Beyond the 'Brain Drain': How Cities Really Need to Sell Themselves

Cities worry a lot about losing talented people, but few of them do much to attract new people. A sales mindset needs to be part of the culture of the community.
by | August 15, 2013
 

The dominant talent paradigm in America today is "brain drain." The idea is to prevent educated people, particularly the young who grew up or went to school in a particular place, from leaving.

This is a model with serious flaws. Notably it implies a sort of "wages fund" view of talent in which each community is endowed with a fixed reservoir of it and the goal is to prevent leakage. It downplays attraction, both "boomerangers" and true newcomers, and by implication suggests that there's not much to recommend about a community if you didn't grow up or go to school there. And it misses the point that in an ever more globalized, diverse, complex world, a place's best interests are not well served by people who've never lived anywhere else.

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None of that is to say that seeking to retain people isn't a worthy goal, but it's incomplete as a vision. Where, for example, is attraction? While most cities have paid lip service to attracting newcomers, few have put any real muscle behind it. There might be a website or marketing-type materials, but often these are not very good.

The lack of seriousness in these efforts is shown by the critical missing piece: sales. That is, going out and actively recruiting individual, specific people to want to live in a place, not just to fill a specific opening at a specific company. Ask yourself this: The last few times you visited a place, did anyone try to sell you on it as a community you might want to live in or build a career or business? In my experience, the answer is almost always no. While practically everyone says they obsess over talent, the sad fact is few places actually try seriously to recruit anybody.

There are signs this is changing. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel paid a visit to the University of Illinois's flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign last year to try to pitch its grads on coming to work in the Windy City's technology industry. Chicago just followed up with an event called Think Chicago that is bringing 100 top students from around the country to the city for three days of immersion in Chicago's tech scene, plus some fun at the Lollapalooza Music Festival. Emanuel himself has been personally involved in this.

In Las Vegas, the Downtown Project run by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is aggressively trying to lure people to come to the city and help make the project's vision of redefining downtown Las Vegas a reality. The project leased about 50 units in a high-rise to use as so-called "crash pads" where people can stay in for free while coming to check out what's going on. I stayed there on one visit, and can tell you I definitely felt courted by people in downtown Vegas. Hsieh himself often personally leads tours and pitches people on downtown Vegas. How often do you see mega-rich CEOs in other cities doing that?

These leadership examples are good, but there's only so much any one mayor or CEO can do. What's needed is to drive a sales mindset down into the culture of a community. Every single person who lives in a place should consider himself a licensed privateer, armed with a letter of marque, scouring the high seas of talent to bring more people to their town. Consider the flip side of my earlier question: Have you yourself been recruiting and making the sale on your community to visitors or outsiders you meet?

Everyone in a community needs to make recruiting talent their personal business. Given how few communities are actually selling themselves today, this is an easy way for a place to distinguish itself in the marketplace.

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