San Francisco is a surprisingly small city considering its world reputation (7x7 miles with a population of 750,000), and it’s not uncommon for city residents to run into people of note in ordinary situations here.
I found myself last night sitting beside and talking to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in the cafe section of a downtown SF restaurant. Mayor Newsom is someone whom I have admired since he’s been in office—he’s made many tough but innovative decisions about how to run the city. This is a particular challenge because the mayor of San Francisco has to make decisions that are impactual and assessed on a local, national, and international scale—pressures that the mayors of most cities do not have to worry about. It would also be easy for a mayor of this city to simply focus on local issues (after all, it’s the residents who will re-elect him) and ignore the city’s potential influence on the rest of the nation and the world. In my opinion, Newsom has been effective at these different scales exceptionally well—addressing the demands of city residents such as myself while making decisions that will impact the rest of the country and the world.
Because of this, Newsom has also been subject to pressures and criticisms at the local, national, and international scale. Problems with the homeless remain a constant pressure on the mayor locally, Newsom's brief gay marriage allowance has been blamed nationally for the results of the ‘04 presidential election, and just this weekend the mayor seems to have upset China over his decision to cancel a planned trip to China in order to oversee the recent oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. Yet despite these pressures he still has to deal with more mundane city issues such as making an appearance at the opening of a new tourist-friendly plaza in downtown SF.
Despite the incredible challenges that face prominent politicians such as the mayor of SF or NYC, business executives typically views politicians as a disreputable lot whose skills who have little to offer those seeking to improve their practices in corporate America. If one wants to learn how to be a better manager, entrepreneur, or CEO, one reads books by Lee Iacocca on how to reinvigorate a company or articles in the Harvard Business Review on how GE injected innovation into their development process. Certainly, I’ve tried to learn from prominent executives and entrepreneurs that I’ve met in Silicon Valley. Whether it’s working alongside a serial founder of successful startups, having business meetings with famous VCs, or chatting over dinner with chief executives of a multi-billion dollar technology companies, I’ve felt that I’ve learned successful traits and habits from many business people with whom I’ve interacted. The one group of people I have not looked to nor expected to find guidance from is politicians.
That’s why I feel that I had an epiphany while talking with Mayor Newsom. What struck me the most about the conversation was the extraordinary variety of issues that the mayor has to deal with on a daily basis, and how the breadth of these responsibilities overwhelm typical issues that face corporate CEOs. Yet it’s the latter group—CEOs, captains of industry, prominent VCs—to which people like myself typically look for advice on how to be effective in the workplace, through case-studies and lessons-learned in books, magazine articles, and blogs. Learning from politicians is completely off the businessperson’s radar.
Listening to Mayor Newsom detail how he’s addressing the various issues facing San Francisco—keeping the 49ers in from moving to another city, solving the recent oil-spill crisis, preserving the city’s benefit from tourism, improving the city’s homeless situation, working with both the state and federal government on city problems—makes corporate issues of dealing with stockholders, organizing sales and R&D teams, and increasing market share almost trivial by comparison. This isn't even considering the fact that the mayor faces public scrutiny of his every move and behavior the likes to which no CEO has even been subjected.
I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about the nature of leadership and the skills necessary to run startups and technology companies. It was clear to me last night that being the mayor of a city like San Francisco is a more complex a job than the role of CEO in most, if not all companies. It was also clear that there is much that can be learned and applied to business from the methods of effective leaders in challenging political roles, such as Gavin Newsom in his current mayoral role.
Time management, e-mail control, collaboration, communication, delegating, employee optimization, meeting customer needs, decision making—these are all topics about improving effectiveness in business that are discussed endlessly in blogs and books targeted to every level of employee. We typically look for people like Jack Welch to teach us how to be more effective managers. The fact is, however, that each of these aspects of the work process are honed to razor-sharp effectiveness by politicians like Mayor Newsom, and we could well be better served by examining the processes that they incorporate into their day-to-day actions.
That’s not to say that business books and magazines like that Harvard Business Review have no value. For sure, some of the organizational approaches of Mayor Newsom overlaps with the current wisdom of corporate America, whether its differentiating between incremental vs radical innovation as described by in The Innovator’s Dilemma or making sure that you have the right people on the bus as advised in Good to Great.
Still, I’d love for someone to shadow Mayor Newsom and relay how he optimizes his day-to-day time management of business practices. This would be information that could be valuable to employees at every level in a corporation and would likely represent best-practices that exceed even the strictest disciplines of corporate CEOs.
Funny how a random meeting at a unplanned stop can have such an impact on one’s thinking.