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Advice for new mayors — from some of the best at the job

Linda Gorton, the new Mayor of Lexington, Ky., took the oath of office.

As we start a new year, hundreds of new mayors across the United States and around the world are settling into their new role as “city CEO.” It’s one of the toughest jobs in public service, and — as most people who hold the job will quickly point out — one of the most rewarding. That’s because mayors are uniquely situated to not only know many of their constituents by name, but also, by providing better services, to directly impact their lives.

To offer these new mayors advice, we reached out to recent graduates of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. It’s a year-long executive education program tailored specifically for mayors and the unique challenges of governing a city. The project is a collaboration among Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Here’s what six of those mayors had to say.

Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge, La.

As a leader, your personal story has power. Make innovation, data, and big ideas a part of the fabric of your administration. When building a team, don’t abandon chemistry for credentials.

Remember, public service is not about the title or position you hold, it’s about the people you serve.

Daniel Horrigan, Akron, Ohio

First, realize that you will be drinking from a fire hose to start. You will be getting advice and ideas from every degree on the circle. I started with empaneling a Blue Ribbon Task Force to look at the city’s finances, operations, etc., and to make recommendations moving forward.

Place key, smart, experienced, young, and diverse people around you and empower them to push your agenda and plan. Make sure they feel empowered to push you also; keep challenging yourself and your own ideas. Many, if not all, of your colleagues have gone through or are going through the same challenges — seek advice and lean on them for ideas and thoughts.

Finally, have a communications strategy for everything you can think of–legislative agenda, disasters, good news, everything.

Rosalynn Bliss, Grand Rapids, Mich.

You will quickly have countless demands on your time–more demands and requests than you will ever be able to meet. Be deliberate and intentional with how you spend your time to ensure it is aligned with your priorities and overarching goals. This will require building a strong team that you trust and having people you can rely on and delegate to in order for you to have the greatest impact.

Develop strong relationships with your elected colleagues, individuals within your organization and throughout your community. Taking time to build trusting relationships will lay the foundation for the complex work of solving community problems, moving forward difficult policy initiatives, creating change, embracing innovation and authentic collaboration. One of the most important roles we have as Mayors is convener, and this requires having strong relationships with people who trust you.

Connect with and utilize the many resources available to you to be the best, most informed, and effective Mayor possible. Some of the best learning experiences I have had have come from my participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership InitiativeCityLabWomen in GovernmentGovernment Alliance on Race and Equity, and the Mayors Innovation Project, as well as the relationships I have built with Mayors from across the country. These experiences have helped me grow personally and professionally, and I am grateful I have taken advantage of these opportunities.

And most of all, despite the stress, sacrifices, restless nights, and, at times, heartbreak, pause to enjoy and appreciate each moment. Serving as Mayor is truly a privilege of a lifetime.

Sly James, Kansas City, Mo.

Analyze challenges and develop solutions based on facts and data rather than political expediency or ideology. You can justify your actions and decisions by relying on known facts and data, whereas political decisions are more subject to challenge by those with different beliefs and ideologies.

Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary, Ind.

There is no “i” in team. As electeds, we share the accolades when things go well and take full responsibility when they don’t. We must also give team members the latitude to try new things and fail. They will work more often than not.

Never take yourself too seriously. Remember the Emperor (or Empress) who had no clothes. Reserve at least one day for family. For me it is Sunday afternoons, and citizens will admire and respect that.

Erion Veliaj, Tirana, Albania

Build and empower a diverse team (in terms of gender, religion, education, and professional experience) to achieve results. Back in 2003, we set up a social activism movement called Mjaft! (Enough!), which successfully redefined the nature of peaceful protest in a developing country undergoing post-Communist transition. At Mjaft! instead of centralizing the activities under the leader, we delegated work and responsibilities to all members of the team. This approach remained essential to my modus operandi when I was appointed as Minister of Social Welfare and Youth in 2013, and when I was elected mayor in 2015.

Engage children and young people. The goal of my administration, alongside our citizens, is to create a city that is friendly and open to all as well as one that meets the needs of future generations. In order to convince residents and car owners that a major traffic roundabout in our city should be pedestrianized, we implemented a series of car-free days where parents were encouraged to enjoy the area with their children. What we learned is that children are powerful advocates for behavioral change; they are the first to engage in innovative bike and recycling schemes. By turning children into “advocates for urban change” we can help them build the city they want to live in for the future.

In an ideal world, we would have unlimited budget to maintain and to improve our city, but we all know that can never be the case. As such, it’s crucial to identify the programs with the biggest impact (for us, that’s new kindergartens, new playgrounds, youth employment, etc.), and look for different financing sources. We’ve had success working with twin-cities, foreign embassies, businesses, and even our citizens.

Strive to be a lighthouse city. Dream big and set an example for other cities in your country and the region.