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Leaders Survey 2020: Problems illuminated by pandemic, yet resilience still evident

COVID, child care, talent and racial equity identified as key issues


Editor’s note: This is a continuation of our 2020 Leaders Survey coverage, which we began publishing in the Nov. 27 issue. Our annual survey asks business leaders to share what they feel are some of the top issues affecting business in Central Iowa, and in particular the Greater Des Moines region. As you read, you’ll see the responses and also select remarks from differing viewpoints from those who opted to leave comments as they took the survey. 
This year’s guest editor, Claudia Schabel, is the president of Schabel Solutions, a consulting firm that offers strategic solutions on how to build inclusive workplaces to attract and retain talent. She provided analysis of each question.


The biggest policy change needed to make Des Moines more racially equitable is _______.

Guest Editor Claudia Schabel: We will need more than one policy and continue to evolve as we move ahead. Considering some of the issues we have in Central Iowa, I’d like to see continued work and dialogue on policies tied to safe, affordable and equitable housing, criminal justice reform and education reform.

“An all-out effort to fix systems, not people. Agree to overlay an equity lens as policies are being reviewed and or established and understanding that policies and institutions are at the root of the inequities. When we do this we can change the game for people of color in our community.”
Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO, Oakridge Neighborhood

“To focus on housing equity and “undesigning” past policies that are, and continue to be, racially biased. I, along with thousands of others, have had my understanding expanded through Undesign the Redline, an interactive exhibit that shows the history of housing discrimination and segregation. So much of wealth and related income opportunities are tied to land and home ownership and the disparity between our Black, brown and white neighbors is significant, unfair and damaging to society as a whole. In understanding structural disadvantages through community education and discussion, we can begin to take well-informed and intentional action to make Central Iowa an equitable place for everyone to call home.”
Lauren Johnson, director of communications and community outreach, Polk County Housing Trust Fund

“Justice/sentencing reform.” 
Anne Bacon, executive director, IMPACT

“Committed leadership.” 
Kevin Lentz, president, Performance Marketing

“Invest in education at all levels. Pre-K and early childhood so more women and minorities can enter the workforce, K-12 to increase racial equity for future generations, and continuing ed for people in the workforce to upskill.”
Emily Westergaard, CEO, By Degrees Foundation

“More diversity in all aspects of government.”
Tej Dhawan, “responding as self”

“We need to embrace the reality of systemic racism at the regional level – here, in our community – then we need to continue the dialogue, study the specific impact of racial inequity locally and develop concrete policies to address our specific situation. We need to do more than talk. We need actions designed to address specific problems. And then move on to the next ones.”
Chris Sackett, managing partner, BrownWinick Law Firm

“I don’t think it is a policy change, but a cultural change. Accepting and celebrating difference is not the same as tolerance for difference. We need to convince ourselves that difference is not only OK, but amazing and helps everyone succeed and thrive.”
Lori Chesser, senior shareholder and chair, immigration department, Davis Brown Law Firm

“Zoning that allows affordable housing types to be built throughout the metro and in a variety of neighborhoods. This would increase equity and diversity in neighborhoods, schools and employment.”
Stephanie Murphy, executive director, Neighborhood Finance Corp. 

“Decriminalizing marijuana.”
Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, CEO, Proteus Inc.

How difficult do you perceive it is for businesses to find adequate talent to fill open positions? 
(Scale of 1-10, 1 being not difficult)

6.70 2020 Average

7.54 2019 Average

Guest Editor Claudia Schabel: The results are not surprising, as this has been top of mind in the business community for some time. While the overall unemployment rate is back down, certain communities remain drastically underemployed and job openings remain open way too long. The broad-based partnership that makes up the Future Ready Iowa project aims to meet the needs of our employers down the stretch. But businesses may need to take greater responsibility investing in their own people and skilling up job candidates showing an aptitude and eagerness to learn. 

5 “It depends on the position. Our highly skilled (and paid) workforce is fickle. Even before remote work, they could choose their location. We need to do a better job figuring out what this segment of the workforce wants in addition to skateparks and rafting. I am afraid Iowa’s declining reputation as a decent, progressive place to live will sink the recruitment ship. The national exposure of our state’s mismanagement of the COVID situation has canceled whatever positive news Central Iowa has managed to create since the end of the last recession.”
Eric Burmeister, executive director, Polk County Housing Trust Fund

7 “There is a global war for talent taking place.”
Brian Waller, president and CEO, Technology Association of Iowa 

7 “We’ve made it too easy to not work for a living. More emphasis needs to be placed on the trades as a viable option. Higher education in the state is too expensive.”
Jodi Corcoran, executive vice president, Community State Bank

8 “There is a glaring skills gap, and prior to COVID-19 there was a tremendous talent gap. Training from afar could be more difficult and less effective in some circumstances, which can slow the ability to ramp new employees as well. Finding available workers right now should be easier, but re-engineering skill sets may be required.”
Nick Roach, director of sales, Paragon IT Professionals

8 “We have a gap in the retooling and reinventing, and training of people to do new things. Things change; some jobs simply will never be back.”
Tom Triplett, vice president of interiors division, Triplett Cos.

