Since President Obama's unveiling of the American Jobs Act, it has not taken long for political gridlock and inertia to take hold in Washington. Although various economic policies and fiscal approaches have been suggested (and some tried), most are blunt instruments when it comes to targeting the real key to long-term sustainable growth -- innovation of the type that creates jobs. One avenue for promoting sustainable growth through driving innovation that has been significantly overlooked is investing in the development of a highly committed and engaged work force.
There is an extensive and growing body of research showing that when employees feel that their organization is investing in them and cares genuinely about them as individuals, they are more likely to feel engaged at work, demonstrate more ingenuity and put forth greater effort that yields innovation. A critical foundation for feeling engaged is a sense of belonging, and this is where Western New York and its organizations have a potential competitive advantage.
Richard Branson, the famous entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin companies, observed that the British Virgin Islands is the only place in the English-speaking world where, when you enter the country, the customs signs say "belongers" and "non-belongers" instead of "residents" and "non-residents."
Now, think about the image that comes to mind when you contrast "belongers" to "residents." "Belongers" have a strong sense of pride in their community, identify with it and act not just out of their own interest but actively contribute to their community. Branson noted that this "belongers" spirit can be a powerful force if it can be cultivated.
For instance, Virgin has steadily grown from the original Virgin Atlantic Airways to more than 300 businesses. The vast majority of them were started by Virgin employees who -- because they felt engaged, were encouraged to be entrepreneurial and had a strong identification with their organization -- developed creative ideas that grew into successful businesses. The key here is that Virgin develops this "belongers" mind-set in its employees by investing in their development, empowering them to make decisions, encouraging them to be creative and recognizing and rewarding innovation.
Another example is Southwest Airlines, which, now in its 40th year of operation and profitability, is the most successful domestic airline in the United States, and perhaps the world. What has enabled Southwest to succeed has been the approach it has taken to cultivating a work force that is highly collaborative, engaged and continuously innovating. Nearly everything that Southwest does -- from hiring employees for attitude first and then training for skills, to aligning employee and company goals through profit sharing, to providing extensive training and development opportunities, to empowering its employees -- supports building an engaged and committed work force. It is this engagement that enables the airline to turn around its aircraft much more efficiently, provide consistently higher levels of service that generates customer loyalty, and respond to the inherent challenges and dynamic environment inherent in air travel more effectively than other airlines.
Southwest's commitment to its work force faced a critical test in the immediate aftermath of 9/1 1. Just like all of the other U.S. airlines, Southwest faced the difficult task of how to survive in an industry that was immediately shaken to its core by the unimaginable terrorist attacks. However, unlike other airlines, but perfectly consistent with its core values of putting its employees first, then CEO Jim Parker and his executive team decided on no layoffs or wage cuts and followed through on their commitment to make employee payments through the company profit-sharing plan just weeks after 9/1 1. By "doing the right thing," Southwest put its people first and solidified the "belongers" mind-set in its employees.
The result has been the creation of a whole new niche industry -- the low-cost airline market. In doing so, Southwest has contributed to economic growth and expansion at a broader level. Have you ever been on a Southwest flight into Buffalo and noticed how many people fly into Buffalo and then drive to destinations such as Toronto and beyond because the flights on Southwest are so much less expensive? Southwest's success brings jobs and dollars to Western New York and by introducing the low-cost carrier market to Buffalo, other airlines have had to respond by lowering their fares, which of course benefits consumers and businesses.
Now what if each industry had one organization -- just one -- that did what Southwest Airlines did to the domestic airline industry? That would be both a powerful antidote to our stalled economy and an engine for sustainable economic growth through innovation. One example that exists right here is Wegmans, which has been rated as the best grocery store chain in the nation. It is not a coincidence that Wegmans' success on the consumer and growth side directly corresponds to how the company invests in its employees; Wegmans has been ranked in the top 10 of Fortune's "Top 100 Companies to Work For" consistently over the past several years.
How does Western New York have some sort of potential competitive advantage when it comes to creating a highly engaged work force? It comes from an inherent deep sense of commitment and engagement that we in the community have for the place we call home. Western New York has that same type of "belongers" spirit that Branson noted. Maybe it is because of our size, deep family roots, community values, strong immigrant origins and close-knit communities. Whatever the explanation, it is strong and pervasive. Many of those who have lived here for some time might not immediately see this, but after returning to Western New York after being away for 20 years, I have seen it and felt it. It is not just about being close to family or love of having four true seasons, it is identifying with our community at a deep emotional level and hoping in our own small way to contribute to its betterment.
Competitive advantage comes from something that is valued, rare and difficult to imitate -- all three are necessary. Southwest's and Wegmans' business models are not rocket science and in fact have been aggressively imitated by competitors. What has provided these two organizations a competitive advantage is how they have invested in developing people, creating a work force of "belongers" that has fueled innovation and growth.
Research has found that organizations can benefit from the strength of their geographical region. It's no mistake that technology start-ups fare better in Silicon Valley and other highly entrepreneurial regions of the country. Western New York's unique "belongers" spirit is not something that we actively use to our advantage. There is an opportunity to change that and the timing could not be better; or, to be blunt, more critical.
How? Regional leaders need to more aggressively recognize and reward, and incentivize organizations (private, public and nonprofits) that invest in strategies and practices that develop their people in such a way as to build highly engaged work forces. There is a well-developed science and understanding of how to build engaged work forces, develop entrepreneurial skills and develop the leadership to make this happen. The University at Buffalo School of Management's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and LeaderCORE leadership development program are just two specific examples of efforts that need to be harnessed and applied in a strategic way by political, business and educational leaders to cultivate and apply these important capabilities that foster innovation and growth. Capitalizing on the strong networks in the community, we need to find more ways to encourage business and organizational leaders to actively share their best practices in building engaged, highly committed and innovative work forces with each other that can help raise the collective bar.
One thing seems increasing clear -- the path forward out of this prolonged pattern of job stagnation is not coming from Washington. But Western New York may have a unique opportunity to both help itself and provide leadership on a sustainable long-term solution to growth and economic development if we focus on investing in and nurturing a "belongers" work force that drives innovation.
Paul Tesluk is the Donald S. Carmichael professor of organizational behavior at the University at Buffalo School of Management.