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Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard launch first-ever executive leadership program for mayors and city leaders

Fighting poverty

This week, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard University convened the inaugural class of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. A first-of-its-kind collaboration, Bloomberg Philanthropies has brought together Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and its business school to help mayors become even stronger leaders. We spoke with Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patti Harris, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, and Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf about how the initiative got started and why it matters.

Why is it so important to have a leadership development program for mayors and how will this initiative help support the skills mayors already bring to the job?

Patti Harris: Over the years, through our work with cities across the globe, we’ve heard time and again that mayors wish they had easier access to the latest information, tools, and techniques to help them achieve their greatest ambitions for their cities. We’ve also learned that they value learning with and from fellow mayors above all else. That’s why we worked with Harvard to create the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, to give mayors access to high-quality executive coaching and training – like that offered to their CEO peers in the business world. It is truly a unique effort!

Nitin Nohria: Mayors all bring their unique perspectives and skills to the job. But it is hard to imagine how anyone can ever be fully prepared for all that it takes to be an effective mayor. Inevitably, mayors will have to grow into these jobs. And they can benefit from learning from each other, from a structured educational experience, and from research that can inform their thinking. This is where the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative hopes to play a role and make a contribution.

Douglas Elmendorf: An increasing number of people are moving to cities, so the decisions made by mayors and their staff affect more people every day. Making sure that mayors have the tools necessary to diagnose, face, and solve problems through leadership becomes more important by the hour. The job of mayor is extremely demanding – expectations are high and because mayors are close to the community they serve, mayors are held accountable immediately if they don’t meet expectations. Mayors rarely have the opportunity to reflect, step back, and further develop their skills to become an even better leader. Thanks to Mike Bloomberg’s vision, they now have that opportunity.

How will this program empower mayors to make innovation a priority while helping them work together to begin solving their cities’ biggest challenges?

Nohria: As in most leadership roles, it’s easy for mayors to be consumed by the everyday press of problems they must confront and address. Taking time away to think, to meet others and learn what they are doing, to see what the best academic research has to say, is a wonderful way to open one’s mind to new ideas.

Elmendorf: I agree. Empowerment begins with knowledge. But what you do with that knowledge is what actually affects peoples’ lives. City innovation is about making headway on some of the world’s most intractable problems. And by committing to this program, mayors are showing a willingness to prioritize innovation.

Harris: This program was built around the idea that mayors play a critical role in helping city government to innovate and work well for all its residents. How can a mayor encourage his or her team to use data, rather than gut instinct or ideology, to make decisions? How can a mayor enable strong partnerships with business and collaboration with citizens? How does a mayor create room for risk in an environment that is often resistant to change? While every city is different, most mayors have to find answers to these questions. This program will help mayors know what’s worked in other places so that they can bring those lessons home to benefit their citizens.

What’s the most important thing you want mayors to take home from this initiative?

Elmendorf: Aside from bolstering their commitment to improve people’s lives, the most important thing for mayors to take away is that although it can be difficult to effect change, through innovation, collaboration, and strategic leadership, we can harness knowledge to spur action that changes the world.

Harris: I agree with Doug and would add that our inaugural class of mayors bring impressive skills and experience to the table. We want every mayor to leave this program inspired to invest in big ideas – and find ways to make them come to life through new partnerships.

Nohria: Absolutely. We hope mayors will leave feeling energized about their experience, empowered to act on the ideas they learn, and supported by the community of mayors they will become a part of. And we hope they will form a connection with Harvard that will be useful to them throughout their careers.

Why is the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative important to your institution and how does it align with its mission?

Nohria: Harvard Business School’s mission is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. It is hard to imagine any group that can make a bigger difference to the well-being of our world than the mayors of our cities. If we can in some way help mayors become better leaders, it would be a great way to advance our mission and make a difference.

Elmendorf: Harvard Kennedy School’s mission is to improve public policy and public leadership in the United States and around the world through research, teaching, and direct engagement with policymakers and public leaders. By partnering with Harvard Business School, we combine the best of what both schools have to offer. This pragmatic initiative provides a channel for our faculty to deliver knowledge that helps city leaders with their high-priority problems, and it also provides a challenge for our faculty to think hard about how knowledge can spur solutions on the front lines.

Harris: No one believes in the power of cities – and in the power of city leaders – more than Mike Bloomberg. That’s why we launched a new effort called the American Cities Initiative – a suite of new and expanded investments across the nation that will empower U.S. cities and move America forward. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is a key part of fulfilling that vision this year in 30 U.S. cities. Ultimately, we believe these efforts reflect the best way to achieve our mission to ensure better and longer lives for the greatest number of people. And the mayors in attendance this week are extraordinary – and we’re honored to be able to work with each of them to achieve their own ambitions for their residents.

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