As originally published by Owner & COO Christopher Powell Jones:
I’m flying back from three days in Spokane, Washington, where 15 leaders met to discuss strategy and establish policy for our industry association, i-SIGMA. As the Couer d’Alene fades from view, I am filled with warm memories of the last week. It’s an unusual feeling at the end of a business trip, when I’m typically just anxious to get home. As I land, our group text begins pinging with photos of an add-on golf outing, a quick fishing expedition on the Spokane River before dinner, and a flock of adults being kids on Bird Scooters. Someone chimed in, “see you in Phoenix in January!”
This got me thinking: every business leader should experience this. But recently I was talking with someone I respect who was critical of my industry involvement. His chief criticism: it’s a distraction from my business. Also, “Why share with your competitors?” He’s earned the right to be critical – he has built a much larger business than mine.
It started 10 years ago in Miami.
I knew I would be leaving Morgan Stanley, but I didn’t know what was next. Several mentors encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from my father, Powell, as I looked around. We agreed that attending the annual conference for his industry association would be a good education on the macros of the Records and Information Management (RIM) business.
Up to that point, my primary experience with the business had been the movement of 35-pound cardboard boxes from point A to B; therefore, my expectations were low. Instead, I found inspiration (and friendship) within minutes. By the end of the week-long conference, I had an invitation to visit (and even work in) similar businesses around the country. Over the years, this has grown into traditions like annual hunting trips, a network of friends to call when I’m stuck on a problem, personal and professional inspiration, and a feeling that I am building something beyond my businesses.
From the moment I arrived, I realized value that made me hungry to get more involved. Ultimately, it led me to join Committees, run for election to the Board, contribute to the merger of two associations as Board President, and remain involved on the Board after my term as President. The value of my engagement has grown as I’ve invested more. If you’re still skeptical, consider these four reasons to engage in your industry.
1. Learning and Networking. When I arrived in Miami in May of 2011, I knew nothing. By engaging in conference sessions and with business leaders who humored my ignorance between educational sessions, I got a bachelor’s degree in our industry in a week. I learned just enough to realize how much depth there was to explore. In fact, my mentor Frank Albi probably deserves credit for the hook that made me stay.
I remember Frank pulling me aside, glancing around to be sure of his audience, and confiding in me that a fundamental metric was signaling a big, bad shift in the industry. Like the classic business parable, “Who Moved My Cheese?” no one believed Frank. It was an uncomfortable truth, that has proven itself over the last decade. That conversation, and a subsequent visit to Frank’s business, inspired me that our industry had a big challenge ahead of it. It’s exactly what I was looking for.
2. Relationships. In the last week, I’ve had three problems in our business that I solved with a single telephone call. The recipients of those calls were all friends in competing businesses in other parts of the country – Nashville, Tampa, and Portland – that I met through the industry. SRS just lost our contact with an important business partner: who do you use? What are the legal repercussions of requiring vaccination? I’m considering automating our Sales process: what’s your approach? These were just the questions of the week. Next week there will be more.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These people on the other end of the phone have become close personal friends. We go out of our way to spend time together. And we look out for one another. When your shred truck is down and you can’t service your clients, I’ll send my backup to keep you going. Our families participate in annual traditions that were born out of these industry relationships. It’s complicated. And it’s awesome.
3. Stepping out of my business. These days, I don’t go to conferences for the traditional education that helped me when I was just getting started. I take a week away from our businesses to be inspired about the macros of our business that I wouldn’t have sufficient perspective to see if I stayed at home. These include context on where we are versus our competitors, to understand the opportunities and threats others are seeing, and to meet business partners bringing to market the latest technology and products to support our solutions. Sometimes partnerships begin here – that’s how Cariend began. These events, and the conversations with smart, motivated business leaders who attend them, make me a better entrepreneur. I come back home with more vision than I left with.
4. Working Together and Giving Back. At SRS and Cariend, we see ourselves as problem solvers. The elimination of paper is the problem that Frank pointed out to me ten years ago. Once I realized he was right, our business had a choice to make. There’s a wave of change coming. Do we run away and sell to maximize value before the wave breaks? Or do we pick up a surfboard on our way to the beach and ride the turbulence of transition? If you hadn’t guessed, we chose the latter. We help our clients solve the problem of paper in their organizations. And here’s the thing: these problems are big enough that it is going to take all the ingenuity our industry can muster. It works to our advantage to engage with our peers and come up with solutions to bring the market together.
All practical reasons aside, I’m grateful for the role our industry association has played in my career. That conference ten years ago was central to my decision to join my father in business. Since then, the friendships, ideas, and resources I continue to receive have paid me back many times for the cost of my service. When I receive the call to give a presentation at our annual conference, participate in a committee, or engage with the board, I don’t see it as a distraction from my business. And while it may be perceived as sharing with our competitors, instead I’ve found it to be an opportunity to connect with the innovators, operators and risk-takers of our industry so that we can build a better marketplace, ultimately scaling the solutions that best serve our clients.
Partner & COO,
Christopher Powell Jones