As far as big meetings go, the Mackinac Policy Conference at the Grand Hotel is the McDonald’s of schmoozing, the Walmart of shoulder bumping, the Jay Z of networking.
But the big criticisms you hear from outside Mackinac Island are these: Why is the conference held at a remote location and what really gets done there? Let’s face facts: The location likely will never change, and there is no real way to judge the value of the connections made here in terms of data.
But this I know is true: Despite its overwhelming size, huge crowds and constant schedule, plenty of significant conversations happened at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Most of the people were on point, attending sessions, talking up their businesses or jobs and working the room to find that moment that made it all worth it. Most people were in on this thing, seeking knowledge, seeking the tough conversations, hoping for answers. Most people were genuine and wanted a return on their investment. Most people had aspirations – for themselves, for their work, for the state.
Let’s call this a mid-term report of some things observed during the three days of the Mackinac Policy Conference. We all probably need a good nap, a detox for a variety of reasons and a few days to truly absorb what occurred here. But here’s a start:
• The lessons taught by the speakers, especially the keynotes, were significant. Nate Silver reminded all of us that politics is predictable, polls are nuts and all of this data crunching can make you insane. Doris Kearns Goodwin taught us that leadership, especially in this modern world, is a messy, crazy business that is not for the faint of heart. Mellody Hobson taught us that Millennials want to blend their values with a company’s culture, and that you cannot just burn out this desire if you truly want to see the world become a better place.
• Big conversations about hard topics actually can generate change. Just sit down with any group of Conference attendees who went to the “Two Detroits” town hall or sat in on the race discussion moderated by Stephen Henderson, and I guarantee that you will have one of the best, most honest and raw discussions about racism, Detroit versus the suburbs and jobs that you’ll ever have. Yes, these conversations needed more diversity. Yes, the audiences were sadly only slightly mixed in terms of gender and race within those spaces. Yes, there needs to be actionable “To Do” lists created from those moments. It’s not enough to Tweet good ideas; people need to take up that mantle and run with them.
• Schmoozing on Mackinac Island is amazing. You need to work the room. You need to be fearless. You need to find connections, whether it is through talking about your kids or your pets. Finding out what bonds us is something that is hard to do day to day; we have jobs and responsibilities that don’t allow for a lot of this. But when you’re trapped in a hotel on a very small Island, suddenly chatting up the guy or gal next to you doesn’t seem so bad. I got to know people here that I either only knew on Facebook or was to “shy” to approach in real life. And they talked back to me. We shared more than words; it was a common experience of getting information from one another that we can use later in all the best, most productive ways.
• There is nothing wrong with embracing change, and perhaps the blowback the Detroit Regional Chamber received from critics for having the event on the Island or having two white guys host the “Two Detroits” conversation taught us that. Maybe, even, we needed those two white guys who are super popular to these Conference goers, have the conversation to get some of the people here in that room and hear the good, the bad and the ugly. But it also wouldn’t have hurt to have seen one person of color up on stage. It’s all ok, and messy conversations are just as good as perfect ones. In fact, for the most part, messy is more memorable and can be just a remarkable.
• Finally, at least for this blog post, it’s important to have this conversation on an Island. I’m sorry it’s expensive to stay on the Island. I know the ticket price is huge. But this Michigan State University student who wants to be President of the United States got here. He did it with a crowdfunding campaign and other funds. He did it. He got here. There are no excuses not to be part of this crowd. Mackinac Island is the kind of location where you have to sit back, take stock of the beautiful surroundings, remember that you have no real way to get out of here once the ferries take off and you have to confront people and their issues. You’re trapped in the very best possible way. And when you gain the knowledge from the people and speakers like you should (and don’t sneak off to buy taffy or sit on the porch when important issues are debated) then you walk away with real ideas that can turn into action.
Also, I’d love to see people who normally sit in ivory towers make an effort to talk to people on the fringes. Forget about what your business card says; you’re not all that. Reach out. Be curious. Bring an introvert in to your conversation if you seen them on the fringes. Be fearless in your naked desire to get to know everyone in the room. Don’t act important. Be humble. Be normal.
Will there be action? What will happen in the next 12 months? How will we as a real public notice the effect of the Mackinac Policy Conference? I don’t know those answers. But I really hope I find some because people make an effort to show us all how they used these days, how they created change. They need to shout it out. They need to prove its worth. They need to step up their game and make the Mackinac Policy Conference the spark for something real and substantial. We can all hope.