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Alaska Native Leadership

Melding a rich past to a bright future


The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that created twelve regional Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) and encouraged numerous tribal corporations was the beginning of a journey of socioeconomic independence that is still underway today. It is quite remarkable and heartening to see the success of these Alaska corporations given the relatively short amount of time they have been in existence and the struggles they have endured. Some have benefitted from the Small Business Administration’s 8a Business Development Program (no bid government contracting).

Unlike many non-Native for-profit organizations, most ANCs also have the social well-being of their people as a core mission. Most other corporations do not include the social well-being of shareholders in mission statements. The cultural values that are at the core of many Alaska Native Corporations and the way in which they grow their own leaders might be lessons for us all.

ANCs and tribal businesses have had to find the difficult balance of being able to walk in two worlds. The first is coming to terms with the deep cultural definitions of who they are as Alaska Native people and staying connected to that in a rapidly changing world. The second is learning and embracing Western business practices. This was difficult at first, with many failures and some groups still struggling today. However, when cultural values were truly incorporated as the basis for sound business decisions, then dramatic change began to occur. The organizations that have embedded value-based decision-making within their organizations that are based on traditional cultural values might even have an advantage over others that have not.


Value-Based Decisions

Values determine our daily decisions in business and in life, and Alaska Native values are derived from thousands of years of living together and surviving some of the harshest climates of the world—they are of necessity a code for living and working together for a common good. When they are applied in a corporate culture appropriately they can have a cohesive effect. Many of the cultural values include loyalty to family and culture, sharing and cooperation, learning and acquiring knowledge, and quality of life. The emphasis is on the whole group as family versus the individualistic “get and make as much as you can” mentality of the Western business model.

There are dozens of books and business gurus that preach that business success is tied to corporate culture and the values that drive it. When ANCs meld their cultural values with business savvy it is a potent recipe. When these blended approaches are applied in a corporate setting they go a long way in creating a unified culture of success. This is not to say that ANCs are brilliantly successful solely because of these cultural values. But their value-based decisions are a key ingredient to their long-term success. Today’s leaders must be competent in both cultural and business matters, which is not always easy to do.


Embracing the Need

The future is exciting for ANCs and tribal groups as they incorporate their rich cultural history and astute business practices. We hear again and again that the battle for recruiting and retaining talented people will be the defining factor in the future success of all businesses big and small. This becomes more and more apparent with so many boomers phasing out of the workforce. Businesses are left with a shrinking population to fill the diminishing ranks, especially in professional positions. The up-and-coming talent entering the market seeks healthy balanced workplaces for a better quality of life instead of the workaholic values of their predecessors.

ANCs are addressing these issues with foundational scholarships and educational supports for their shareholders and by “growing their own” professionals. Some ANCs have developed cutting-edge leadership development programs—like Doyon, Limited’s Doyon Leadership Training and Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s Training Without Walls—that are open to shareholders. In addition, other organizations are embracing the need to develop and support strong Alaska Native leaders. The First Alaskans Institute’s Emerging Leaders Forum and the Alaska Native Professional Association are but two with superb programs that are developing, networking, and supporting these up-and-coming leaders.

All of these programs emphasize the personal and interpersonal skills as well as the business competence that is essential for Western business success. As Alaska Native cultural values are realized within the Alaska Native world, their strength and accomplishments will continue to grow.


Kevin M. Dee has a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University and is the president of KMD Services & Consulting. He has more than twenty-eight years of experience providing leadership development, organizational development, and human resources services in Alaska and internationally. Contact him at mail@kmdconsulting.biz.

This first appeared in the September 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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