Mayors: How executive training helped me innovate in City Hall
Next week, 40 mayors from around the world will begin a yearlong professional-development program aimed at boosting their leadership skills. They’ll be the third class of mayors to participate in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a one-of-its-kind executive training program that brings together the expertise of Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Starting with a three-day convening in New York and continuing through a year of online classes and coaching, the mayors will analyze cases of public-sector success and failure, sharpen their negotiation skills, learn how to build and motivate effective teams and cross-sector collaborations, improve how they use data to make decisions and innovate, hone their public engagement skills, and much more.
As the new class begins its journey, Bloomberg Cities checked in with mayors from the first two classes to find out what lessons they’ve taken from the classroom back to their cities — and what impact has grown from those learnings. Here’s what they had to say.
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Advancing a vision for after-school programs for kids
Levar Stoney has pledged to create universal access to high-quality after-school programming in Richmond. It’s a deeply personal issue for him.
In 3rd grade, Stoney was invited to join an after-school social studies club but there were no bus options and his father, a high-school janitor, couldn’t take time off work to pick him up. Eventually, Stoney’s teacher arranged for another child’s parent to take him home, but the difficulty of it all was not lost on the future mayor. “Looking back, I can’t believe that my love for civics and social studies would have been limited because of transportation,” Stoney said. “Unfortunately, those are the barriers for a lot of kids facing poverty in my city.”
The goal of filling gaps in Richmond’s after-school programming isn’t new. But Stoney has used the convening power of the mayor’s office to create urgency around the issue and to rally schools, nonprofits, foundations, and other players around a shared vision. Through the Bloomberg Harvard program, he’s honed his leadership skills in managing complex cross-sector partnerships, and sent a team of eight partners to dive in even deeper at a training in New York.
The result is an after-school effort that appears more energized and unified than ever. Private dollars are flowing into the initiative and the partners have hired a full-time project manager to lead it. The city council added more than half a million dollars of new funding, including a grant to the city’s last middle school to have no on-site after-school program at all.
“Our goal has always been to ensure that this effort goes beyond my four years as mayor,” Stoney said. “It can’t be a Levar Stoney project, but a City of Richmond project to be sustainable for the long term.”
Building legitimacy around public policies and decisions
Mayor Kathy Sheehan has been doing a lot of thinking about problems from other people’s perspectives lately.
Take the city’s issues with vacant and substandard housing. The mayor and her staff are zeroing in on the human factors at play. Rather than demonize landlords, they’re talking with them to better understand the challenges they face in maintaining their properties. And, on the flip side, they’re engaging tenants to learn what, aside from cheap rent, leads some to live in shoddy homes. Are they afraid to speak up about bad living conditions?
One outcome of this dialogue is a Renters’ Bill of Rights, which city staff are now drafting, using a process of prototyping iterations with residents to get their input and feedback. (The latest version is here.) “It’s been fascinating to hear from people,” Sheehan said. “We assumed tenants knew a lot more about their rights than they do.”
The effort, Sheehan said, connects directly with one of her key takeaways from the Bloomberg Harvard program: The importance of building legitimacy around public policies and decisions.
“That really resonated with me,” she said. “Oftentimes, what we think we need to do is fix something — that there’s an operational issue and that, if we just had the right software program or process in place, we can fix it. But if you don’t build legitimacy and understanding and trust around what it is you’re doing — and why you’re doing it — you might end up investing in change but never seeing a result.”
Sheehan said she’s built that mindset into her regular meetings with department heads. And she stressed that outreach is just as important when changing something internally with City Hall staff as when making public-facing decisions residents and businesses can feel.
“The Bloomberg Harvard model really crystallized an approach for us: always looking at who we need alongside us when we’re trying to accomplish something — and being always mindful about how we engage them.”
Finding a collaboration model that clicks
Structuring senior staff meetings is a challenge in any organization, and Mayor Jorge Elorza found Providence City Hall is no exception. A weekly meeting with his entire senior leadership team had grown unruly; it never seemed possible to get the right people in the room at the right time to have the right conversation.
Elorza and his chief of staff finally found a formula that clicked. They’ve organized seven “cross-teams,” one for each of the mayor’s key priority areas. The teams include top staff from whatever city departments need to be coordinating in order to solve problems, spark new ideas, and make progress on key goals.
“We had a conversation during the Harvard session about how silos naturally grow in organizations,” Elorza said. “We have to apply an equally strong — if not greater — force to break down those silos. That’s where the idea of going to our cross-team structure came.”
