October 17, 2013

Alan Caron: Maine could learn valuable lessons from resurgent Red Sox

To grow an entrepreneurial economy here, our state needs teamwork and a feeder system.

The Sox had a terrible year last year, finishing in last place. This year, they have confounded all of the experts by clawing their way to the final plateau before the World Series. They did that by executing a series of dramatic and unconventional changes, dumping some of their top players and their loudest and most divisive complainers. The result has been nothing short of miraculous.

I am anything but an indifferent observer of this year’s Sox. I love how committed they are to the game. How hard they work, both individually and as a team. I like that they’re oddballs, that they’ve grown long beards for the fun of it, and that they expect to win it all.

As we try to reinvent Maine’s economy, we could learn a lot from this team. Our challenges are similar to theirs. We’ve been in last place or close to it for far too long. The economic plans we’ve used haven’t worked. We need a big shake-up and a new approach to building the economy. More than anything, we need to begin to think and act like a Team Maine.

After their disastrous year, the Red Sox didn’t use up their energy complaining about the fields, or the umpires or the uniforms or the other guys. They went to work. They replaced the loud, self-absorbed “I’m-a-victim” players with “character” guys and dirt dogs who love to play as part of a team, get to work early and keep going to the last out.

They built a team out of players who look different, talk funny and have a full array of personalities. Those players don’t focus on what region they’re from, or which party or interest group they belong to. They focus on their shared goals, how they can support each other and how to win.

The second thing we could learn from the Sox resurgence is how to build talent. Talented major league players don’t just happen, they are the products of a “feeder” system that engages millions of kids on baseball diamonds in every community, producing talent at all levels and brilliance at the top.

That system starts with 5-year-olds hitting a ball on a tee and runs all the way through Little League, Babe Ruth, high school, college and all the rungs of professional play, in places from Portland to Pawtucket to Boston. At each level, players hone their individual and team skills, helped by caring volunteers, passionate coaches and supportive parents.

Let’s compare that with how we’re building the kind of entrepreneurial talent we need to position Maine in the new global economy. While we have plenty of emerging success stories in Maine, we’re not producing enough talent at the top. That isn’t because we don’t have talent here, but because we don’t have a feeder system to engage more kids and help entrepreneurs, young and old, to become tomorrow’s stars.

We don’t do much cheering for entrepreneurs. There is no entrepreneurial tee ball for elementary students, teaching them skills and teamwork and inspiring them to reach their fullest potential. No Babe Ruth, middle school or high school teams to speak of. At the college level, entrepreneurial offerings are scattered and weak.

When it comes to tomorrow’s budding entrepreneurs, our response seems to be: “Sorry, kids, go play in that uncut field and we’ll see how it works out.” Unlike sports, it’s all individual trial and error. Predictably, the few survive and move ahead, but not the many.

If we want to grow an “entrepreneurial economy” in Maine that can become a magnet for innovators from around the country, we’re going to need to build a robust feeder system that engages tens of thousands of young people and helps everyone move up a ladder of success. We’ll need a streamlined system of teachers, parents, mentors, programs and investors who are guiding entrepreneurs from grade school to micro-economic startups to midsize job-producers.

We’re also going to need to imagine an education system that is turning out fewer employees and more employers. Right now, too many people look at a classroom of second-graders and imagine that one or two might grow their own business in the future. We need to raise our expectations, and their aspirations, so that we see instead 10 or 20 kids with that potential.

Who would imagine we could learn so much by watching a group of misfit, scruffy, bearded guys playing baseball? I can’t wait to further my education during Thursday night’s game! Where’s the popcorn?

Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at:

alancaroninmaine@gmail.com

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