5 tips for America’s newest mayors
One in five of America’s 200 largest cities has just welcomed a new mayor to its city hall. Big expectations await them.
Not since the 1990s — when a cadre of city leaders captured the nation’s attention with the bold assertion that more accountable management could bring U.S. cities back from the brink — have we looked with so much hope to the American mayor.
These officials are at the forefront of a national debate on income inequality, they’re leading our country’s effort to reduce carbon emissions, and they’re promoting social cohesion during a time of great public anxiety.
There’s no doubt this is a difficult job. Mike Bloomberg, who is founder and CEO of a global financial software, data, and media company and a former three-term Mayor of New York City, recently told a group of city leaders that it’s mayors who have the tougher job. After all, these public CEOs have to manage incredibly complex organizations with diverse stakeholders and competing bottom lines while, at the same time, finding new ways to do more with less — often with issues over which they have little direct control. As a recent Brookings report stated: Leading beyond the limits of formal powers is a defining condition of being mayor in this day and age.
With that in mind, here are five tips these new public CEOs should take to heart:
Build your team first. This is always Mike Bloomberg’s top advice for new mayors. Hire people who are smart, represent a diversity of perspectives, and are willing to disagree with you, he says — and then empower them to do their jobs. Good mayors recognize that running a city is a team sport, not an individual one. Developing a group of trusted, competent leaders — and then giving them the latitude to take charge — is the first and most essential task.
Prepare to collaborate. Today, nothing big happens by government acting alone. Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, Calif., isn’t testing the Universal Basic Income with public dollars, but with philanthropic ones. Outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu didn’t rebuild New Orleans alone, but by channeling the collective efforts of thousands of residents and partner organizations in a sustained focus over many years. Forming, maintaining, and sustaining partnerships is tough work. One absolutely necessary ingredient: a vocal mayoral commitment to, and insistence on, collaboration.
Get smart on innovation. Over the past few years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of innovation teams and offices in city halls around the world. And, at the same time, mayors are taking more steps to create cultures that are receptive to new ideas from citizens, front-line staff, and entrepreneurs. The good news is that best practices are emerging, which means new mayors don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Stephen Goldsmith’s and Neil Kleiman’s new book, “A New City O/S,” is a good place to start, as is our innovation team program.
Ask “why?” Harvard Professor David Eaves recently told a group of mayors that asking the right questions is one of a leader’s most essential tools. When agency heads say they’re staying the course, despite unimpressive results, ask why. When the city lawyer says, “that’s not the way things are done,” ask why. Too often in government, we maintain the status quo because nothing’s gone terribly wrong — not because anything’s gone especially right. Even when we think we aren’t allowed to change course, upon re-examination, we see that change was possible all along.
Plug in. While you’re the only mayor in your jurisdiction, you’re not alone. A number of organizations and initiatives have emerged in recent years to connect city leaders with the best tools, techniques, and thinking to solve problems. Start by checking out Results for America, the Mayors Innovation Project, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, the Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, GovEx at Johns Hopkins University, the Behavioural Insights Team, Living Cities, and Cities of Service.
Our country’s renewal and greatness begins in our communities, the true laboratories of democracy. And that’s why our mayors have got to think big, be smart, and take risks. Your only real failure will be for a lack of trying.