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Minnesota's search for a new identity: A conversation with Lars Leafblad

Lars Leafblad, a principal in the Minneapolis executive search firm KeyStone Search, was dubbed "the most networked man in the Twin Cities" by Minnesota Business magazine last year. The Line thought that it would make sense to talk to this well-connected business connector about his take on what our city and state need to meet the challenges of the coming years.

The Line: Lars Leafblad, as someone who connects leaders and innovative people with each other for a living, how do you assess this community's strengths?

Lars: We're the Land of 10,000 Linkages! We're this community of communities in which there are these circles of passion and interest, whether it's at at the neighborhood level, the political or policy level, or the school-board level. We hear about the destruction of social capital in this country — people aren't engaged. That's not true here!

This is also a community that welcomes innovation. It has people willing to take risks to think and act differently to achieve more, whether that's better health outcomes, new ways of creating products and services, or whatever. And we're consistently near the top in the nation in voting. What does that show us? It shows that there's an engaged and informed electorate that seeks to make informed decisions about how they're prioritizing their energies and their time.

But one of the big questions that's important to ask — because right now we seem mired in policy debates about trade-offs and choices and investment and cost-cutting — is, what is our collective vision?

When you think of this region, there are so many great ingredients in the pot, but what hasn't emerged is a clear image. Remember the cover story on our state in Time magazine in 1973 — "The Good Life in Minnesota"? The cover photo was Governor Wendell Anderson by a lake with a northern pike in his hand. It was Time's shot, of course, and I think people interpreted "the good life in Minnesota" in a lot of ways — but many people could say, that photo visualizes on a very visceral level why we love this place.

What is the image now? We have this cornucopia of images of what puts us on the map in the media's eyes — certain politicians, certain innovations, certain nonprofits — but there's not a consensus snapshot of what we look like or stand for.

The Line: Wendy Anderson with the fish essentially says, good life, close to the earth, work/life balance. All true, but that picture was taken before our advertising community took off, before Prince and the Replacements, before our art and design scenes grew to maturity. It was taken a year before A Prairie Home Companion began! Our image and our sense of ourselves have grown and changed a lot since then.

Lars: We're in a "white-paper" community. We have a lot of smart, well-educated people here, thinking and creating. We produce white papers and task forces and reports and strategic plans. But is there an image, a visualization of what we're trying to become? It would be interesting to try to come up with it. Maybe as a contest. What's the new snapshot? What's the new cover shot for "The Good Life in Minnesota"?

One of the reasons that we may not have a clear sense of direction right now has to do with leadership. There was a powerful generation of leadership in this region — long before I was born. There was this small group of influential connectors who would come together around a shared vision and say, yeah, there'll be trade-offs but we'll all collectively move forward and get certain things done.

There's a valid criticism of that era — that this group of leaders and connectors wasn't diverse, and not all perspectives were represented. But now there seems to be a void or vacuum; those influential people, who were connecting the various stakeholders, have retired or moved to southern climates or passed away. All of a sudden we're faced with these challenges, and who replaces those people?

When there was decision-making and connectivity in the hands of a few, we moved forward. Now we're at the opposite pole. Everyone's interconnected, everyone has advocacy,  everyone has engagement, and power and connection are diffused, which creates new challenges. I think that's reflective of the world we live in.

One thing that struck me in the last year in the popular media — this is business-specific — in Forbes and Fortune you see that many of our large companies make the list of "50 most admired" or "best workplace" companies. General Mills, 3M, Best Buy, Target. But that's essentially backward-looking, a pat on the head. You've done a good job, so we admire you. When you look at Wired and Fast Company and Inc, their lists of the most innovative hot spots, there's a real lack of Minnesota companies. And that's a problem. To be admired is nice, but to be omitted or not recognized as a place for the future is disconcerting. As we have seen in the news in recent weeks, we've reached the lowest levels ever of new venture capital dollars coming into this region. That's disconcerting.

Everyone respects the great Fortune 50 or Fortune 100 companies we have here; they're pillars. But what needs to be the change or the catalyst by which innovation is created outside these motherships? Everyone has different ideas and solutions for this.

The Line: Is that unified image of our city and state you talked about one solution? Will a "brand" create more excitement, more clarity?

