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You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet

By Vaughan Winiata, VFormation.

The small business community by value is around 28 percent of our GDP and employs over 600,000 people, and is economically, environmentally, and societally an integral part of our daily lives.

And, 28 percent on any day of the week is a significant chunk of our economy, so it therefore beggars belief that the sector is without effective leadership, direction, or a voice with local and central governments.

You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet and that is exactly what happens when there is no leadership, and where there is no leadership there is no progress.

Occasionally, the uncertain trumpet has been blown, however it has never commanded much of an audience. Progress occurs when courageous leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better and also bring both chorus and cohesion to a community – that is a trumpet worth blowing.

And this is exactly the crossroads the Small Business sector has finally arrived at.

The historic lack of small business leadership is no fault of the Government, far from it. Our current Minister for Small Business Stuart Nash has achieved more than any previous minister when it comes to supporting the small business community.

In 2018 Minister Nash appointed a 12 member Small Business Council (SBC) for a fixed period of one year to provide advice to him.

One outcome of the one-year secondment was the NZ Small Business Strategy, a 28-page report comprising 20 recommendations submitted to the minister in June 2019. Those of you hanging out for some riveting bedtime reading will find a copy of the report parked up on the MBIE website. If you can’t find it, email me and I’ll send you a copy.

While the report met its brief, what it failed to do was confront the real elephant in the room, that being a total absence of sector leadership. Without leadership the strategic plan had not so much as put the cart before the horse, but created a cart with no horse at all.

Fast forward from June 2019 and the SBC Report to October 2020, thanks to the pandemic the Small Business world is now a completely different place to the one the SBC Report was originally written for.

These past seven months have seen our Government resort to Plan-B and inject massive levels of support into the economic engine, much of it targeting the small business sector. The use of the word inject is apt, as if in a doctor role the Government has tried to figure out ways to help a patient being the small business community, and a patient that has proven to be a very poor communicator.

When it comes to describing its symptoms to our Government the small business community wouldn’t know if it had a nasty rash or constipation. Being unable to articulate ourselves as a sector has proven costly with much of the government-supplied ‘medication’ yielding hit-and-miss results. Politicians are not mind-readers and the SME sector must improve its ability to communicate the big issues and have the hard discussions, clearly.

OK, so by now you will be getting the picture. The small business sector is a community that lacks leadership with true gravitas, so what next?

In early August seven political parties (Labour, National, NZ First, Greens, ACT, TOP and Maori) were asked to answer the same question: “Will you support the establishment of an SME Leadership Panel for effective two-way communication between Government and the coalface of the small business community (SBC)?”

That single question drew a unanimously positive response from all political parties. All agreed that the SBC needed a leadership panel that would comprise an accurate representation of the SME sector coalface. Regardless of the distraction of an election year and all that goes with it, the good news for the Small Business community is that all have committed to support a Leadership Panel.

While it’s realistic to believe that post-election we will see the creation of a Small Business Leadership Panel, it’s very important to clarify that the creation of such a Panel would not cut across the respective roles of existing membership organisations. These organisations, such as the thirty regional Chambers of Commerce, the EMA, BusinessNZ, and local Business Associations all provide leadership to their members. They will play a key role in the success of a new ubiquitous SME Leadership panel.

For the wider Small Business sector, historically, the incumbent organisations be it sector or region have acted as unintended sources of fragmentation, that’s not a criticism, it’s a fact. First and foremost they all get out of bed to serve their own mandates as they should do. An overarching Leadership Panel completes that picture through serving as an enabler of cohesion that weaves together these respective ‘Small Business Iwi’.

The SME Leadership Panel will establish real gravitas between the coalface of the Small Business Community and that part of the Government where policy-making decisions are made. It is a gravitas that has not existed before now but to become reality the sector must be forthcoming about fostering a productive bi-directional relationship with Government. The Government can support the idea of SME Leadership but the Small Business community itself will be ultimately responsible for its success.

I return to the line ‘you can’t blow an uncertain trumpet’ and in that regard, the Small Business sector must bring an end to bombarding our governments with mixed messages.

No one, let alone a politician will pay too much attention to messages that are out of tune and not in chorus. The Small Business Leadership Panel spells the end of the days of a sector that has somehow functioned without leadership, direction, or a voice with local and central governments that is effective.

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