What’s so special about the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative?

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Jorrit de Jong, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative’s program director and faculty co-chair for executive education, facilitated discussion of a case study with mayors in July.

Leading a city government is different than heading up a business, a nonprofit, or even other types of public-sector organizations. That’s why Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard University teamed up to create an executive training program designed specifically to help mayors and their senior staff handle the unique challenges and opportunities of governing a city.

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is now working with its third class of city leaders. More than 120 mayors and 240 senior staff from across the U.S. and around the world have participated in the program or are going through it now, and hundreds more have been trained through the program’s specialized capacity-building tracks in cross-boundary collaboration, using data and evidence, and innovation.

To find out more about how this work is going, Josh Skolnick of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation team spoke to the program’s director and faculty co-chair for executive education, Jorrit de Jong, who also is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Here are seven takeaways from their discussion, which you can listen to in full on the Bloomberg Philanthropies Follow the Data podcast available here on Spotify, iTunes or Stitcher.

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City governments are often complicated organizations that can be hard to change. At the same time, leadership at the city level often requires marshaling the efforts of multiple players outside of city government. It’s tough stuff, which is why specialized executive training is so needed. “The job of a mayor is one of the most important and one of the most difficult jobs in the public sector,” de Jong said. “But many of them don’t come [to City Hall] with a ton of executive experience …. Even if they have managed large organizations, none of them have managed an organization as complex as a city.”

One of the most important aspects of the Bloomberg Harvard Leadership Initiative is that it’s “not really teaching, it’s facilitated learning,” de Jong said. Classes are based on real case studies featuring mayors and senior city leaders in situations where their own leadership or organizational capabilities are needed in order to create change. “We start with cases and ask everybody the question: ‘What would you do if you were the main character in this particular case?’” de Jong said. “Then we introduce some analytic frameworks about moral decision-making or engaging the community or leading change …. Those frameworks can then help them find their own contextualized answer for their city.”

[Read: Bloomberg Harvard case study launches a new era of learning]

Many people who’ve held the job of mayor describe it as a paradoxical role that feels both highly public and isolating at the same time. One of the values mayors get from the program, de Jong said, is simply talking to and bonding with each other. “When you think of it, there’s nobody in your city that has the exact same job [as a mayor]. There’s a lot of people who want stuff from you, and you always have to project a sense of ‘I’ve got things under control,’” de Jong said. “In the classroom, which is a very private setting, [mayors] are able to share their vulnerabilities,” and reflect on their strengths and opportunities for growth.

One of the most popular topics in the program, de Jong said, is working with Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz on “public narrative.” It’s a way of thinking about public speaking that is less about “communicating to” audiences and more about “connecting with” them. “You can’t fake authenticity,” de Jong said. “You have to go back to, ‘Why do you want to run for office?’ ‘Why do you care about public service?’ ‘What do you, as mayor, have in common with your audience?’”

Many mayors are seeing a difference. “We can actually see how the way mayors are speaking has changed,” de Jong said. “Some of them, they write us back to say, “‘I’ve been giving speeches for about a decade and this week, for the first time in my life, I got three standing ovations.’”

[Read: How mayors lead: Emerging insights from the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative]

Another core subject that has resonated with mayors is the use of data and evidence in government. “The big eye-opener for many mayors is that that won’t happen just by itself,” de Jong said. “It actually requires leadership from the top.” Through coursework and coaching, de Jong said, mayors such as Kathy Sheehan in Albany, N.Y., have begun fostering a more data-driven culture. Sheehan, de Jong said, “has really changed almost every meeting that she has with her staff and made it a standard practice to say, ‘Okay, what data will tell us that we’re doing good or that we are not doing good,’ and then we have to adjust.”

The Bloomberg Harvard program invites mayors from big cities and small ones, and has included mayors from 19 countries on five continents. That diversity has proven to be a strength, de Jong said. “It turns out, people really like that, because the main problems are similar everywhere. You’re dealing with poverty. You’re dealing with crime. You’re dealing with a crumbling infrastructure that you need to fix. And you’re dealing with other governments and other sectors that you want to engage and rally around building coalitions. It’s remarkable how many similarities there are. And the more diverse your cohort, the more learning can occur.”

The Bloomberg Harvard initiative requires each mayor to select two senior leaders to participate in a parallel track of the program. Many are chiefs of staff, but people holding other roles — from chief equity officer to budget director — have also gone through the program. The reason for this is simple, de Jong said: In order to drive change through an organization, the top leaders need to be sharing the same language. “The senior leaders are really on the hook for the implementation and translating mayoral initiatives into actual work in the organization,” he said. “That’s probably 30 percent of our curriculum…how to create [the] conditions for the top leaders in your organization to work together and to speak one language when it comes to performance and innovation.”

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Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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