James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Government that “Gets It”: The CEO Mentality Comes to Local Government

by James G. Beldock on July 31, 2010

One of the rea­sons I val­ue my reg­u­lar in­volve­ment with the Aspen Institute is the op­por­tu­ni­ty to watch what I oc­ca­sion­al­ly refer to as “lead­er­ship cross-fer­til­iza­tion” in ac­tion. Earlier this mon­th, I had the op­por­tu­ni­ty to watch busi­ness prag­ma­tism cross fer­til­ize with pub­lic lead­er­ship, and it was in­spir­ing.

At a re­cent Socrates Society event, we were lucky enough to have a Rodel Fellow of the Aspen Institute, Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, who was joined by the in­no­v­a­tive schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (of the DC Public School System), as the evenings pan­elists. After an in­tro­duc­tion by the President of the Institute, Walter Isaacson, they were in­ter­viewed by none oth­er than David Gergen, ad­vi­sor to four US Presidents, CNN’s se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, pro­fes­sor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a Trustee of the Aspen Institute. Since my own in­volve­ment with the Institute be­gan as a 2001 Crown Fellow of the Institute, I am used to the Institute gath­er­ing high­ly suc­cess­ful lead­ers and of­fer­ing them an op­por­tu­ni­ty to speak can­did­ly. The Crown pro­gram is pri­mar­i­ly fo­cused on the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of busi­ness lead­ers. (Indeed, in my 15-per­son fel­low­ship year alone, every­one was or had been a founder or CEO of a mean­ing­ful com­pa­ny.) But at the time, the Institute did not have a sim­i­lar pro­gram for young po­lit­i­cal and gov­ern­ment lead­ers. In 2005, Aspen Institute Trustee and President of the Rodel Foundations, William D. Budinger, and for­mer Congressman Mickey Edwards cre­at­ed the strict­ly non-par­ti­san Rodel Fellowship to fill pre­cise­ly that void.

Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta (left) and Chancellor Michelle Rhee of the Washington, DC Public Schools System (right). Mayor Reed was a 2007 Rodel Fellow of the Aspen Insitute.

Five years lat­er, it is clear that the Rodel Fellowship picked well: Mayor Reed, a Rodel Fellow of the Institute, and Chancellor Rhee spoke can­did­ly about the lead­er­ship chal­lenges they face. When asked by David Gergen (who doesn’t know how to ask an easy ques­tion) how he han­dled the struc­tural­ly un­sound pen­sion li­a­bil­i­ty that he faced lit­er­al­ly with­in weeks of step­ping in­to the Atlanta mayor’s of­fice, Mayor Reed pro­vid­ed the evening’s most clear mo­ment of “cross-fer­til­iza­tion.” He put his CEO hat on and de­scribed the meet­ings he had with union lead­ers in which he ex­plained the fi­nan­cial realities—just as a CEO must when he must change ben­e­fits or even ad­just the size of his work­force. Especially in today’s age of tight bud­gets and high un­em­ploy­ment, fi­nan­cial prag­ma­tism may not be pop­u­lar, but it af­fords a se­ri­ous pub­lic lead­er a unique op­por­tu­ni­ty: to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions which re­sult in long-term ben­e­fits, even if they at­tract short-term crit­i­cism.

Later, Chancellor Rhee af­ford­ed us an­oth­er glimpse at busi­ness prag­ma­tism in­flu­enc­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ment. Early in her tenure, she was forced to lay off a por­tion of the teach­ing force in Washington, D.C. (She did so again just a few days ago.) The Chancellor took some heat for per­form­ing that lay­off not based on se­nior­i­ty but on teacher per­for­mance. Now, as a busi­ness lead­er, I would strug­gle to jus­ti­fy a lay­off based on any­thing oth­er than per­for­mance, even if I did have a union­ized work­force, but of course Chancellor Rhee faced a tooth-and-nail fight to do just that. She found a cre­ative way to fund her sys­tem (by rais­ing pri­vate cor­po­ra­tion do­na­tions for com­mu­ni­ty im­prove­ment)—pred­i­cat­ed on con­tin­u­ing the City con­tin­u­ing to as­sess teacher per­for­mance as part of their re­ten­tion and re­ward pro­gram (and her con­tin­ued tenure). Chancellor Rhee has been the sub­ject of fierce at­tack for her ef­forts, but she has per­se­vered, with the help of her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty.

And then came the fi­nal mo­ment of cross-fer­til­iza­tion for the evening: a clas­sic busi­ness lead­er­ship tech­nique of­fered by Mayor Reed as the right pub­lic lead­er­ship ap­proach to such a cir­cum­stance. Sometimes, he com­ment­ed, it is nec­es­sary for the may­or to “stick his chin out,” and take a punch in or­der for his sub­or­di­nates to ex­e­cute to an ag­gres­sive plan. Business lead­ers know this one well: hire peo­ple smarter than you, give them both au­thor­i­ty and re­spon­si­bil­i­ty, then get the hell out of the way—until they need sup­port. My good friend and for­mer col­league Catherine Ruggles, who at one point had 400 soft­ware de­vel­op­ers re­port­ing to her at Symantec, used to put it this way: “take the blame for every­thing and the cred­it for noth­ing.”

Mayor Reed (left) and Institute Trustee David Gergen (right)

I, for one, find it tremen­dous­ly en­cour­ag­ing to see that kind of lead­er­ship prag­ma­tism cross-fer­til­iz­ing and thus mak­ing its way in­to the next gen­er­a­tion of pub­lic lead­ers. God knows our coun­try needs pub­lic of­fi­cials and lead­ers who are will­ing to take a hit or two, re­main prag­mat­ic, and push for the changes we need.

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Laura Lauder August 7, 2010 at 3:57 am

How very articulate and insightful, James – we’re so glad you blogged about this special evening.

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