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Reflections

How to hire a city leader

Gerald Babel-Sutter

How would you embark on the process of recruiting the right city leader? Read what Gerald Babel-Sutter, founder and CEO of URBAN FUTURE Global Conference, thinks about this.

Barcelona. Image: Ronni Kurtz / Unsplash

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What do citizens and co-owner of a company have in common? Quite a lot, if you follow the thoughts of our author. As citizens we are co-owners of our hometowns with their budgets, employees, and huge challenges. However, when it comes to select a city leader we do not search for the best candidate as we would do when hiring a team member for our company. As citizens we act like business owners on crack.

Assume you are co-owner of a 1-billion-EUR corporation that needs a new CEO. Let’s also assume that our corporation operates in a highly volatile environment and affected by a massive industry transformation. To make things worse it is under attack by several competitors and in deep financial turmoil. How would you embark on the process of recruiting the right candidate for this job?

How to select a city leader

Most likely you’d come up with a list of experiences and skills the new leader should have, such as a proven track-record in leadership. Additionally a reputation for getting finances in order, and an engaging personality to give the workforce the confidence they need. You’d probably search for a person who is able to lead the process of developing a strong vision. They should also passionately communicate it while having the skills to take everybody on the transformation journey ahead. But chances are you’d start with specifying the key goals your new team needs to achieve.

Well, most of us are somehow in that very situation. As citizens of a European city, we are co-owners of our hometowns with their substantial budgets, thousands of employees, and huge challenges. But I’m afraid it is simply incomprehensible how amateurish we are in selecting the leaders who we entrust to run those cities.

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Montreal. Image: Roxanne Desgagnes / Unsplash

Effectively setting goals for a city leader

Look at your local elections. What options do you have? I can select from a potpourri of parties, or rather ideologies. I could vote conservative for pro-business, socialist for more social security, green for more emphasis on our environment, right-wing to blame everything on immigrants, left to overcome capitalism, and so on. But if we want our city to be socially inclusive with a strong safety-net, very conscious about the environment, and decisive about decarbonization, while creating an innovative and strong business community, we’re basically screwed.

We act like business owners on crack: we select our city leader mainly for one single reason or capacity. We are prepared to throw all other reasons overboard. Then we let them define the vision, the goals and the strategy, any tactics and timeline. After that we decide whether our city joins the transformations around us; or if we’d rather stick our heads in the sand. We let them decide how to spend our money. And, yes, of course they get a fixed four- or five-year contract along the way. For God’s sake, we don’t even define goals for them to achieve.

But what if we, the citizens, stop acting as if we were on drugs? What if we voted not only on one issue, but rather on a much larger list of priorities for our cities? Or even on all priorities? What if we all decided first where we want our city to be, effectively setting goals. Only after that we would vote for those who we see most fit to get us there.

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Porto. Image: Alex Vasey / Unsplash

Create a passionate vision

You think that’s a utopia? You’d be surprised. Take the city of Porto, for example. Rui Moreira and some friends started to have simple conversations in cafés with citizens about how they wanted their city to be. While starting with often fewer than eight citizens per conversation, rumor spread quickly and a year later, it was tough to even get into the cafés while the neighborhood conversations were going on.

They jointly created a passionate vision of the Porto of their dreams. This was not a political movement, but it became such when the media suggested Rui and his friends enter the mayoral race. Undetected by the political establishment, they had connected with thousands of citizens. These new ideas spread so quickly that just two years later they took the elections in a clean sweep, turning the city’s political system upside-down.

If you have a vision for how your hometown should be, get out there and start making it happen

And Porto is not alone: Valérie Plante and her Projet Montréal co-create(d) the city’s priorities with citizens on a neighborhood level. It took the movement three years to become a key force in the city, and about eight years for their leader to be elected mayor. 100 citizens deeply concerned with the city’s social divide started Ada Colau’s Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common). Co-creating a new agenda for Barcelona together with thousands of citizens unleashed a passion that led them to win the largest share of votes of any party in the local elections just one year later.

So, who says we need to accept the very limited choices we have in local elections? There’s no use grumbling about politicians or the lack of activity in your city. If you have a vision for how your hometown should be, get out there and start making it happen. No excuses. After all, it’s just as much your city as it is theirs!

Here you can find another one of Gerald Babel-Sutter’s texts: “We fucked it up. So, it will be us who fix it.”

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