By:Emily Haggstrom Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Goverment
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Rejuvenated America’s City and Redefined the Term Politician
With an estimated net worth of $17.5 billion, an extremely productive political career, and a heart for philanthropy, Michael Bloomberg is an all American hero. The entrepreneurial business mogul and three-term Democratic mayor turned Republican turned Independent, has single-handedly changed the face of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11 and during years of the most crippling economic times to hit the United States since the Great Depression. The iconic figure spoke with ICOSA about business, politics, philanthropy and why his “bullpen” approach to life helps foster collaboration.
ICOSA: Not without opposition, you balanced the budget and turned the New York City's deficit into a surplus. How was this possible and what motivated you to take on this endeavor? With whom did you work with collaboratively to accomplish this huge feat?
Bloomberg: We’ve adopted an on-time and balanced budget every year I’ve been in office. Last year, we closed a $5 billion budget gap with no tax increases, because we cut spending nine different times since the first signs of the national economic downturn in 2007, and because during the good years, we ran surpluses and saved them.
To me, this was just smart fiscal management. Too often governments forget that the good times don’t last forever, and so they don’t save for the future. We were determined not to make that mistake. John F. Kennedy said "The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining," and that’s the approach we took.
ICOSA: It seems that governments across the country seem to cling to their fiefdoms. How has designing a decentralized management system within the mayoral office created collaboration and increased results with city managers?
Bloomberg: I’ve always thought you should hire creative, talented people and give them a long leash to be innovative. Talented people want to be able to put their talents to use. If you don’t give them that chance, why would they come work for you?
That doesn’t mean I agree with every idea my team comes up with, but by expecting them to challenge the conventional wisdom and holding them accountable for results, we’ve been able to accomplish far more than if I tried to micro-manage every initiative.
One important way that we’ve fostered collaboration and open communication has been by turning offices into conference rooms and having everyone sit in an open room—we call it the bullpen. No walls, no gatekeepers. Anyone can walk up to anyone at anytime and ask a question. That kind of openness not only promotes collaboration, it builds trust. No one is hiding behind closed doors.
ICOSA: You’re a well documented philanthropist, and you’ve been quoted as wanting to leave a legacy in public education and poverty reduction. How can education, government, and business work together to see your legacy through?
Bloomberg: Since government cannot always spend taxpayer dollars on experimental and unproven ideas, public-private partnerships are essential to driving innovation in government. And in these tough times, public-private partnerships are especially critical, because government cannot do it alone.
In New York City, we’ve used public-private partnerships to help launch a principal training academy, anti-poverty initiatives, domestic violence services, public art installations, environmental programs – like our effort to plant one million trees by 2017. And the list goes on.
ICOSA: What made you become a devoted public servant rather than solely continuing forward in Bloomberg, L.P. and other business ventures?
Bloomberg: The idea of serving your neighbors is something that I’ve carried with me since I was a kid in the Eagle Scouts. Years later, when I was starting out on Wall Street, a friend and I opened up a small after-school program where kids could get help with their homework. We’d head up there in the evening, tutoring any kid who walked through the door. At my company, we started a program to make it possible for each and every employee to volunteer in any way they chose. And I ran for mayor because I believed that I could make a difference and leave my daughters a better city.
ICOSA: You’ve made several significant changes during your time as mayor. What has been the most memorable or most rewarding change?
Bloomberg: It’s hard to name one. But I first ran for mayor, promising to dismantle the dysfunctional old board of education and turn around a broken school system. We’ve done that. Our students have made enormous progress—graduation rates are up 27 percent. Knowing that so many more students are getting a first-rate education and learning the skills they need to pursue their dreams is a reward that’s tough to beat.
We still have a long way to go, but we’re making real progress and we’re not letting up for a second.
ICOSA: What is it that has made you successful in business and has continued to make you successful in politics?
Bloomberg: A lot of hard work – and even more luck. But also, a determination to make decisions based on data – because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. In addition, there is a willingness to try new things and look for innovative new ways of approaching old problems.
I believe very strongly that no matter what you do or how well you do it, there is always room for improvement.
ICOSA: As a symptom of the down economy, many nonprofits find it hard to continue to extend grants and programs. As one of the biggest individual donors in America, how important do you think it is that America’s nonprofits continue to succeed and benefit their communities? How do you propose giving throughout your community?
Bloomberg: Nonprofits provide enormously valuable services to local communities, and many of them rely on volunteers. We launched NYC Service to create more opportunities for New Yorkers to volunteer and to direct their energies to nonprofits serving high-need people and high-priority areas. Everybody has something to give – whether it’s their time, talents or financial support.
ICOSA: How has the development of the Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan helped the City of New York?
Bloomberg: We created the Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan in response to the national economic downturn, and we designed it to maximize job retention in the short-term and job growth in the long-term. New York, like everywhere else, has certainly felt the effects of the national recession. But the impact has been far less severe than in most other places. In fact, New York City has been responsible for one in 10 new jobs created throughout the entire country over the past year.
We’re recovering more quickly than other cities, in part, because we’ve made investments to attract and strengthen a diverse group of industries and, also, it’s important to note, because of continued immigration. Immigrants help create jobs; that’s why cities with the largest increase in immigrant workers have had the fastest economic growth. One of the best things that Congress could do to strengthen the national economy would be to fix our broken immigration system. That means both securing our borders, while also ensuring that more of the world’s best and brightest and hardest-working can come here to start companies, create jobs, and expand our tax base.