the most polluted air in the country. And in Cleveland, city and county officials lament educational and economic failures while maintaining a power struggle that ensures nothing good will get done while our beautiful waterfront lies in rust.

So, what is the answer? In the final analysis, as countries like Israel have learned, clarity is elusive and life must go on. Babies are born, couples get married, and victories are celebrated despite a constant nagging fear. The recent death of Ronald Reagan serves as a reminder of the power of passion and positive thinking; whatever your politics, there was a man who took bold action, got things done, and imprinted his mark on history. Why is it that the rest of us can have such passion for our families, our faith, and our loves but have such a hard time conveying it consistently to our businesses?

This is where regional attitudes matter. Twice recently I have been told I am "too New York", a term that at first rattled me. Am I too aggressive, too edgy, and too blunt for a region where people place a high value on being "nice?" Do I ask people to move too quickly beyond their comfort zones? Some soul-searching and conversation, however, reinforced the value of New York-ness. Business consulting isnt about making pals, after all; it's about helping owners grow their companies. In running your business, are you more Drew Carey or Donald Trump? While the choice isnt quite as stark as loveable loser versus indomitable shark, consider what a shark-like focus and pursuit of success could do for your company.

The New York culture of progress embodied by Trump is based on values that promote business success. New Yorkers focus on results, not process, and value excellence over consensus. They covet their time and are more comfortable competing than merely co-existing.

Having lived both in New York and in the Cleveland area, I can testify that Clevelanders are nicer. This is a pleasant place to live, a great place to raise a child. But a gritty commitment to action is what Northeast Ohio businesses need right now. Three years ago this September, NYC was blanketed in ash and stunned by death; today it's preparing to bid for the 2012 Olympics. While the winning design for the World Trade Center memorial is beautiful, New Yorkers are striving — noisily — to make it better. Therefore, while folks here are nicer, the compassion and resilience New Yorkers demonstrated on and after 9-11 proves that it's not about being nice but about being effective.

The bottom line is that we must persist, regain our grooves, and stay aggressive. Let's keep our high ethical, moral, and legal standards but replace caution with a keen focus on outcomes, leadership, and business growth. Maybe a little more New York is just what we need right now to get discharged from our recovery room.


Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at  (412) 973-2080, by email at abirol@andybirol.com, or on the web at www.andybirol.com.

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