When American Electric Power announced a 30-year plan to cut carbon dioxide emission levels and its reliance on coal, environmentalists applauded the move. But the energy company’s employees — particularly those in the Appalachian region — wondered what would become of their jobs and local communities that relied on coal-fired power plants.
In response to those concerns, AEP partnered with various companies and nonprofits to certify areas within the Appalachian region as “aero-ready,” said MIT Sloan senior lecturer Isaacs advises senior leaders and teams, including those at AEP, on organizational strategy and stakeholder partnerships.
Welders were reskilled so they could work in the aerospace and aviation industries, and related companies began moving to those aero-ready areas as the employee base grew. The result: AEP continued its energy operations while also supporting a thriving regional economy.
The idea of helping regional and local economies thrive is particularly important today, Isaacs said, as American businesses bring work and manufacturing back to U.S. soil as a result of ongoing global geopolitical conflicts.
That, coupled with a greater awareness of economic inequities, is prompting “more interest in growing regional economies and making our regional city and state economies more resilient, more robust, more innovative,” said Isaacs during a recent MIT Sloan Executive Education webinar. “Along with that, there’s also a turn toward developing our talent pipelines locally and regionally.”
Isaacs is co-founder of the new Businesses for Inclusive Local Thriving Lab at MIT Sloan. The leadership program aims to provide motivated business leaders with actionable steps to attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce while supporting prosperous local economies.
“We need to better understand how to bring in the skills and the talent that we need that looks like the community we want to serve,” said lab co-founder Tom Giordano, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Rhode Island.
Giordano said what he’s heard while advising public and private sector leaders is that companies want a more sustainable and inclusive workforce pipeline.
“Now is a perfect time [to understand] how business leaders can work and sometimes quarterback that work across sectors to say, ‘We want to build a workforce for the future that represents our customer base, it represents our community, and it delivers on our bottom line as well,’” Giordano said.
Going and growing local should be part of every organization’s evolution today, said MIT Sloan lecturer and lab faculty member
“Local is authentic. Local has relationships … and that’s what employees and consumers are looking for,” Lazu said. “A majority of people are willing to pay more for a product that aligns with their values.”
Here are some tips from Isaacs, Giordano, and Lazu, on how companies can benefit from investing in inclusive local thriving.
Invest in your neighborhood and your region
Particularly for large companies with a national or international footprint, it might be tough to turn the organization’s attention to the local level. But Giordano suggested that they begin at home.
“That starts by understanding that the neighborhood that your employees drive through can be invested in,” Giordano said. “That starts by saying, ‘Our future employees live in this neighborhood, and we need to better invest here as well.’”
Leaders need to make sure they’re not just developing their organizations but also the local regions that are ready to be a part of the continuous innovation that America is so good at, Isaacs said.
Hire for leadership skills, and push back on biased pushback
As organizations recruit and hire for inclusive local thriving, they should be looking for candidates with skills that might be labeled “soft” but are just as significant as technological or financial skills.
“We’re talking about team skills, relational skills, influencing skills — the ability at a personal level to regulate your emotions and understand your interior landscape so that you can speak for what you’re feeling instead of just reacting,” Isaacs said.
Leaders must be committed to hiring for these skills and not just treating such initiatives as a check-the-box exercise.
“It can’t just be like, ‘I’m going to throw money at a problem. It’s my people’s problem; I’m off to play golf until the quarterly earnings call,” Lazu said.
Emphasize to anyone questioning such initiatives that diverse teams are more profitable. Lazu said she often hears people express concern about whether hiring more women or people of color equates to hiring less-qualified people in order to meet a quota.
“Rather than saying, ‘Well, this is what we have to do because our numbers aren’t good,’ you say, ‘Actually most women are overqualified. Most people of color are overqualified for positions they have because [of] bias,’” Lazu said. “What kills momentum is not pushing back against the pushback.”