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Keeping things fresh: How incubator managers stick with demanding jobs

by Carin Yavorcik

June 2007

If you ask an incubator manager what he or she likes best about the job, the individual will almost always mention a love of working with entrepreneurs and the satisfaction of helping clients reach their goals. Even managers who have been on the job for a decade or more still say it’s what they find most stimulating.

But not every day is a success story. Job responsibilities can be overwhelming, unexpected roadblocks are frustrating, and there’s always the possibility of getting into a rut. How do incubation professionals meet these challenges and ultimately stick with their demanding jobs? We asked some NBIA members about their job challenges and how they dealt with them.

CHALLENGE: Making ends meet
SOLUTION: Think like Disney

Money is one of the most common worries in the world, and most incubator managers spend a lot of time focusing on the bottom line. According to Daring to Lead, a 2006 study of nonprofit executive leaders by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, there is growing “dissatisfaction, even anger, among executives about what it takes to finance nonprofit organizations. They express particular fatigue around institutional fundraising – both the logistics of the process and the influence that funders exert.”

During his six years as president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne, Ind., Karl LaPan has found funding his chief source of frustration. “A lot of funders don’t think of economic development as a charitable activity,” he says. “It’s hard to get people to say the best thing we can do is to make sure everybody has a job, or that they can start their own business.”

To deal with the challenge, he says you have to “think like Disney,” finding new attractions that make people want to get involved or be financially supportive.

For example, LaPan’s Innovation Center formed an International Center of Orthopaedic Research to develop new companies and encourage existing companies to expand into orthopaedics, with the goal of making the area a hub for orthopaedic company development. “This program attracted $150,000 of new funding annually for each of three years to focus on this important regional asset,” LaPan says.

CHALLENGE: Lack of local investment
SOLUTION: Develop a business culture

Access to investment capital is a challenge for all start-ups, but particularly for those in rural areas. For more than 20 years, Bruce Gjovig has led the Center for Innovation in Grand Forks, N.D., an area with relatively few local investors. But Gjovig says that looking harder for sources isn’t the answer. Instead, the Center for Innovation works to cultivate new sources of capital.

“In a rural state like North Dakota, you’re trying to change a culture, develop more entrepreneurship and cultivate a business climate,” he explains. “I’ve really enjoyed finding new ways to bring the angel investor community and entrepreneurs together.”

Gjovig and his colleagues coach potential local angels on topics such as sourcing deal flow, valuing ventures, managing portfolios and developing exit strategies. “Bringing the culture to a rural area has taken longer, but it really is very gratifying,” he says. “Over 300 potential angel investors have attended the seminars [over five years].” This educational campaign resulted in the formation of three angel funds in 2006 in North Dakota.

Gjovig says he continues to keep at it because he has a personal desire to leave a legacy of having built an entrepreneurial climate in North Dakota.

CHALLENGE: Job burnout
SOLUTION: Make a commitment

Sometimes, the challenges and frustrations of managing an incubator can be overwhelming. You may find yourself working all the time and forgetting the life you once had outside of the office.

Ira Chaleff, president of Executive Coaching and Consulting Associates in Kensington, Md., says that getting your work/life balance too far out of sync can cause burnout.

Chaleff suggests making some kind of commitment directly after work as a strategy to help leave the job behind at the end of the day. Whether it’s a family dinner or a volleyball game, he says, “it should be something you feel as much obligation to as getting the work done.”

Additionally, any form of recharging yourself can help, from a walk outdoors during lunch to a weeklong vacation away from the office.

“I’m a self-avowed workaholic, but sometimes you have to take a break, go to a sunny beach and read,” Gjovig says. “Charging my batteries really reminds me where my passion is.”

CHALLENGE: Getting in a rut
SOLUTION: Plug in

You don’t necessarily have to step away from the job to recharge yourself. Sometimes immersing yourself further into the industry and plugging in to the current of new ideas can rejuvenate.

Bonnie Herron has been executive director of Gwinnett Innovation Park (formerly the Intelligent Systems Incubator) in Norcross, Ga., for 17 years. She says attending incubation industry events helps her keep things fresh on the job. “Really, things like the [NBIA] listserv and going to conferences and training are hugely important in terms of re-energizing every year,” she says. “You always come back with two or three ideas that you can apply right away. The more you’re in the industry, the more important it is to continually hear what people are doing.”

After attending a session on business plan competitions at an NBIA conference, Herron and her colleagues decided to start their own, which is now in its second year. As a result of the competition, Herron says, “we get a lot of local press, which has brought us more awareness and increased the number of potential incubator clients.”

It doesn’t even have to be other incubators you’re surveying for new ideas. “We look for models in other industries that can be applied to core activities of incubation,” LaPan says. “We bring those best practices back and modify them into things we can do to make a difference.”

CHALLENGE: Wearing many hats
SOLUTION: Embrace it

Many incubator managers have other obligations within their organization, and the many responsibilities can cause extra stress.

“I’m being pulled in a lot of directions because I wear multiple hats,” explains Herron, who in addition to directing Gwinnett Innovation Park serves as chief financial officer of its parent company, Intelligent Systems. “Sometimes the CFO hat is not as much fun as interacting with entrepreneurs.”

Yet wearing many hats isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite the stress she sometimes feels, Herron says that one of the reasons she has ultimately stayed with Gwinnett for so long is the variety that comes with the job. The difficulties, she says, can be overcome. “You just have to prioritize and multitask different things – something I’ve been able to do over many years.”

An extra hat doesn’t even have to be within the incubator organization to help keep things interesting on the job. For example, LaPan teaches an MBA course at a local university.

“Teaching is a great way of imparting knowledge, making sure you’re at the top of your game,” he says. “You’re being asked great questions, [which] forces you to [continue] learning.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: Live in appreciation

Despite the challenges and frustrations, most incubator professionals say they love their jobs.

“As long as I’m being challenged and derive personal satisfaction from the work I do, as long as I feel like I’m making a difference, I’ll keep doing it,” LaPan says. “So much of this is what you make of it – I haven’t had a boring day in over six years. I feel ownership and the weight of finding new things to challenge the organization. If I didn’t feel those things I’d find something else.”

Though stress can build over time, Gjovig says he ultimately finds fulfillment by “living in appreciation.”

“I know there are challenges, but you keep your mind on the vision, the goal, doing as much as you can do,” he says. “I remember every day what I have to be appreciative for. We’re always short on resources, but we’re never typically short of opportunity or innovation. I really keep my batteries charged thinking about goodness and opportunities.”

Strategies for avoiding burnout

While troubles in your work/life balance often can lead to burnout, sometimes it’s life in the office itself that is causing stress. Ira Chaleff, president of Executive Coaching and Consulting Associates in Kensington, Md., offers two suggestions to keep sane while juggling responsibilities.

1. Batch your communications. Instead of answering e-mail intermittently all day, devote several chunks of time each day “to read and respond to the e-mail and get it out of the inbox,” Chaleff says. “The same goes for batching return phone calls. Set up one or two times a day to do all your return phone calls.”

2. Set an appointment with yourself. If you need to write a proposal, finish a report or submit a grant application, schedule an appointment with yourself to get the work done, just as you would if you were in a meeting with someone else. If you were in a meeting with a client, Chaleff says, “you wouldn’t be answering calls, letting people walk in and talk. If you schedule 90 minutes with a closed door, you’ll get through it much faster than if you allow yourself to be interrupted.”—CY

Keywords: leadership development, nonprofit management, professional development -- general, stress management, time management

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