• February/March 2020
  • A PUBLICATION OF THE SIOUX FALLS AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

Community-focused leadership
Jeff Griffin becomes President & CEO of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

By Jennie Doyen
the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

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Jeff Griffin is a people person. He enjoys meeting and getting to know new people, and especially helping to create connections among people with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. He invests in others – encouraging respectful dialogue and fostering opportunities for others to grow.

A social worker by training, Griffin's heart for people makes him a natural fit for a leadership position in a community that highly values collaboration.

Griffin was named President & CEO of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce in late 2019, following a five-month nationwide search. He started in the role on January 20, 2020, assuming leadership of one of the most vibrant chambers of commerce in the country.

Searching for the right fit

The search for the Chamber's next President & CEO began in August 2019. The Board of Directors tasked Interim President Dr. Dave Kapaska with leading a search committee. They chose to retain Waverly Partners, LLC to conduct a nationwide search. Waverly is a professional recruiting firm that specializes in chamber searches and is the same firm that worked with the Chamber on its previous executive search.

"Waverly already had an understanding of who we are and what we needed in a leader, so they were able to move quickly into the recruitment phase," said Kapaska. "We felt that a national search was important due to the nature of this position. We wanted to cast a wide net to be sure we found the very best person to meet our needs."

The search committee was compromised of thirteen people representing various aspects of the Chamber and community partner organizations. According to Kapaska, it was important that the committee have robust representation of stakeholders. "In some ways perhaps, the committee was too large to be efficient, but it was an important reflection of the collaborative nature of our community."

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Board Chair Bobbi Thury, Legacy Law Firm, P.C., served on the search committee. She said the group began by identifying the top skills and characteristics they wanted in the new leader. Those included proven leadership experience, a collaborative approach, personnel development and constituent engagement.

"We have a strong team of staff, volunteers and engaged members. We needed a well-rounded leader – but the ability to build and support relationships was key," said Thury.

Kapaska agreed that the soft skills were a major focus during the candidate review phase. He noted, "A resume never tells the whole story. It is facts, but not the heart of a person. Personal skills are useful in all of the areas the chamber touches."

The committee also sought to create shared expectations with the candidates. "We have a complex structure of partnerships and organizations doing good work in Sioux Falls," Thury stated. "Most places don't have this level of collaboration and it was important that we help the candidates understand our system so that we could be sure to find a good fit for both parties."

Through a series of screenings and interviews, the pool of candidates was narrowed to six, then three finalists. "We had an incredible pool of candidates – from across the country and right in our backyard. The caliber of the people who were interested in this position is a testament to the quality of our Chamber and the attractiveness of our community," said Thury.

Through the interview process, the committee discovered that Griffin fit the profile they were looking for. Kapaska said, "Jeff is the type of person that works to serve – and that makes for an excellent leader."

Thury added, "When you listen to him talk about family and community, it is not just a job for him…he truly cares about the work he is doing."

The interviews made an impression on Griffin too. He described the interviews as energizing and noted how impressed he was with the engagement of the search committee. "There were 13 people on the search committee and all 13 of them showed up to interview me. That would not happen in many places," he said. "It speaks to the energy that I know chambers need in order to be successful."

Social work to chamber work

Griffin spent the first half of his career in the social work field – primarily working with at-risk youth in Texas, Nebraska and Ohio. He worked as a counselor, teacher and clinical therapist before moving into administrative roles for the Village Network in northern Ohio. In this position, he led more than 200 employees in youth treatment programs with locations in four cities.

Griffin describes his transition into chamber work as a happy accident. He had been serving on the Wooster City Council for four years when a colleague suggested that he apply for the vacant President position at the Wooster Area Chamber of Commerce. His first response was 'no.'

"It sounded like cool job, and I really enjoyed community service, but I was happy in my current position," Griffin said. He did not apply. A few weeks later he received a call asking if he could drop what he was doing and come to the chamber board meeting that was in progress. None of the candidates for the President position were a good fit, and the board asked Griffin to take the job. After a few days of consideration, he decided to accept.

A move from social work to chamber work might sound like a big shift, but Griffin says the two fields have a lot of similarities. "My master's degree focused on administration, and all those skills of nonprofit management that I had been using in my previous position – like budgeting, governance, etc. – were applicable to chamber leadership as well."

More valuable than the technical skills though, was his training in and understanding of human behavior. Griffin points out that group dynamics are a factor in every line of work. "In the business world, if you have a good committee, you will have diversity of thought. Letting ideas play out, showing respect for each other and working through to find solutions – that is social work at its core."

Griffin spent four years leading the Wooster Area Chamber of Commerce, an 800+ member chamber in Wayne County, Ohio whose economy includes auto parts manufacturing, higher education, health care and agriculture. Wayne County is the number one dairy county in Ohio, so farming and the ag supply chain was a very important piece of the economy there. Griffin said, "Farmers have a unique solidarity in how they do their work and advance their mission. It is energizing to me. They work seven days a week and still advocate for policy that impacts their industry."

In 2014, Griffin and his family moved to Peoria, Illinois to lead the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. Major industries around Peoria include agriculture, health care, service businesses and manufacturing. Caterpillar had their world headquarters in the city until late 2017.

The Peoria chamber was in the midst of major changes, which included the restructuring of six community development organizations. Chamber membership had been in decline and the financial situation was worrisome. Griffin rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Under his leadership, membership in the chamber doubled and the finances turned around. The efforts of Griffin and his team resulted in the Peoria Area Chamber being named the Illinois Chamber of the Year in 2016.

Kapaska points to this turnaround as an example of the type of leader he expects Griffin will continue to be in Sioux Falls. "He is a boots-on-the-street kind of guy. He knows how to listen and respond to members. His success in Peoria demonstrates his ability to bring people together for a common goal."

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A community-first approach

Despite all his success in Peoria, Griffin acknowledges that Sioux Falls offers something that Peoria couldn't – a pattern of economic growth rather than decline. "When Waverly Partners first contacted me about the President & CEO position, Sioux Falls was not on my radar," said Griffin. "The more I learned about the pro-business policies here, and how aggressive the city and state are about attracting people and businesses, the more attractive this position became."

The culture of collaboration that exists in Sioux Falls was also appealing. Griffin says the rewarding part of his work is facilitating connections and seeing what can result when people come together for a common interest. "There is a saying that 'when you've seen one chamber of commerce, you've seen one chamber of commerce.' The personality of a community should be reflected in the Chamber and the Chamber should meet the needs of its community."

Griffin said one of his primary goals for his first months on the job is to meet as many people as possible. "It is very important that I first listen and learn. Nothing is broken here, so I want to see where I can best use my skills and help elevate what is already in place."

Thury and other members of the Board of Directors intend to help Griffin in that goal. Thury said, "Relationships are more important than any task. Our job will be to help make the connections and help him understand our community more deeply."

Progress always involves change, and the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce is constantly adapting and changing to meet the needs of a growing community. Griffin is stepping into leadership of a chamber strong programs, active volunteers and engaged members.

"Jeff's experience and fresh perspective can help us take our Chamber to the next level," stated Thury. "He is a genuine and steady leader who does not need the spotlight but seeks to shine it on others."

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