Dean Barber

The Answers Have to Be Yours

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on May 1, 2016 at 12:22 pm

The company had reached out to me, and I was scheduled to have a conference call with the CEO. As a consultant, that’s music to my ears.

Not wanting to go into the conversation cold. I had to bone up for the call. Reading the company’s website helped, as did some recent news stories about its activities.

It turned out this was a real estate development company that specialized in specific types of industrial properties. But why did this CEO want to talk to me?

Relying on an Old Trick

Ten minutes before the scheduled call, I pulled out a notepad and wrote this at the top of the page:

“Who, what, when, where, how, why and why not?”

This was an old trick or habit from my newspaper days. You get answers to these questions and chances are that you are going to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

And worked it to the extent that I came away from the conversation knowing what CEO wanted. I’m still ruminating on whether I will be able help in a meaningful way.

I Still Interview

I’ve been out of the newspaper world for 20 years, but I frequently interview people in my role as a consultant. I do this simply to figure out what is going on and how I can possibly be of help.

After all, that’s what I am supposed to do as a consultant – help.

Whether it is a corporate site selection project — helping a company find an optimal location for future operations — or an economic development consulting project — helping a community with direction and focus – I am going to ask a lot of questions.

Probably the biggest compliment I have received of late was when another consultant who I was partnered with on a project said, sort of in awe, “Wow, Dean, people tell you stuff.”

To which I replied, “Yes they do.”

I’m on Their Side

And the reason they do is that I ask questions in a non-threatening, conversational manner. I want them to know that I’m on their side. I want to get their take, their input, so that I can be of help.

On a corporate site search, having a deep understanding of why senior management wants to expand to a new location is critical,  as is determining what is the most important criteria for a best possible location. It’s not the same for every company.

For me to develop that deep understanding and ultimately serve the company well, I have to interview senior management to learn the hows and whys of the project.

The same goes with communities. When we do a strategic/action plan for an economic development group, more often than not, we will do a SWOT analysis in which we come to a community and interview stakeholders, all off the record.

Trust is Paramount

That means nobody will be quoted. We just want to get a better understanding of the place, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This will be the foundation from which we will build upon.

Not surprisingly, trust is paramount. I learned a long time ago as a reporter that people won’t talk to you if they think you might burn them. You have to protect your sources.

Off the record or not for attribution means we may use something you tell us, but nobody is going to know what you told us. We’re not quoting anybody for purposes of our report.

Conflicting Opinions are Good

When we interview senior managers for a corporate location analysis project, we often get different takes on why the expansion should happen and what are the most important factors are to be considered.

But that’s Ok. That gives us a greater breadth of understanding the company’s needs.

The same holds true for communities. We expect conflicting ideas and opinions. If everybody said the same thing, I would start to wonder if the people we were talking to were scripted and for what reason.

If we ask the right questions of the right people, a bigger picture will emerge and a plan can evolve.

I Can Only Ask

Management consultant and business visionary. Peter F. Drucker, once said:  “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. I can only ask questions. The answers have to be yours.”

Sometimes, with permission, I will record interviews. And sometimes I will get very angry with myself in listening to the recordings.

I’ll catch myself cutting somebody off when they were elaborating on an answer that would be very useful. Or I will miss asking an obvious follow-up question that was staring me in the face.

“Dean, you friggin’ idiot,” I may say out loud, upon listening to the recording.

You don’t have to be a former journalist to interview people. Just write the “five W’s and one H” at the top of your note-taking page — “who, what, when, where, how, why and why not? (That’s actually six W’s.) – and go for it.

The good part is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. Also, the people you are interviewing don’t need to think of it as an interview, but rather a conversation, which takes the pressure off everyone.

You are seeking their thoughts, getting their take, and people are often flattered by that.  Oh, tell me, wise one, what is the true meaning of life?

Love and chocolate, my son. Now go in peace.

A Quick Study on Drones

This coming week I will be in New Orleans attending XPONENTIAL 2016, a trade show put on by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which is committed to fostering, developing, and promoting unmanned systems and robotics technologies.

I expect much of the focus, although not all, will be on unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft with no pilot on board. We commonly refer to them as drones.

So I hope to become a quick study on drones. This is a relatively new industry that is causing disruption, consternation, and a great opening of new possibilities, which means it is a pretty fluid and exciting time.

We think of drones as a relatively recent phenomenon used by our military to watch and take out jihadists. But during the Civil War, both confederate and union forces used balloons for reconnaissance, having that eye in the sky.

New Rules for a New Industry

But with anything new, there is a bit of a fumbling around, with mistakes, growing pains, and regulatory concerns.

The Federal Aviation Administration is moving forward on a plan to integrate small, commercial drones into the National Airspace System, as the industry needs a clear set of rules to begin capturing the untapped opportunities presented by this innovative technology.

Industry analysts say unmanned aerial systems could create $13.6 billion in economic value and 70,000 new jobs within the first three years after this plan comes to fruition.

The Possibilities Seem Almost Endless

On April 20, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation filed comments with the FAA urging agency to adopt a regulatory framework that encourages commercial applications and bolsters U.S. competitiveness with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. In its conclusion, ITIF said this:

“With this technology, energy companies, construction companies, and government transportation departments will be able to inspect their infrastructure without endangering workers. Search and-rescue operations will be able to cover more ground and potentially save more lives.

“Artists, photographers, and cinematographers will be able to enhance their art by capturing high-quality photos and film with low-cost alternatives to helicopters. Journalists will be able to use UAS technologies to better cover disasters, weather, sports, and the environment.

“Farmers will be able to use drones to improve their efficiency, monitor their livestock, protect their crops, and cut their costs. Retailers will be able to deliver goods to consumers faster and more efficiently. There could be vast improvement to Americans’ daily lives if this technology is interwoven into society—including cost savings, innovative services, and more jobs.”

Wow, the possibilities seem almost endless, which makes for a pretty exciting landscape. If you are in New Orleans this coming week, feel free to look me up.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at or at 972-890-3733.

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