Executive Training’s Big Payoff for City Leaders

It's hard to set aside the daily demands of government to learn about leadership, but it's well worth it.
October 11, 2017
Mike Bloomberg opens the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative mayors program. (Flickr/Bloomberg Philanthropies)
By Dayna Bennett  |  Contributor
Chief of staff to Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson
By Jane Slusser  |  Contributor
Chief of staff to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney

When we first arrived at our respective city halls, we were both advised to "step back" before diving into the day-to-day frenzy of local governing -- to take a good look at the big picture and strategize. We didn't do it. Cities face bigger challenges than ever, our mayors were elected to solve those problems now, and we felt compelled to hit the ground running.

Nearly two years later, after finally stepping back for a four-day executive training program with 78 other city-hall officials from around the world, we can't help but ask ourselves, "Why did we wait so long?"

And really, why did we? Training programs like these are commonly baked into the business world. According to McKinsey & Co., American companies spend more than $14 billion annually on courses broadly described as "leadership training" to ensure that C-suite executives continuously get better at their jobs. But for any number of reasons, those of us in the public sector tend to depend on the experience we bring to -- and then learn on -- the job.

It's not because there aren't programs out there, although there are certainly fewer of them tailored for civic leaders than for those in the business world. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, in which we participated as it launched this summer, is unique in that it includes complementary programs -- one for 40 mayors and another for 80 of their key team members. Like similar initiatives for business executives, it's designed to connect city leaders with their world's latest insights, best minds and strongest networks.

For most of us, the biggest roadblocks to pursuing this kind of executive training are time and, let's face it, optics. As for the former, we're proof that stepping away from the office for a few days doesn't -- as much as we might like to imagine it would -- stop the pace of progress in our cities. The latter could be trickier, especially given that constituents rightfully expect that they've elected leaders who already know how to get the job done. But any worthwhile training program provides tools and techniques to do the job more effectively and efficiently. At the Bloomberg program, those included:

Building-and leveraging-a network. Innovation doesn't always have to start from scratch. Because of our participation with the initiative, we're now part of a of group of city leaders who are tackling the same issues we are every day. So when one of our mayors declares that he wants to expand access to quality pre-K education -- as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney did when he took office -- we can check with newfound colleagues around the country to see what they've already done that might help us at home.

Ditching devotion to standard practices. In the public sector, and particularly in city government, there's tendency to be risk-averse and an expectation of guaranteed or predictable results. But, as Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson often says, if tradition got things done there'd be nothing left to accomplish. Doing things the way they've always been done tends to stand in the way of what's possible. Sidestepping routine opens the door to all sorts of possibilities, including partnerships with likeminded businesses, universities or nonprofits.

Boss talk. By including both mayors and their key staff in parallel tracks, the Bloomberg program ensured that we speak the same language of innovation. So when our mayors come to us with their big ideas, we can be more effective as agents of change. That means helping our mayors effectively articulate their priorities, giving our teams the freedom to innovate within those priorities, and then motivating the public for change in a way that neither under- nor overwhelms.

No executive training can change the way we work overnight. That said, if our experience with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative shows us one thing, it's that that one "step back" for programs like this really can mean two -- or more -- steps forward.