Do Business Recruitment and Retention Right: a guide from Sara Dunnigan

My friend Sara Dunnigan just announced that she is leaving the world of consulting to become the Executive Director of the Virginia Board of Workforce Development, a job that perfectly fits the most enthusiastic Make Our Existing Businesses More Successful professional in the economic development profession.

Thankfully, before she moved on, she wrote up her research on best practices in state-level business retention and expansion (BRE) programs. And that’s fantastically good stuff for you, no matter how you are or are not actually involved in BRE.  That’s partly because business retention/recruitment is so crucially imporant, but so often overlooked in favor of the big game hunt, but also because there’s good advice in there for making any initiative work.

You should go read the whole thing, but here’s a few of her key findings.  The most effective programs Sara studied had the following:


1) An integrated, statewide strategic plan for economic development. Ok, this sounds simple. Your state has a plan, right? I was amazed how strong the planning efforts were in the exemplary states. And BRE was front and center, on par with business attraction and situated right alongside workforce development. That gets me excited. So dust off that plan and tell me where it leads you.

2) Clear, measurable outcomes and program objectives. Economic developers all over are catching some heat for a lack of accountability, but the best BRE programs I reviewed charged in straight away with stated goals and very specific programs of work. Even better, they reported regularly with their results. And when they didn’t hit the mark, they weren’t afraid to change course and say why. I think outcomes say a lot about an organization. They shed a light on what an organization values and they should elicit some sort of emotional response. I could tell people were excited about what they were tasked to achieve when I talked to them. This creates momentum.

3) Dedicated leadership and outreach teams with appropriately matched resources. BRE is often the most understaffed area in economic development. Forced to do a lot with a little, most programs languish, never reaching their full potential. The best programs I found had staff and had them deployed in a way that made a big impact. That’s not to say every state had a huge stable of developers combing the countryside. They leveraged regional and local partners. Think matrix organization.

4) Strategic research and sophisticated firm targeting methods. Good news – no more random samples and mindless business surveys. The best programs I found are using business intelligence and predictive models to find and support high-impact, growth-oriented firms. This is probably one of the most underutilized approaches, despite the availability of both industry and firm-level data, but I am hopeful the places investing here will see big yields.

5) Coordinated outreach and business intelligence gathering. Ask any BRE program manager what their biggest constraint is, and they’ll likely tell youtime. It’s the time needed to talk to firms and do that critical needs assessment PLUS respond PLUS ongoing monitoring. The most creative programs have figured out how to leverage partnerships to get more people in the field and use technology to monitor firm-level activity in a more real-time way. They have also figured out how to open up more continuous conversations and pull in business intel from disparate sources. And then they share it with the team so people can act on it. Yep, you read it here first.

6) A comprehensive, value-added service delivery system. This is where the magic happens. I was blown away by some of the tactics being used to link companies to resources in new and different ways. The siloed case management approach is falling by the wayside and new network models are emerging. Sometimes it’s simply combining existing assets in novel new ways. It requires a framework and common goals, but it can be done. It’s all about leadership. There’s also a fair amount of investment in industry-led consortia models where businesses organize their own service array. It’s ok. Buy the coffee and get out of the way.

7) Emphasis on capacity building and professional development for the economic development community. You know I’m a big fan of leveling up the profession and almost every manager I spoke with quickly and enthusiastically acknowledged the importance of professional development. National and state associations made the list, but training that supported this new way of doing business, developed specific industry knowledge, and supported the unique work of BRE program managers was also mentioned. Think everything from CEcD to PMP.

8) A supporting technology platform or CRM. Last but not least was the enthusiastic endorsement (and actually utilization) of a robust client relationship management system. The best ones let people put information IN but also lets you get in OUT in an organized fashion, not just to track activity, but also analyze trends and extract very specific data on firm characteristics. Again, the most progressive organization weren’t using their CRM to cover their collective asses, but were actually working to build a strategic project management and business intelligence system. (Sorry, I said asses.)


You can read more and grab Sara’s white paper here.

Thanks, congratulations, and knock em dead, Sara!