It’s rewarding to see how Enterprise Minnesota’s peer councils have enabled manufacturing executives to navigate economic and workplace uncertainties related to COVID-19.
We launched our regional peer councils almost two decades ago with a single group of CEOs who wanted an opportunity to regularly—and confidentially–analyze business challenges and opportunities with other executives who could relate to their circumstances through real-life experiences. Today, more than 60 manufacturing executives belong to nine peer councils throughout Minnesota. One day each month, an Enterprise Minnesota consultant guides their discussions through a combination of topical presentations and open-ended conversation. We all agree it is among our most successful services.
But the demands of COVID-19 have changed the frequency, urgency and agenda for these meetings.
Bob Kill, our president and CEO, immediately understood how lawyers, accountants and consultants had used the immediate aftermath of Black Thursday to light up the phone lines and emails of manufacturers to provide “crucial” advice and counsel about how to unravel the uncertainties of this new economy.
Not wanting to add to what others were already doing, he suggested our peer council facilitators exercise their convening power and then get out of the way. Our focus, he said, should be on manufacturers “not telling them anything, but helping them share their own knowledge and experiences. That’s the power of peer councils.” In other words, they didn’t need us as much as they needed each other, and we provided the way to get that done.
Then an interesting thing happened. Other manufacturers all across Minnesota started to prod our consultants to form new, ad hoc groups. Before long, we were convening several new forums on top of our regular peer councils. They consisted of former peer council members, current customers and even some executives who had never done business with Enterprise Minnesota.
The customary half-day in-person monthly meetings became one-hour or two-hour phone calls, then evolved (like everything else these days) into Zoom sessions. And instead of monthly sessions, they convened as frequently as every week.
Steve Haarstad, one of our facilitators, noted that manufacturers derived “incredible value in talking about how to navigate the pandemic. They realized there are hundreds of manufacturers in the same boat, but they don’t have a forum to talk with others.”
Their needs evolved around all matter of determining new-era best practices. Early sessions invariably discussed how to cope with the uncertainties of the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program. Do the rigorous PPP reporting requirements justify creating a separate bank account? (Turns out they probably do.) What’s the best way to monitor and test incoming employees? What’s the best way to adequately communicate with employees while balancing transparency with confidentiality?
They shared ideas. One company described how employees who are sent home get a bag with a bottle of water, a granola bar and a thermometer. That small act of creative kindness resonated with CEOs, as did their realization that a lot of people don’t have thermometers.
Groups talk about how they can help their communities. Some order boxed lunches for employees, to help sustain the local restaurants. One described how his company organized a YouTube concert featuring GB Leighton for the benefit of employees, vendors and customers.
While the factory floors of most peer council companies still hum with the residual business from a recently-booming economy, many manufacturers want to discuss how to cope with what could be a difficult 2020, as disrupted supply chains start to show serious consequences.
There is a lot to talk about. More on that to come.
Lynn Shelton is Vice President of Marketing for Enterprise Minnesota.
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