First-year mayors find executive training comes at the right time
A new mayor’s first job, Mike Bloomberg likes to say, is to build a team. And that, much to the dismay of the media, is how he spent his first 100 days after taking office in New York City in 2002.
“The press wants to write the ‘100-day story’,” Bloomberg says. “They asked: ‘What’d you do in the first 100 days?’ And I said, ‘I built my team.’ And they responded, ‘Yes, but what legislation did you pass? What did you accomplish?’ And I said, ‘I built my team.’ They never got the concept.”
Bloomberg told that story to the 40 mayors gathered this week for the kick-off of a yearlong executive training program designed specifically for them — the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. And the anecdote hit home, in part because almost half of this year’s participating mayors are in their first year of office.
“I’ve spent a massive amount of time building my team,” said Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin, who took office last November. “I’m stealing talent from universities, the private sector, and other cities because, as mayor, I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. I want to be surrounded by smarter people — people who have their own vision and, most importantly, the ability to execute.”
Building and nurturing strong teams is a big part of the curriculum of the Bloomberg Harvard program, a partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Harvard Business School and Kennedy School of Government. In classroom conversations rooted in case studies of success and failure, discussions with urban practitioners, and bonding with their peers, mayors debunked the myth that they as leaders must have all the answers. And they embraced the idea that learning and leaning on others are keys to effective leadership.
“These are things mayors typically just have to figure out on the job,” said James Anderson, head of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation programs. “Bringing them together — learning and sharing together with instruction from Harvard — helps them get up to speed even faster so they can deliver the best possible results for residents and their communities.”
A session not on teams but “teaming” caught the attention of Joyce Craig, who became mayor of Manchester, N.H., in January. She already knew the power of pulling together teams from different departments and sectors to focus on a shared concern; that’s how, early in her tenure, she responded to the bankruptcy of a drug treatment center critical to addressing Manchester’s opioid epidemic. “But this week’s work opened my eyes to the opportunity to use this strategy to address other issues in our city,” Craig explained.
Sessions this week also focused on the roles risk taking and experimentation play in fostering innovation — and how to overcome resistance to them in an environment where media and other critics are ready to pounce on any misstep. Mayors discussed the meaning of “intelligent failure,” and how learning quickly from thoughtful experiments can actually reduce risk, save money, and create stronger policies and programs. “I love the idea that you can do these small tries, and that that’s how governments innovate,” said Durham, N.C., Mayor Steve Schewel.
Andy Schor, the new mayor of Lansing, Mich., described another kind of risk aversion he faces in city hall — hearing that things are “done that way” because “they’ve always been done that way.” His remedy works like a “swear jar” some people use to discourage cursing. “Whenever I hear this I say, ‘Put $5 in the jar’.”
There’s not actually a jar. But the very idea of it has been a lighthearted way to change the conversation and empower people in City Hall to think differently. “We want to know why things really are that way,” Schor said. “Why is this parking lot not being used? Why are we charging for this? Why aren’t we charging for that? If there isn’t an answer, we need to make new decisions.”
Communication is another critical tool for local government leaders, which is why mayors also spent a day learning how to be more effective storytellers and how, by being more open in conversation, they can better connect with residents.
“The art of storytelling is so easy when you’re a candidate,” Woodfin said. “It’s authentic, it’s raw, you’re out there. Then all of a sudden you get into office, and it’s easy to forget that. You’re worried about solving the problems, so it’s all about numbers and statistics, and you analyze things and you just want to solve it.
“We can’t forget that we’re solving problems for people — and that there are stories behind why we’re doing it,” he continued. “That story is your personal story. It’s the story of the people you represent. And it’s the story of your city, that this is your moment in time.”
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Effective communication also requires active listening — another skill the mayors honed with each other. It’s a skill that Topeka, Kan., Mayor Michelle De La Isla has been practicing in her city thanks to a crisis that occurred before she was even elected. Last September, Topeka police shot and killed a young man named Dominique White. Many in the community had questions, and they looked to De La Isla for answers long before her swearing-in ceremony in January.
As protesters turned up at city council meetings, De La Isla, Topeka’s first Hispanic mayor, turned to listening. “We wanted to understand the pain and acknowledge that there was a problem,” she said. “Our whole community is not 100 percent happy, but there is now a sense that we care.”
This week, De La Isla said she was especially struck by a case study of the 2010 rescue of 33 Chilean miners. The case explores simultaneous acts of leadership — both above ground among the political and corporate leaders and the technical experts assembled for the rescue, as well as below ground among the miners, whose solidarity was reflected in the name they chose for themselves: “The 33 Musketeers.”
As a mayor reading this case study, De La Isla said she identified first with the role of Chile’s president. He’s the one who set the ambitious goal of getting the miners out “dead or alive” and motivated the people doing the actual rescue work over many weeks. But then, on reflection, she also identified with the miners.
“In the story, those miners call themselves the 33 Musketeers, and use each other as a resource,” she said. “That’s us mayors in the Bloomberg Harvard program. We’re the 40 Musketeers, and we have each other to lean on for advice as we’re navigating all these wicked challenges in our communities.”
Melvin Carter, the new mayor of St. Paul, Minn., also valued the camaraderie of embarking on a learning journey with other mayors. “At home, you’re always the mayor — your name becomes ‘Mayor,’ he said.
“But in this space, I’m just one of the mayors, which is a whole different thing. Having this cohort, this fraternity that’s already emerging among this group — just having people who are like, ‘call me any time any day if you want to bounce something off me’ — is incredible.”