10 “My small business clients are not able to grow their businesses due to a lack of employees who will actually show up, let alone work once they’re there. We have gone months with several open positions and next to zero applicants.”
Daniel McCraine, president, McCraine Associates Inc.

Rate how inclusive you believe Des Moines’ business community is for people with the following identities. 
(Scale of 1-10, 1 being not inclusive at all)

7.58 Women
3.78 Undocumented immigrants
5.59 Black, Indigenious & people of color
6.45 LGBTQ members
5.86 People with disabilities

Guest Editor Claudia Schabel: There is general agreement that things could be better on including underrepresented groups in the business community. I agree. We should demand more of ourselves and raise our expectations. Business leaders have a tremendous amount of influence in our region. I look at this from volunteer, work and customer perspectives. Are we actively reaching out to all groups to fill seats on boards of directors – to gain their perspectives and help them grow leadership skills? Are we effectively reaching out to all groups for qualified candidates? Are we intentionally reaching out to all groups for potential customers? Or are we just considering and helping the few people we personally know? Business leaders need to match their pledges for commitment with bold actions of inclusivity – on a micro and macro scale.

If you were creating a T-shirt about 2020, what would it say?

Guest Editor Claudia Schabel: There were lots of great sayings in the list – some poignant, some encouraging, some resigned and some just plain funny. For me, the coupling of the pandemic, economic crisis, campaign, election and racial unrest led me to “2020: Breathless” and “2020: Year of heroes, villains and masks.” That second one may need some explanation.
Heroes: This one is easy to understand. I’m thinking of the people who have risked their lives and the lives of their families and friends to put food on their tables – from health care workers to custodians to grocery store cashiers. Who do you think have been heroes this year?
Villains: I’ll not give examples, but they are out there. Who do you think have been villains this year?
Masks (1): On the literal side, you know what I mean. We’ve seen people wear them and not wear them. To wear or not to wear, that is the question. We answer that question whenever we leave our abodes.
Masks (2): On the figurative side, many people have been putting on masks for decades – masks that help us fit in with “friends,” with others. These are also the masks that many people feel they need to put on when they walk in the door at work each morning – masks that they then take off when they leave every day. 
To some extent, we all do this. But some may do this more than others – depending on the role and level of inclusion at their workplaces. I wonder if some of these people are really liking the work-from-home atmosphere given that, apart from the odd Zoom meeting, they can feel free to be who they are all day long when home. 
How many of these people are out there? I don’t know. It’s one of the goals of my company’s work to make sure folks don’t need to wear masks – these kinds of masks – at work and elsewhere. What figurative masks, if any, did you wear to work or around town before the pandemic? Are you wearing more or fewer of these masks now than before?
Thucydides wrote that it’s only in crisis situations that people really show themselves as they truly are. Crises force people to take off their masks. We’ve seen a lot of unmasking this year. 
“Maybe next year!”
Lauren Johnson, director of communications and community outreach, Polk County Housing Trust Fund

“I hope we don’t have to live through another one.” 
Ted Grob, president, Savannah Homes Inc. 

“Iowa would have still won the game.” 
A.J. Johnson, city manager, city of Urbandale

“The year of resilience! We survived being ‘2020’d.’ ”
Kim Butler Hegedus, executive vice president, Community State Bank

“2020: If you don’t like the conditions … wait five minutes.”
Matt Converse, president, Converse Conditioned Air Inc. 
“At least I have a story to tell.” 
Mackenzie Walters, owner and chief storytelling officer, 
M Ryan Media

“Are we done yet?”
Paul Gibbins, regional director for Polk County, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

“20 years in one — when is it going 
to be over?”
Eric Lohmeier, president, NCP Inc.

“I echo ones I have seen proclaiming it a one-star year — not recommended.”
Kevin Lentz, president, Performance Marketing

“2020: The year being ‘positive’ became a negative.”
Rod Foster, partner, RSM US LLP




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