Madison’s “Brain Drain”: Turn on the Spigot!

brain-drainFor the past several years, there’s been this debate raging in Madison about how to combat the so-called Brain Drain, the exodus of educated, young minds from this university city to (typically) larger, seemingly more vibrant locales like Manhattan, Chicago, and the Bay area on the west coast. Throw a few editorials in the local media into the mix, and you’ve got a non-stop frenzy within the business community. It’s been an interesting dialogue to witness. And it’s been equally thought-provoking.

Now, I don’t have the typical midwestern outlook. Although I was primarily raised here in Wisconsin, I left the Badger state at the age 14 to attend an east coast boarding school, followed by an undergraduate education in a liberal arts oasis nestled against the base of Pikes Peak. From there, I traveled the globe, lived in multiple foreign countries, and on both coasts of the U.S. before “returning home” to America’s Dairyland nine years ago. Mine was far from the traditional tale of the heartland. And it’s from that atypical perspective that I offer this thought….

Maybe we should really be promoting the “brain drain,” not fearing or fighting it. Yep, I said it. We should be encouraging the exodus of young, eager minds from what has been recently listed as one of the Top 5 places to live in the country.

“What?!?!” You say. “Have you lost your mind?”

Nope, I’m dead serious here. So, hear me out…..

Over the past decade (nearly), I have worked at and with numerous Madisonian companies. And there are some really good ones out there. But most are plagued with several real dysfunctions that could be addressed more easily by actually encouraging our university graduates to spread their wings outside of the Capitol city.

us-culture-midwestLet me paint you a fairly accurate and representative picture of midwestern companies…..No, let me start out by describing the typical midwesterner.

As a culture, the midwest is rather provincial, in that sort of quaint, comfortable kind of way. There’s a lot to be said for keeping things just as they are. But, yes, it’s provincial. Midwesterners are, compared to other highly visible areas of the country, such as NYC, somewhat slow-paced. Again, this is the charm that makes so many families happy to settle and raise kids in our heartland cities. It’s pretty safe. There’s much less open socioeconomic differentiation, far less than you experience on either coast. And then there’s the “niceness” of us midwesterners. Everyone’s friendly. More accurately, though, there’s an underlying passive aggressiveness that is often mistaken to be friendliness.

Okay, so that’s an overgeneralization of midwestern culture. But it’s not just the average midwestern citizen. It’s our organizations and companies. They also embrace a similar slow-paced, passive-agressive, provincialism that is not particularly well adept at either rapid change or innovation.  There’s a comfortable culture, but it’s not always a productive one.

bulb-437x300So, let’s go back to this idea of the “brain drain.” Ever wonder why most of the major universities rarely hire the researchers and doctors they produce? You know why that is? It’s the notion of cross-fertilization, both in sending out their “spawn” into the larger community and in bringing new ideas, traditions, cultures, and approaches into their academic halls. It’s a great way of propagating ideas in a way that provides an overall greater wealth of collaborative and innovative thinking.

Now, if we apply this same principal to the “brain drain” problem, it actually ceases to be a problem at all. In fact, it erases the “brain drain” and instead focuses on the larger challenge, in getting bright, eager, engaged, and experienced professionals who have developed in other companies, other cities, and other industries to come to our companies here in Madison.

“So, let’s just let our graduates flee to seemingly ‘greener pastures?’”

Yep, exactly. And you know why? First of all, let’s not ignore the fact that there is allure to the “big cities” that Madison will likely never have to those just finding their way in the work world.  That’s okay.  Let them get out.  Experience more.  See much.  Many of them will realize that when it comes their time to begin families, Madison is a pretty doggone great place to settle.

global_perspectivesAnd those who return will return more worldly, a little more direct, and a little more knowledgeable about how different people, cultures, and industries do things…things from product development to leadership to innovation. Because in an increasingly global business climate, I’m sorry, but those companies that are primarily filled with leadership that has grown up only in our midwestern company and culture will be ill-prepared to compete. And if they can’t compete, they certainly can’t attract top talent from outside the region to help them out of their current, outdated modes of solving problems.

Combatting the “brain drain” may succeed in retaining some of our top talent here in Madison, but at what cost. Continued provincial business practices? Continued economic decline?  Where we lose the “brain drain” is where our companies fail to be attractive to those currently residing outside of Madison.  Many of our best and brightest WILL want to return, but only if there is something of professional worth here.  And provincial people tend toward over-reliant “promote from within” HR and reward systems that place more benefit on loyalty (also a midwestern trait) than on potential impact.  So, in fact, even those who return are often disengaged by a lack of internal opportunity because they opted for the cross-fertilization career path.

Global_PerspectiveSo, let’s start viewing the “Brain Drain” through a more productive and realistic perspective…Instead of spending so much time trying to figure out how to ebb this “brain drain,” let’s set our sights on how to become more attractive to those who haven’t merely grown up here and stayed.  Let’s actively seek out those with other perspectives, from different cultures, and with different solutions to our organizations’ problems.  In the end, that’s the best solution to the intensifying challenges facing this fantastic city.

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