Needed: First-class training for mayors

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By James Anderson

Andy Burnham was completing his 18th day on the job as mayor of Greater Manchester when initial reports went out about a “serious incident” at the U.K. city’s Manchester Arena.

It took three hours for police to publicly confirm that the incident was an act of terror. And it took until the morning for authorities to report the human toll: 22 dead — including children — and scores more seriously injured.

We live in a world of extraordinary challenges that often can’t be anticipated — and mayors are, increasingly, the leaders asked to find answers and lead us forward. Here in the United States, mayors from a growing number of cities are grappling with the explosion of opioid abuse, a crisis that’s led to the largest annual jump in recorded resident fatalities this country has ever seen.

And it’s not just in moments of crisis that we demand mayoral leadership. City leaders must contend with a series of tectonic changes that require steady hands and bold action. Automation and technological advances. Demographic shifts. Climate change. Unprecedented budget constraints. Geopolitical instability.

So too must mayors manage complex bureaucracies, often having multi-million or multi-billion-dollar budgets and thousands of staff, many of them unionized. With always-evolving citizen needs and the necessity of maintaining the basics, innovation is required at every level of these organizations.

Yet mayors encounter deep resistance to change and an aversion to risk even when everyone agrees that it’s time to fix something that’s broken. With a demanding public, entrenched stakeholders and the news media quick to jump on mistakes, being mayor today requires greater access to the latest management, problem-solving and communications tools.

Being a mayor is, without question, one of the toughest executive positions around…. Yet we expect the people who lead our city halls to rely only on what they bring to — and learn on — the job.

Being a mayor is, without question, one of the toughest executive positions around. Yet in a country where we spend nearly $14 billion a year on an endless array of courses broadly described as “leadership training,” there is no formal training for the job of mayor. We expect the people who lead our city halls to rely only on what they bring to — and learn on — the job.

Mayors enter city hall having gone through the crucible of an election. They’ve pounded the pavement, framed an agenda and, most importantly, won. All that’s important. But as we all know, this is only the beginning of what it takes to lead a city.

Today’s mayors have to know how to build top-notch teams — hiring for talent and giving those talented teams the room to take risks and, at times, fail. They’ve got to appreciate that formal powers only get them so far, and that getting big things done often means using soft power and the bully pulpit to capture hearts and minds and build coalitions beyond city hall.

And, increasingly, they have to understand the power of data and know how to drive change, lest their city — and the people they serve — get left behind.

It’s a tall order. That’s why, this month, we’re launching the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School. Part of Michael Bloomberg’s broader American Cities Initiative announced last month, this City Leadership program will make sure our “elected CEOs” have access to the best leadership development opportunities that, until now, were reserved only for their private-sector counterparts.

The inaugural class of 40 mayors — 30 from the U.S. and 10 from abroad, including Andy Burnham — convenes for three days in New York City starting Sunday. These mayors, along with key staff members, whom we will convene later this summer, will be part of a first-of-its-kind executive leadership program that covers the latest thinking and best practices in management and innovation; peer-to-peer mentorship to share what’s working and what’s not; and the opportunity to interact with and learn from the most dynamic network of urban experts in the world.

Great mayors will always learn on the job. But with all the challenges facing cities, and all the weight we’re placing on cities to keep the planet green, keep people healthy, and grow the economy, now is the time to get serious about equipping them to succeed.

Originally published in the New York Daily News, July 16, 2017.

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