Lessons city leaders are taking home after spending a week focused on cross-sector collaboration

Eighty city leaders from government, business, nonprofits, and other sectors gathered this week as part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, to dig into the power of cross-sector collaboration.

When you work in city hall, it’s easy to say managers need to collaborate more — with each other, with the private sector, with nonprofits, or with community members.

But how do you do collaboration? How can partners coming from different backgrounds find a common purpose and shared language? What are the personal dynamics? How do you enable successful collaborations — and fix problematic ones before they break?

These are the down-and-dirty questions that 80 leaders from 10 cities wrestled with this week in a convening of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative specifically focused on these sorts of collaborations that cut across different sectors.

City teams representing local government, business, philanthropy, education, and more, studied and discussed cases of successful and failed collaborations. They learned about collaborative organizational structures. Through role-playing, they practiced the social arts of negotiating within teams. And they explored how to identify the public value — and measure results — when working together to solve complex city problems.

Each city team arrived in New York City with a specific problem or opportunity to work on this week — generally complicated issues that touch multiple stakeholders. Between classroom sessions with Harvard professors, and discussions with urban practitioners including a number from the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the teams broke into facilitated work sessions to plug new insights into their projects.

For example, a team from Phoenix came to develop a cross-sector collaboration aimed at mitigating the health impacts of extreme heat. “What it takes to tackle heat requires a team approach — it’s not something the city can do on its own,” said Deputy City Manager Karen Peters.

In addition to top city staff, the Phoenix team included people from science, public health, and commercial development, among other sectors. Peters said the four-day program allowed the team to focus on building this partnership with an intensity that is difficult to achieve back home. And it strengthened their resolve to bring more partners into the collaboration when they get back home. “How we handle extreme heat is an issue of long-term viability for us,” she said. “We need all hands on deck, and to think creatively.”

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A cross-sector team from Louisville, Ky., looked at building awareness and support for an innovative public safety approach called Cure Violence. Daro Mott, Louisville’s chief of performance improvement, said the team “increased our common understanding, which we can leverage to mobilize the entire community around this solution of reducing violence.” Mott said a class session on negotiation and a related role-playing exercise helped them develop their skills and appreciate the importance of those skills within a collaborative dynamic. “Anytime we partner together, we might come from different points of view,” he said. “If we recognize what we do as a negotiation, we can get the most out of the experience.”

Natalie Lewis said the session was an opportune time for her team from Mesa, Ariz. to strengthen work improving kindergarten readiness among children from low- and moderate-income families. And there’s pressure to produce results — Mayor John Giles announced the initiative in his State of the City speech last month.

Lewis, the deputy city manager, said her team had a breakthrough in terms of coming to a common understanding of what public value they are working to create together. “We now understand each other better, and understand each other’s interests,” she said. “Even though we may not totally agree, we agree enough, and are on the same page.”

Alex Smith experienced a similar coming together with her cross-sector group from Memphis, Tenn., who are looking to increase opportunities for 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither in school or working. “It’s inherently a cross-sector issue,” said Smith, chief human resources officer for the city. “Multiple groups are touching them.”

“Each of us has our own point of view,” she continued. “Some of us work directly with students, so to them, the public value is centered around helping these kids have stable families and economic viability. Then others of us come from a different perspective — that the public value is in reducing crime or having a viable workforce. And everywhere in between. So part of what we’ve been doing is to hone in on what’s the right public value message we want to deliver.”

Read more from the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative session on cross-sector collaboration:

Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patricia E. Harris on mastering the art of collaboration

Executive Director David Margalit on goals and structure of the program