Great Leadership in Utah, USA

Utah State in the USA used to have a reputation as a ‘fly over State’, with the East Coast represented by New York and Washington and the West Coast known for Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Utah was seen as conservative, with strict liquor laws and a weak economy in the seventies and eighties. A lot of talent was exported to other States as not all professions could be absorbed into its economy. In general Utah’s citizens were involved in industries like real estate, building, land speculation, services, retail, mining, manufacturing, insurance and “things you could do as an individual”, explains Lt. Governor Bell when I sat down with him on my recent visit to the US.

Sixty five to seventy percent of Utah land is owned by federal government, so land is limited, and they don’t receive any revenue from it. They have managed to negotiate some drilling and mining permits, but the Obama Administration have clamped down on that. There was also the Mormon versus non-Mormon ratio, which has changed significantly and seems to have faded into the background a lot. And of course this State with a 2.8 million population is dominant Republican.

In the 1990’s they started establishing the Utah Brand, when companies like Word Perfect, Novel and others emerged. The Winter Olympics also contributed hugely to this repositioning process. Bell comments: “It just blew the doors open. In a lot of ways it turned a key.” Being about six months after the 9/11 event meant it was a real target for terrorist activities. According to Bell “the stakes were huge”. Of course there was the scandal around the Olympic preparations that Mitt Romney fortunately rectified.

Today, under the leadership of Governor Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Governor Greg Bell the State is very clear about its three to four year old vision: “Utah will lead the nation as the best performing economy and be recognized as a premier global business destination” – a simple, clear and even measurable vision that everyone seems to drive.

Bell, a lawyer by profession, landed in politics quite by accident. He got involved in more than one successful community project as the appointed spokesperson. The community noticed him, which lead to being elected on to the City Council. He was then asked to run for Mayor after their representative in the legislature decided not to run again. While serving there for eight years he experienced a lot and learned some simple leadership lessons. He had a colleague that always came to him with the relevant problems, but invariably followed the announcement of the problem with a possible solution. Bell started adopting this principle and even today he tries not to go to the Governor with a problem only but also with alternatives, possible solutions. This may sound like common sense, but as we know, common sense is not always common practice.

As Mayor he became involved in regional planning, and was appointed the chair of Envision Utah, an internationally recognised long term non-profit planning organisation. Through collaborative community planning they found that when the planning horizon is far enough out, everyone will participate – realtors and developers, environmentalists, preservationists, all relevant parties. If any planning forum expects interested parties to engage in the short term and a rushed fashion as opposed to a forty year time line, for example, “they will fight”, explains Bell.

Leaders that therefore have a clear long term vision and plan will find more time to collaborate and include all stakeholders. Bell elaborates: “People understand that if you’re not at the lunch you are on the menu. So they show up. If you say you are doing a transportation plan, the truckers are there, the railroads are there, the environmentalists are there. They realise that once these things are theoretical on someone’s map, that’s when you have to be there, because thereafter it is just a fight about when, how much and exactly where. But the idea of the road is done, and if you didn’t come to the early hearings you are just too late.”

From his activities as Mayor, Bell was noticed once again and moved to the legislature for two terms; Herbert became Governor and picked Bell as his Lt. Governor.

As a public leader he is very aware of the fact that he has a ‘brand’, as does Utah State, and as such he wants it to represent unquestioned integrity, high ethics, very collaborative and politically principled. He and the Governor strive to be “conservative in principle, moderate in tone, inclusive in process”, which he also sees as part of his brand.

After visiting with Lt Governor Bell I also sat down with Spencer Eccles, a successful businessman in his own right who was heavily involved in the Winter Olympics. He drives business, tourism, film and other areas for the Governor’s office.  Eccles’ division also recruits companies to the State or assists them to expand by making it as simple as possible to open and run a business in Utah – stable and vibrant environment, predictable, no crazy legislation and regulation, healthy tax environment (one of the lowest with a flat rate), low power costs, educated and productive workforce. As Eccles stated: “The goal is always to make things easier for business. Are we doing it perfectly yet? The answer is no. But I think we are probably better than anyone in the nation.”

In the last year and a half they went through a full regulatory review and identified approximately 2000 regulations that impact business. Eccles explains that “in the last legislative session we either eliminated or modified over 350 business regulations”. As a result the US Business Chamber expressed interest in how they did this. The recruitment programme, from 2009 when the economic downturn took off, in public-private partnership initiated about 4200 jobs, which improved to almost 10 000 in 2012 alone, most of these being high paid jobs.  Eccles attributes this kind of growth and environment to the long term leadership of the State.

One of the first things he did was to pull out of his pocket a laminated card with the vision and four key objectives on the one side and “ten reasons to do business in Utah” printed on the other. Everyone in “Team Utah” carries this with them, including the Governor! Eccles even carries extra cards to hand out at meetings. There was an immediate sense of order, clarity, unity and commitment to the vision and objectives of this State. They realise that their State is small in terms of population and they therefore have to be on top of their game, be nimble and do things differently.

Eccles then handed me another pocket size laminated card with a heading: “Utah is four cornerstones strong”, under which is written the vision, followed by a summary of the four cornerstones – education, jobs, energy and self-determination. On the other side of the card is listed “Utah Accolades”, which clearly confirmed they are achieving their vision: “#1 Best State for Business & Career; #1 Best Managed State; #1 State for Economic outlook;” and several others.

I was impressed and immediately sensed an atmosphere of great leadership. I felt that I could walk out with the two cards and a clear sense of where this State is going, how it is lead, confidence about the future, amidst very uncertain economic times. Seeing another accolade of being “#1 Most Fiscally Fit State” added to the feeling of confidence.

A few days after my visit the SA Ambassador was due to visit Utah state leaders. There was much to discuss as exports from Utah to SA has increased by 825% over the last year, with about 50% in the commodity arena.

With leaders like Herbert, Bell, Eccles and others at the helm of Utah State, complemented by their ‘team mentality’, the sky is the limit. South African businesses that are contemplating a ‘home’ in the US would do well to consider the State of Utah, because as we know, when all is said and done, everything rises and falls with good or bad leadership. Utah seems to be on the rise because of great leadership.



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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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