City leaders on the power of networking

If cities are the root of innovation, then seeds for that innovation were gathered last week in New York City, as 80 city leaders from around the world gathered for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. The program — which equips mayors and their senior leaders with the latest information and best practices they need to lead — brought together 40 mayors last month and, last week, did the same for those mayors’ leading team members.

As important as the program’s classroom sessions were, it also provided leaders an unrivaled opportunity to connect with peers. Either during formal breaks, over coffee at breakfast, or bowling at night, the attendees were encouraged to take advantage of a unique and powerful resource — each other. While participants said no one issue dominated their conversations, there was a common theme: how, in a rapidly changing world, city leaders can be ready to respond to just about any challenge at any moment.

“Everyone is grappling with [issues] back home,” said Maurice Henderson, chief of staff for the mayor of Portland, Ore. “[The Bloomberg Harvard Initiative] gives us an opportunity to step back, see the big picture, and hear different points of view for how to confront these major issues.”

Henderson said there was such an abundance of experience and knowledge represented at the program that he’s now focused on how to incorporate all the contacts into his day-to-day operations, whether it’s to “call for a cathartic talk or for guidance, consultation or advice.”

Last week’s participants were selected by the mayors in the program based on the roles they play in helping those mayors advance goals and improve their cities. By enlisting not just the mayors but also their most important senior leaders, the initiative aims to ensure that civic leaders have a shared understanding of how to innovate government and improve the lives of their residents.

Kim Morton, chief of staff for Baltimore’s mayor, said the program’s networking component helped her connect with “a high-level bunch dedicated to public service.” A decades-long veteran of public service herself, Morton said the diversity of participants meant there was a range of experiences shared and that some of the younger administrators sought career advice while more seasoned administrators looked for “what actually works.”

“Elected officials have a window of opportunity to make an impact, so people here like myself are searching for the right ideas. We want to be effective during the time we’re in office,” she said.

For Daro Mott, chief of performance improvement in Louisville, Ky., the program provided an opportunity to zero in on best practices for specific programs and issues. He spoke with the team from Mobile, Ala., about that city’s violence-reduction programs and how to effectively implement similar programs in Louisville. Mott also spoke with people from Akron, Ohio, to learn more about the day-to-day operations of their city’s performance officer.

“You approach something like this with an open mind because you’re unsure of where it will lead you,” Mott said. “But just through conversation you encounter all sorts of resources and ideas.”

Participants in the initiative’s staff program were predominately from North America, but there were also senior leaders from European and Latin American cities. And as the international attendees connected with their North American counterparts, they learned that, despite the geographic differences and governing styles, they face similar problems.

“I found it interesting how so many were faced with problems of blight,” said Pablo Rivadeneira, chief of staff to the mayor of Santiago, Chile. “The networking has been very useful and I’m making it a priority to keep in contact with some of these people.”

Rivadeneira added that one of his city’s major challenges is dealing with abandoned houses — and especially how some people are now illegally taking possession of these homes and renting them out to new immigrants. He learned from other attendees ways to identify and track the illegal trend.

Mark Basnett, managing director of the U.K.’s Liverpool City Region, said while there’s a big difference between his mayoral structure and others, he was able to discuss the balance between electoral promises and policy decisions with his American counterparts. “It was a great opportunity to listen to some of my peers and talk about the political landscape that everyone is seeing,” he said.

And Joe van Dyk, director of Planning and Redevelopment in Gary, Ind., explained that since his city has been grappling with issues related to poverty for decades, he’s looking for innovative solutions to these problems. “We’re all seeing the same things, just some of us more than others,” he said of his fellow program participants. “That’s why [the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative] is so important. It gives us the chance to get together, discuss these problems, and then pick at them from our different vantage points.”