When the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative launched last year, it was with the aim of providing mayors and members of their leadership teams an unprecedented shot at public sector-focused executive training. Thirteen months later, 240 leaders from 80 cities in 14 countries have participated. As the latest class of 80 senior leaders heads home after an intensive week of workshops, we’ve compiled some of the leadership lessons they’re taking with them.
Engage with those tackling similar challenges
This week’s sessions were led by some of Harvard University’s greatest minds. But many of the best insights came from the 80 senior leaders themselves, who — collectively — share more than 700 years of real-world city hall experience. Surveys conducted prior to the convening showed that these 80 also share the same top concerns and opportunities in those city halls (affordable housing, transportation and infrastructure, and citizen engagement topped the list). By coming together, they were reminded that innovation doesn’t always have to start from scratch. Sometimes the best first step is to tap into a network of experienced leaders working on similar issues.
Adopt a shared language of innovation
One aim of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is to help mayors create a culture of innovation in their city halls. That’s why the program asks each of the 40 participating mayors to select two senior members of their administration to also go through the program. That way, they all understand the same concepts and frameworks — or “language” — and can work together to drive organizational change. When one of them talks about a focus area to advance city hall — be it bold leadership, data-driven management, citizen engagement, or experimentation — everyone’s on the same page. (You can help drive adoption of this shared language by subscribing to the Bloomberg Cities Spark newsletter and encouraging your colleagues to do the same.)
Don’t go at it alone
Mayors are CEOs of their cities, but they too often don’t have the mandate, the resources, or the institutional know-how to deliver the changes their jobs demand. Many issues — whether it’s education, climate change, homelessness, or any of countless others — require collaboration with the business community, the nonprofit sector, universities, philanthropy, neighborhood groups, and more. This week’s sessions focused on some of the requirements of effective cross-sector collaboration, including: demonstrating to staff the benefit of “going it together” rather than “going it alone;” being open-minded and flexible when it comes to others’ ideas and priorities; and creating an organizational structure that is conducive to partnerships.
Collaborate to solve for the seemingly insurmountable
Today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — or VUCA — world means public officials are increasingly faced with unprecedented and seemingly insurmountable challenges. This week, senior leaders studied the case of the 2010 Chilean mining disaster and how “teaming” — the process of collaboration between experts from different departments and sectors to innovate and problem-solve — resulted in the successful rescue of 33 miners after 69 days underground. While an extreme example, the Chilean case demonstrated how the core components of teaming — including a clear and adaptable vision, collaboration, and the room to take and learn from risks — can help public officials solve for what, at first, might seem impossible.
Upskill city hall
As Michael R. Bloomberg, a three-term mayor of New York City, welcomed the 80 senior staffers to the Bloomberg Harvard Leadership Initiative earlier this week, he described the focus of his first few months in city hall. “The press asked: ‘What did you do in the first 100 days?’ And I said, ‘I built my team.’ And they responded, ‘Yes, but what legislation did you pass?’ And I said, ‘I built my team’.” Once the right team is in place, a next priority should be to invest in the creative capacity of that team, including its ability to understand and analyze what’s happening, to ideate and come up with new and better solutions, and to test, learn from, and then adapt those solutions as needed. As James Anderson, head of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation programs, explained earlier this year, “In a world where collaboration, network governance, engagement, data and openness are the new currencies of the realm…that creative capacity moves to the center.”
Negotiate from a new perspective
City leaders need to know how to negotiate — to move people, to convince them to see things from a new perspective, and, sometimes, to help them to concede. One of the best ways to ensure successful negotiations is to shift your thinking at the outset, approaching the exchange as a collaboration rather than a winner-takes-all moment. Is the other party an adversary or someone who can help you solve a problem? The answer to that question can make all the difference. Rather than jockeying for position and rushing to resolution, take the time to know everyone’s interest. Doing so ensures you’ll walk out knowing — and often achieving — the best option for all.
Leaders often expect themselves to have all the answers and, as a result, fear showing weakness. But one of the best ways to help people understand where you’re coming from is to be open about fears and vulnerabilities and, at the same time, clear about how they can be overcome. Doing so also provides an invaluable opportunity to boost others on your team by highlighting how their strengths and experiences can help you fill in your personal gaps.
Minimize risk by taking one
When city leaders want to create a new program, service, or initiative, they face a lot of uncertainties: Will it work? Is there public demand? Can we meet expectations? These risks — technical, operational, financial, political — are similar to what entrepreneurs face when launching a new product. Taking a cue from companies like Dropbox and Rent the Runway, city leaders this week learned how to minimize uncertainty and risk through a series of experiments and prototypes to gauge the viability of an idea. They also studied how many cities are successfully putting this practice to work. For example, when Mexico City wanted to map its transit systems, there was potential for a very public — and very costly — failure. To minimize risk, the city conducted several small tests to see if it was possible to crowdsource public transportation data. It was. They then tested to see if volunteers would use apps to provide data. They did. At each stage, the team learned valuable information and successfully mapped 43 percent of the city’s massive transit system — including 648 route maps covering 51,000 kilometers.