To take one example, the Education and Learning cross-team includes people representing schools, parks and recreation, health, arts, and other units across government. The group focuses on different things at different times of the year. In springtime, they’ll look ahead to organizing summer learning opportunities when school is out. In summer, they’ll focus on school operations and facilities to make sure buildings are ready to open when students return. Children in Providence are eating better as a result of these meetings, which have cleared the way to a summer lunch program that now serves more than 120,000 meals in recreation centers, and a parallel effort to feed kids on snow days in winter.
Elorza took away other ideas from the Bloomberg Harvard program related to his senior staff. One was the value of professional development: He’s invested in leadership coaching and 360-degree reviews. Another came from a case study from the curriculum detailing how various leaders in Chile responded to a 2010 coal mine collapse that trapped 33 men underground for two months. All of them got out alive.
“Every one of the president’s advisers told him not to get involved, that it would be an embarrassment if it didn’t work, but he overrode them and said it’s the right thing to do to save the miners,” Elorza recalled. “When I came back, I had a conversation with my entire senior staff. We spoke about why I ran for office, and why they’re in public service. And I made it clear that my expectation of them is that they would challenge me in a situation like that to do the right thing even when the political risks are great. I think the team appreciated that. It was a license I reaffirmed for them that we’re mission-driven in this work, and our sole charge is to do right by residents.”
‘The data spoke for itself’
When Cheyenne Frontier Days kicks off next week, more than 100,000 people will pack this Wyoming city of 60,000 for 10 days of rodeos, art, and performances by Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and more.
They’ll also have more police protection than ever before in the history of the 123-year-old event, and Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr credits data-driven decision making for the safety-conscious change.
Orr said the city’s police chief has for years been concerned about understaffing at the event — particularly the nighttime concerts, which each attract as many as 20,000 people. Yet whenever she or one of her predecessors asked event organizers to pay for additional officers, they balked.
This year, Orr came prepared with data — specifically, research on police staffing at similar-sized events in Denver and Calgary, as well as industry standards. Where other cities typically have one police officer on duty for every 500 attendees, Cheyenne had just one for every 1,700. “The data spoke for itself,” Orr said, especially when you consider heightened security concerns in the wake of the 2017 concert shooting in Las Vegas.
Faced with the data, event organizers agreed to pay half of the $100,000 cost to bring on an additional 10 officers this year — and 100 percent of the expense in the future. “After the meeting, my police chief texted me to say it was the best day of his more than 30 years in law enforcement,” Orr said.
“Michael Bloomberg always says, ‘In God we trust, everyone else bring data’,” Orr continued. “I use that with my staff now. If they want additional funding or manpower, show me the reason. We’re really building a culture around the ‘why’ behind any ask.”
A new dynamic between government and residents
Last year, Saskatoon’s plan to bring “bus-rapid transit” service downtown was in trouble. Residents and business owners were concerned about how bus-only lanes would change the character of a busy shopping street — and they were vocal in their opposition. Worried that the city would lose federal and provincial funding if the plan failed, Mayor Charlie Clark’s administration decided to wait a year before bringing it to city council.
During that time, Clark started the Bloomberg Harvard program. He was particularly struck by how the Kennedy School’s Archon Fung described in general terms the very dynamic Clark was experiencing back home. Saskatoon’s bus plan, he could see, had become a classic case where the local government, in trying to solve a problem — in this case, improving mobility — had backed itself into an adversarial relationship with the community.
Clark knew he had to turn things around. What he needed was a dynamic where government and community were on the same side, tackling the problem together. He invited the downtown business district, the chamber of commerce, an organization of bus riders, and other stakeholders into the problem-solving process. The partnership was cemented in January, when representatives from each organization joined city staff in New York for a specialized Bloomberg Harvard training in cross-sector collaboration.
“Having the voices of business interests and transit riders together, coming up with a solution along with staff who have the technical expertise, lent itself to a much different dynamic,” Clark said. “When it’s the government and the community working together versus the problem, you’re more likely to succeed.”
The fruit of this partnership came in April, when the Saskatoon City Council approved a revised bus-rapid transit plan — by a unanimous vote.
The experience, Clark said, is shaping how his administration now looks at other priorities, such as a plan the city is developing to address climate change. “It can’t be the city versus the citizens in addressing that,” he said. “We want to invite other stakeholders and say this is a community problem, so how are we, together, going to address this issue as partners, as opposed to some solutions the city is cooking up and pushing on the community. That’s a powerful change.”