Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Youngstown As Talent Management Archetype

Update: Tyler Clark posted a brief anecdote on Facebook about the impact of the publicity:

So, I'm getting the kids set up with dinner before we go downtown for the dinosaur thing, and the doorbell rings. A lady from Chicago is there with a copy of Inc. magazine in her hand, and she wants to talk to me about starting a software company in Youngstown. Seriously. We're meeting in the morning for coffee.
-----------------------------------------End Update------------------------
As a blogger, I often range from hubris to humility in one post. My experience in the world of social media only concerns those two extremes. I don't spend much time in the middle. I'm content to leave that territory to professional journalists and credentialed academics. Blogging is a polemic act, the perfect medium for public intellectuals.

If you peruse the Top 25 Online Influencers in Talent Management, you'll find me at #11. Concerning humility, I don't belong on that list. Concerning hubris, I really stand out from the group. Hubris won out and I decided to write about the recognition. No one talks about talent management like I do. I'm an interloper with an audience.

Underwriting my case is Youngstown. I'm not referring to the ingenious shrinking city paradigm. That's all Mayor Jay Williams and the 2010 plan. I'm not referencing the TechBelt (a.k.a. "Cleveburgh"). That's all Congressman Tim Ryan and economist Chris Briem. Consider me a big admirer of both ideas. I'm along for the ride. And I wouldn't dare put myself in the same economic redevelopment novel as the Youngstown Business Incubator. Before learning about the YBI, I had no clue what an incubator did.

I'm nothing more than another blogger.

The ruined steel mills hold a certain rust belt chic, and when I was there, I met artists and writers who had come back to the city, enchanted by the pathos and romance of the place. There is a splendid new café on West Federal Street -- the Lemon Grove, where the walls are hung with paintings from local artists and the floors are made of planks salvaged from an old barn. There is an old-school museum, the Butler Institute of American Art, that boasts Edward Hoppers and Georgia O'Keeffes in its permanent collection, and there is also a gay advocacy group, Pride Youngstown. Youngstown State University, which sits on a hill above the downtown area, is a big and important presence. But Youngstown is -- let's face it -- not the sort of place where U2 is going to kick off its next tour. It is a small town, more homey than cosmopolitan, and it is trying to fight its way back from a haunted past.

Ethnicity still matters in Youngstown, a city that lured legions of immigrants, mostly Italians and Eastern Europeans, in its steel heyday. Myriad Polish, Slovakian, and Ukrainian churches sell pierogis on Fridays, and on Saturdays at one Croatian eatery, the Dubic Palm Cafe, servers carve up whole smoked lambs on a backroom table, in full view of the diners. There is an old-world charm to Youngstown, a substance and intricacy that you would never find amid the McMansions of Phoenix. The place can pull on a person, and a few years ago, one Youngstown native, John Slanina, missed Youngstown while living in the Netherlands. Slanina, a policy analyst focused on tech-based development, launched a blog titled I Will Shout Youngstown.

I merely observe Rust Belt Chic. John is an archivist. He's the Pied Piper of the cultural movement. Don't ask me to define Rust Belt Chic. Visit Youngstown and take the Slanina tour.

Keep driving. Turn left onto the city's main drag, West Federal Street,―and then, eventually, you see something weird: a newish green awning, printed with shiny metal lettering. Youngstown Business Incubator, it says. Inside is a guy, Jim Cossler, who calls himself the incubator's "chief evangelist." Cossler is a scrappy fellow, 55 years old and sparely built, balding, with a habit of ducking out onto the street to furtively light cigarettes, his hands fluttering a bit as he cups the match in the wind. ...

... It's Cossler's hope that everyone on the Turning/Business Incubator campus can share ideas by, say, advising one another on how to display wares at a trade show, or participating in what he calls "your baby is ugly" meetings -- that is, candid product-review sessions. He wants Turning's triumph to rub off, and he wants to reverse a grim brain drain: For decades now, Youngstown's brightest youths have fled town. He wants to call home what he calls "the Youngstown diaspora," to sprout a cerebral local culture and a computer industry that can support 5,000 jobs on the YBI campus. ...

... Cossler is happy to have Slanina in his corner. He dreams of a day when students at Harvard yearn to be sitting on West Federal Street, quaffing Rust Belt beer, which is proudly brewed with Youngstown tap water. But he doesn't want to pinion bright twentysomethings. "We want our best and brightest to leave Youngstown," he says. "We want them to go to Seattle or New York or wherever, and then come back and share everything they learned."

That's all me. No one in workforce development or economic development talks about letting talent leave as a strategy. No one. Nowhere.

Youngstown is the only place that would listen to my ideas. Jim Cossler embraces bold thinking. During my first conversation with him, he seemed to easily understand the crusade. Cossler isn't prone to the nativist thinking that dominates urban revitalization policy. He spoke of geographic arbitrage and the Youngstown advantage. Smart approaches to difficult problems always come first.

US Senator Sherrod Brown is a huge proponent of the YBI and someone who cares a great deal about brain drain from Ohio. To give you an idea about the Cossler ethos, Brown's position on brain drain is fundamentally at odds with the Inc Magazine story. As a politician, Brown cannot say what Cossler said about leaving Youngstown. I'm not sure anyone should repeat the bit about going to Seattle or New York.

Cossler says and does what no one else will. That's Youngstown, the archetype of the American urban frontier:

But then, on the day I was to leave town, there came hope for a bridge between the two worlds. John Slanina, the blogger, moved back to Youngstown. Revere Data, a San Francisco company specializing in investing software, was opening a 10-person office in the Youngstown Business Incubator. Slanina had taken a job as a senior analyst with Revere, and he came home brimming with schemes. "Maybe we ought to put a couch on the sidewalk outside the Business Incubator and offer passersby free milk shakes," he said. "Maybe we could open the windows and blast polka music. I'm going to start a Boomerang Initiative. I'm going to get together all the people who moved back here, so we can talk about our hometown -- and what we learned while we were away. I'll ask, Can we combine local trust with global knowledge to do good projects?"

Later, I talked to Tyler Clark, and he insisted that the answer is yes. "Youngstown is a laboratory," he said. "There's not a lot of restrictions and bureaucracy. You can make a difference without a lot of effort."

That is what happens when bloggers talk to each other. Semper Youngstown. Defend Youngstown. Shout Youngstown.


The Urbanophile said...

Congratulations, Jim! A well-deserved honor.

Janko said...

Even without living here in Youngstown, Jim is a respected force of ideas. His name came up twice last week within the YBI as we discussed future projects.

I am proud to call him a friend.

I am impressed at his ability to be a thought leader.

And I look forward to future engagement for decades to come.


City of Youngstown, 213 years old,
seeks brilliant, engaged, fun-loving individuals
to move into its city limits,
strengthen its neighborhoods,
and build economic and social opportunities for others.

Jim Russell said...

Urbanophile and Janko,

Thanks for the kind words. You both are an inspiration to me as to what a blogger can do.

Lucy said...

You remind me here to someone I've always admired, Chris Van Someren, he knows so much about talent managment you cant imagine! So please take what I'm saying as a very nice compliment