There’s no rule book for how to govern a city or formal training program. Once sworn in as mayor, you’re expected to start solving your city’s most complex challenges on day one.

US companies spend nearly $14 billion per year on leadership development, according to management consulting firm McKinsey. Yet those same training opportunities don’t translate to the public sector. It’s why Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, donated $32 million on behalf of Bloomberg Philanthropies to launch the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

The program is a collaboration among Bloomberg Philanthropies, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School, and provides mayors and senior city officials with leadership and management training.

“As a mayor, you’re expected to hit the ground running,” says Jorrit de Jong, faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. “Many mayors will tell you the first year is like drinking from a fire hose. But mayors are our most important leaders, because they're at the forefront of public problem-solving. They're the ones held accountable if government doesn’t perform. They deserve the opportunity to learn how they can drive performance and innovate in City Hall.”

Forty mayors completed the first year of the program in July 2018, and another 40 onboarded the same year. Over the next two years, the goal is to enroll an additional 160 cities from around the world and continue to expand the program’s impact and reach.

“We seek to engage as many cities as possible in an intensive way,” de Jong says.

The program offers a variety of different support services. Mayors meet for a three-day session in New York City, before transitioning to virtual programming, offered via Harvard Business School Online’s real-time, interactive online classroom, Live. Throughout the year, mayors receive help from faculty, staff, and Harvard graduate students selected for research assistantships and summer internships in identifying best practices, building organizational capabilities, and connecting to a broader group of experts and practitioners.

Two senior leaders from each city are asked to enroll in the program alongside their mayor, so that the group has a shared language, can be exposed to the same ideas, and then turn those ideas into practice.

“We are enabling them to lead change in their cities,” de Jong says. “There’s a number of mayors who have already improved the way they manage their teams in City Hall. They’ve brought data into the decision-making process, honed their public speaking skills, and changed how they deal with risk and uncertainty so that they can create space for innovation. This program strengthens both leadership skills and organizational capabilities.”

For Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins, Colorado, who participated in the first year of the program, the experience was as much about personal growth as it was professional development.

“I really wanted to become the best mayor I could be,” Mayor Troxell says. “I find you learn so much from others in your similar role. The opportunity to have a cohort of 39 mayors in the context of coming together and convening around issues that mean something to us individually but affect us collectively was beneficial. I wanted to know, ‘What are other cities doing? What’s working, what’s not working, and why?’”

Through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, Mayor Troxell and his team worked on developing three separate programs to support community co-creation and philanthropic partnerships in Fort Collins:

  1. City as a Platform: A framework aimed at making the city a platform for enabling communication, engagement, and innovation between community members and the public and private sectors, by leveraging emerging technologies to help residents and businesses engage in addressing local issues.
  2. City Gives: An organizational umbrella for Fort Collins’ existing and future fundraising activities that aims to strengthen the city’s philanthropic practices, standards, and partnerships.
  3. 100 Conversations: A leadership-driven listening and engagement initiative designed to collect stories from a diverse group of residents to better understand the city and provide personal, anecdotal depth to demographic data.

“The projects are generally about flipping the model,” Mayor Troxell says. “You don’t just find answers at City Hall or at a City Council meeting. Answers are in our community and we wanted to engage all residents where they are.”

As Mayor Troxell, his city manager, and senior assistant city manager went through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, they regularly met to ensure they were making progress on their proposal.

“Initially, the proposal was aspirational,” Mayor Troxell says. “But it’s gone from aspirational to we are now operationalizing all three aspects.”

Mayor Troxell credits the regular virtual check-ins throughout the program with helping keep the team on track. Through Live, the mayors were able to communicate in real-time as a group, yet from their very own cities, enabling them to immediately apply new insights and feedback.

“I’m a professor and have worked with a lot of educational tools, frameworks, and online delivery; this is, by far, the best,” Mayor Troxell says. “[The platform] allowed for an engaged, active, and interactive learning experience.”

For de Jong, that virtual, interactive element continues to be an important part of the program.

“In order to create an opportunity for deep learning and real impact, we wanted a program that lasted a year as opposed to a one-off event,” de Jong says. “Three days is already a long time for mayors to be away from their city. But Live allows us to extend our engagement throughout the year. It provides us with a way to cover more ground and allow the mayors to share their progress with each other and us. It’s amazing how similar it is to the classroom experience. It’s as close to the real thing that you can get without having to travel.”

The relationships the mayors are able to forge both in person and virtually sets the program apart, according to Mayor Troxell.

“I would like to see my involvement in the program continue,” he says. “Now I have friendships with mayors in my class cohort who I will continue to call upon as colleagues. That’s an enduring value.”

If all goes according to plan, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative will have enduring value, as well.

“Cities face a lot problems,” de Jong says. “Whatever we can do to help mayors make a difference, we should.”

To learn more about how the participating mayors are making a difference, visit the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative website. To learn more about the Live experience, explore our Student Stories.

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.