Lars: Well, I think we're going to find out as resources are getting invested into this regional economic initiative of the Itasca Project. We've also got Explore Minnesota, a statewide tourism project in which Governor Dayton and his staff are looking to see how we're going to package this state. I'm hopeful that those regional and statewide branding and expanding efforts will succeed. But I can't help going back to our earlier question about that image on the magazine cover — when you think Minnesota or Twin Cities, you think X. What's X? Maybe it's not one thing; maybe it's 20 things. So then, are we "Minnesota — the Smorgasbord of Innovation?" [Laughs] The "hot dish" of all sorts of interesting ingredients that allow new things to happen?

The Line: And, of course, our smorgasbord is not just Scandinavian, or just Euro-American.

Lars: Right! It never has been. And how fascinating it is that as a region we have a unique ability to provide opportunity for new immigrant populations, be they Hmong-American, Somali-American, or any of the other groups. It's a place that, not without setbacks and problems, has been able to provide real opportunities for new entrants into the American formula to be successful and grow and establish themselves. As the rest of the country is wrestling with questions of immigration and global competition, Minnesota may have a lot to offer in terms of how we've approached the problem.

The Line: In a lot of places we're still seen as flyover country.

Lars: So maybe we leverage that! Work some jujitsu on it. People who think of us as flyover country are always surprised by what we have going on here when they actually find out, aren't they? "Come to mysterious Flyover Land, the land you've always dismissed, and discover the secret origin of Bob Dylan, Target, the Coen Brothers, Tom Friedman, a place where people from Somalia and Laos and many other countries are finding opportunity." [Laughter]

Bottom line: I want Minnesota and the Twin Cities on more short lists — short lists of places to shoot your next film, places where you might want to relocate with your family, places where you want to go to learn because they are doing things better, newer, faster. Places to come and experience art and theater in new ways. Places to come and build your dream if you are new to this country.

The Line: Any last thoughts?

Lars: There are so many remarkable things bubbling up here. There are seismic shifts afoot. You can see and feel the tremors of those shifts, with some of the new initiatives that are starting, and some that we have had for a while. Show me another community that has so many leadership programs: The Bush Leadership Fellows, the McKnight Artist Fellows, the Shannon Institute at the Wilder Foundation, the Forty Under Forty networks, the Chamber of Commerce leadership programs, all of these networks of people striving to make an impact beyond their own self-interest. I'm starting to hear people ask, Hey we've got all these groups — how are we linking them together?

We're facing a lot of challenges — especially the challenge of changing our behavior so we can do more with less and really meet the future. Sustained change will come when we have that shared vision we talked about earlier. We have to decide what we want. Do we want this city, this state, this region, to be seen as the greatest hybrid of arts, education, innovation, and opportunity? Do we want to be the greatest living laboratory for opportunity, harmony with the earth, self-  and professional advancement? A unique place where self, family, professional growth, and external environment all mesh? And where maybe the mesh, the harmonious combination, is the point?

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

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Comments (3)

Nice piece 'The Line'.
Please make sure every article has an author, interviewer, etc.

Excellent interview. I am relatively new to Minneapolis (moved here in 2009) and have two things to say regarding "when you think of Minnesota..." The first was addressed several times and it is connection. I spent many years in the Pacific Northwest and was raised in Wisconsin. The degree of government, cultural, business and social connection in those places cannot compare to the depth of relationships here. Right off the bat, I cannot think of a single image that conveys that, but it is the thing I think that defines Minnesota.

Second, is "Minnesota Nice", which has turned out to be a very difficult thing to deal with. Minnesota (perhaps because of the high degree of connection) is a very hard place to get into. Socially and professionally it is a real effort to join groups and to fit in. Even though I find so much to love about this place I am still not certain (after 2 years!) that I will stay here.

Great article.

I think that the leadership question is real. We have excellent leaders at the organization level, but who is leading the region or the state?

Prior to the Itasca Project, the "good old boys" did exert a great deal of influence - usually to the positive. The Itasca Project seems more interested in doing studies than leading. Assuming wide overlap of the Itasca Project and the MN Chamber and MN Business Partnership membership, the Itasca Project makes bold pronouncements about public private partnerships, then goes behind closed doors and supports ultra conservative candidates who would slash and burn the public sector infrastructure necessary to support those public private partnerships. This is unfortunate!